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NFL Handicapping Contests Face Uncertain Fall Season

by July 10, 2020

By now, you’ve probably seen the glossy publicity photos of people holding up big checks with their names scribbled on them, followed by lots of zeros for winning an NFL football handicapping contest here in Las Vegas.

The premise of these contests is simple. Each week, you pick five NFL games against the spread, and at the end of the season, a large cash prize goes to the entrant with the most correct picks. Even if you don’t live in Las Vegas, you can have a proxy service enter your picks for you each week as long as you sign up in-person.

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Hundreds of teams compete each year in an activity that once was for the professional gamblers to show off their skill. Now, it’s a bucket list experience for average sports bettors from around the country.

However, that was before COVID-19 shut down Las Vegas this spring.

This year, there is a growing expectation that the number of entries in these contests will be way down. There is a real concern that folks might not be able to come to Las Vegas (or might be afraid to) in time to sign up, and that could limit the number of entries in 2020. The fewer the teams, the less competition there will be for the prize pool, and there could be an opportunity to cash this fall if the slow pace of signups continues at its current rate.

On the other hand, the public’s desire to play in these contests has exploded of late. To see how their popularity grew rapidly over the last few years, we have to go back in 2016, when Starbucks barista Damon Graham won the Westgate SuperContest and over $900,000 in the process. The result was days of media coverage about how this novice beat all the professionals.

Soon, the storylines highlighted the idea that these contests weren’t for the pros anymore. Anyone who knew football could win the big prize, and guys from all over the country dreamed of becoming the next Damon Graham.

Like most things in gambling, people love when a potential prize greatly outweighs the amount they have to put at risk. The regular Westgate SuperContest is a $1,500 entry, paying out the top-100 spots. The Gold version of the contest is $5,000 and is winner-take-all. Last year, the Gold winner took home nearly $600,000, while the 2019 SuperContest champion pocketed $1.4 million.

It wasn’t just the Westgate SuperContest or its Gold version where bettors could make out big last year. The 2019 Circa Sports Million was a $1,000 entry, and the first-place winner took home a guaranteed $1 million. The contest also paid out the top-10 teams and nearly $150,000 every four weeks to the team in first place.

Derek Stevens, the owner of Circa Sports, guaranteed $1 million to the first-place winner in 2019 regardless of if it had enough entries to cover the prize. There was a real thought that there would be what is called an “overlay” in the first year of the contest.

An overlay is when there is a gap between a casino’s guaranteed monetary prize and the actual prize pool generated by entrants. The casino is putting its own money at risk when that happens. Luckily for Circa last year, the public ended up blowing past the 1,500 entries needed.

“Last year, we guaranteed a million-five in the Circa Sports Million and we ended up with 1,875 entries,” Stevens told “Pushing The Odds” on Monday. “This year, we bumped it to a $3 million guarantee. Now, with the pandemic, we’ll see here, but I’m going to have to start going into the archives here and start to pull out my overlay ads because right now, we have a big, big overlay. I think we have about 50 entries right now in the Circa Sports Million 2. We need another 2,900 to be able to break even on that.”

In addition to the Circa Sports Million 2, Stevens has a new contest called The Circa Survivor that also has a $1,000 entry and a $1 million first-place prize. However, this contest requires a player to pick one winner every week without using the same team twice during the season. If you have a perfect record, Circa will award you an additional $1 million.

“For the inaugural Circa Survivor, we have to get to 1,000 entries because we are guaranteeing a million dollars,” Stevens said. “I’m pretty fired up for that one because the rules set is a ton of fun, and it’s positive expected value for everyone because if you go undefeated, we are going to add an additional million dollars. We are paying everything back (again). No rake.”

Matt Simo is the co-owner of FootballContest.com, the premier proxy service in Las Vegas for the football handicapping contests. Matt has over a decade of experience entering picks for his clients.

“The interest in these football contests remains high despite the pandemic,” Simo told BettingPros.com in a phone interview. “It’s just a bigger challenge to get to Vegas this year to sign up. Hopefully, travel will be safer and easier come August and it will allow the contests to finish strong in terms of sign-ups.”

Will Circa get nearly 3,000 more sign-ups needed for the Circa Million 2 or 1,000 entries for the first-ever Circa Survivor? Sitting here in the middle of July, it’s hard to say. The Westgate SuperContest is advertising a $1 million first-place prize and payouts for the top-100 teams. In 2019, the SuperContest had over 3,300 entries to cover the $1.4 million top prize. It would be surprising to see a similar sign-up number in 2020.

Jay Kornegay, Executive VP of the Westgate SuperBook, believes they will see sign-up numbers climb later this summer.

“We started accepting SuperContest entries in the middle of January,” Kornegay told BettingPros.com via text. “We were unable to accept them during the mandated shutdown, but entries have surprisingly picked up after reopening. We don’t expect the entries to match last year’s, but we expect the (first place) prize to be right up there.”

While we do have several weeks left until the start of the NFL season, this might be a unique opportunity. Circa’s guaranteed million-dollar payouts and cheaper entry fees make their contests very appealing. However, the history and prestige of the SuperContest will be attractive to players as well.

If you have always wanted to be in one of the NFL football handicapping contests in Las Vegas, this might be your best chance to finish in the money if you can physically get to Sin City this summer.

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Matt Perrault is a featured writer at BettingPros and the host of the Daily Juice podcast. For more from Matt, check out his archive and follow him @sportstalkmatt.

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