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Setting lines on the Oscars with legendary oddsmaker Johnny Avello

Johnny Avello is a huge movie buff and connoisseur, but he’s watching the biggest films of the year with an eye on the wagering implications as well.

Director of Race and Sportsbook Operations Johnny Avello, President of DraftKings North America and Co-Founder Matt Kalish and Head of Retail Operations Frank Kunovic during the ribbon cutting and office opening celebration January 15, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images for DraftKings

When Johnny Avello first came to Las Vegas in 1979, he was just a movie fan like the rest of us. Now he watches films like a baseball scout eyeing a prized prospect, looking for things like cinematography, costumes, and art direction.

“When I watch a movie, I watch it differently. My wife and I will watch a movie, and it’ll have a really weird ending and she’ll hate it. She’s looking for the white picket fence and happily-ever-after. That’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking at the cinematography, the directing aspect, the sound. So I look at things a little bit different.”

The Director of Race and Sportsbook Operations at DraftKings Sportsbook has been setting lines for the Oscars since 1994, a gig he inherited from his predecessor at Bally’s, Lenny Del Genio. While it was for “entertainment purposes only” at that time, the lines were good for some publicity on shows like Good Morning America and in newspaper ledes.

Becoming the Oscars Oddsmaker

“Lenny kind of did it a little bit different than me. He did speak to some people, but I actually made some contacts in the Hollywood community to get a pulse. Because this is not about best, this is about who they’re going to vote for. We’re handicapping the handicappers.

“I would talk to agents, producers, and they would tell me things like ‘I was in the theater last night with The Academy, and after the movie was over they stood and clapped.’”

Avello has been around gaming his entire life, starting from trips to the track as five-year-old in Poughkeepsie, New York. After a couple years at Marist College, he went to a gaming and management school in New York City where he learned how to deal casino table games. The plan was to move to Atlantic City and work at Resorts, the only gambling shop on the boardwalk at that time.

But Resorts wouldn’t accept anyone from his school when they opened their own, so he ended up flying to Las Vegas in 1979 and getting a job at the Hotel Nevada dealing dice and blackjack.

About five years and a few stops later, he moved to the race and sportsbook side as some friends came to town that were on the other side of the counter. He started all over at the bottom as a ticket writer, then becoming a supervisor, oddsmaker, manager, and eventually director at Bally’s Race and Sportsbook in 1994. He then moved to executive director at the Wynn, and then joined DraftKings in 2018.

“2019, that was our first actual Oscar bet. The guy responsible for going out and getting the approvals is Jake List (DK’s Director of Regulatory Operations). He went out to see who was on board with taking wagers, and that was New Jersey only.”

This year four states will take licensed and regulated action on the Academy Awards: Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, and New Jersey.

Handicapping this year’s field

And for someone that clearly loves movies, setting the numbers for the Academy Awards brings together two passions. And he’s got opinions on this year’s field as well.

“Frances McDormand did an excellent job acting, but she’s probably not going to win,” he said of the lead in the Best Picture favorite Nomadland. “The director (Chloe Zhao) I think it’s a slam dunk. When I saw the movie, I knew some of those people personally.

“I thought the movie was well done, I didn’t think it was the best movie of the year.”

Of course when you’ve been at this for as long as Avello has, the occasional upset does come through. Last year that was Parasite, but that wasn’t as big a shocker as what happened in 2006.

“There’s not a lot of upsets in the big six categories (Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Picture). Crash was one. It beat Brokeback Mountain, which was probably -300 or -400 that night.

“Now there were a lot of factors behind Crash that you really need to pay attention to. You know who got behind Crash that year was Oprah. And Oprah’s got a lot of power. And if Oprah starts talking about a movie that could win or thinks could win, she could influence a lot of people. And I really think that happened that year. Others opinions are going to change the voters opinions, so I look at all those things.”

If you’re looking for an upset this year, there still might be one on the board.

“I thought The Trial of The Chicago 7, I thought that was probably the better film. But that’s not what it’s about. I’ve had friends see both movies, and they did not like Nomadland. They thought The Trial of The Chicago 7 was a much better movie. But that’s not what it’s about.

“But if there’s an upset, I think that’s where it’s coming from.”

The angles to watch

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awards the most valuable statuette in Tinseltown, but it divides the categories amongst its membership via guild: Actors vote for actors, sound technicians vote for sound technicians, producers vote for producers.

But momentum in Oscar voting is real, and since all Academy members vote for Best Picture, it can change everything.

“When a movie gets on a roll, it could sweep. Like Mank; it’s nominated for 10, it may win one or two. But if Mank got on a real roll, it could win Best Picture. I think what (the voters) do is they’ll vote in their category, and then it’s just like Republicans or Democrats. They just check the box and keep going.”

It seems like Nomadland at -670 has a great chance to win in 2021, but there’s always a chance someone can pull the upset. It’s why people are betting on The Trial of The Chicago 7 at +600 right now at DraftKings Sportsbook. Mank and Minari are the longshots, with everyone else likely just filling a seat at the Dolby Theatre.

It’s also why Avello gets to watch his favorite films differently than everyone else; with one eye on cinematic quality, and the other on an odds board.