Handicapping the 2021 CFL Season
"Chaos favors the prepared bettor."
-- Nick Christenson
Editor's Note: Pointspreads.ca welcomes Nick Christenson to the staff, who will be handicapping Canadian Football League games and making his picks each week. What follows is Mr. Christenson's debut article, which is a CFL season preview.
The CFL remains on track to start its slightly-abbreviated 2021 season on August 5th. However, certainly in recent memory, there has never been more uncertainty going into the start of play. Even more so than other major sports leagues, some of which have been operating their COVID-affected seasons on what feels like a wing and a prayer – this CFL season seems especially precarious. This is due to many factors.
Contributing to the unsettled situation is, of course, the CFL's financial status. As an organization already under financial strain, losing the entirety of last season was a blow to the league, and add that to a year with expenses but with a shortened schedule, a diminished gate for each game because of occupancy restrictions, and additional expenses due to dealing with the ongoing health crisis, it's no wonder that the ground underneath the league has never felt so slippery.
Additionally, it feels to me like the CFL doesn't doesn't quite trust its own national government to provide an environment that promotes confidence on the course of their season. One can certainly be critical of the early response to COVID by the United States, but it's undeniable that it is easier to operate a sports league when it doesn't seem like the government is likely to yank the rug out from under the season at the drop of a hat. I don't wish to lay this all at the feet of the Canadian government, the fact that half of the players (Americans) will have to cross a national border that is currently sealed to almost everyone is a big part of this, but if I were a CFL team owner, I would feel more than a little anxious that Ottawa (the institution, not the team) is considering my interests at all in its decision making.
A bettor facing such an environment may justifiably decide that given all of this uncertainty, it's best to just keep one's powder dry and wait for other betting opportunities. However, it is exactly in such uncertain environments that a prepared bettor has a significant advantage. After all, all of this chaos affects the linesmaker every bit as much as the bettor but, a sports book has to put up numbers for every game, while their customers can be selective about where to bet. Add this to the fact that the season will start at a time when even Canadian-focused books will be spending a lot more energy on the NFL as well as paying attention to the Olympics and other sports leagues, there are likely to be some good opportunities for sharp bettors in the CFL, this season. This is in part because, not despite, predictability being especially hard to come by.
So, are there some general strategies that a savvy better may adopt in such an environment? I think there are. I will present to you some of my general thoughts on how to approach the early part of the 2021 CFL season.
Player Performance Unpredictability
One truism that every sports fan recognizes is that the single best predictor as to how a player (or, in aggregate, a team) will perform in a given year is how they performed in the previous season. Taking the previous year's performance as a baseline, we expect younger players to improve somewhat, and older players to decline somewhat. There's a lot of variability in this, but this is how sports performance generally works.
In 2021, these sorts of predictions are less certain for a couple of reasons. First, it has now been two years since we've seen most CFL vets play, so we're missing a year's worth of data as to how players are progressing. Also, by losing the year, we have even more turnover than usual in the league, which means we have fewer players for which we can even project a career arc. I expect this to be even more pronounced when it comes to the international players because of the shortened season, which means there will be less overall money gained by going north added to the issues involved with crossing the border to live for months under epidemic rules. Some of the players who might have come this year or have come in seasons past, have already decided not to come this year, it being more trouble than it's worth to uproot their lives under present circumstances. Further, we have seen a number of late resignations, and it is almost certain that some of them involved a payer calculation as to whether the hassle of playing a season under these circumstances is worth it.
In any case, I expect a lot of regression to the mean on both the individual and team level. Will this be adequately reflected in the betting markets?
Shortened Training Camps and No Pre-season
It's no secret that it often takes some time for international players to adjust to CFL rules as compared to the version of football they're used to playing. With shortened training camps, the possibility that practices will be shortened or interrupted due to isolation rules and/or outbreaks, and no pre-season, I expect these difficulties to be especially pronounced this year. When handicapping, give additional weight to teams who have returning CFL veterans, especially early in the season.
Experience is always critical in the CFL at quarterback, but it will be especially true this year for the reasons mentioned above. All nine teams are projected to start a quarterback with CFL experience at the beginning of the 2021 season, but it appears that some of these teams may have rookies as their primary backups. Nathan Rourke is projected to back up a Mike Reilly who spent a lot of time on his back last year for BC. Even though Rourke is coming home as a Victoria, BC native, he's a rookie who played his college ball down south at Ohio University. Even though potential backup Jeremiah Briscoe won't be a rookie for the Edmonton Elks, he got very little playing time in 2019, his only professional season. However, he has at least seen a full year of practice time on a CFL roster. Sean McGwire with the Blue Bombers, like Briscoe, was rostered for a full season in 2019, but got very few live reps. While he's not a rookie either, he's certainly not a veteran, with only one year under his belt, which was spent mostly on the bench and followed by a year off.
If a team is forced to start an especially inexperienced QB early in the year, we would always discount that team's power rating significantly. That discount should probably be larger this year as compared to years past.
One of the consequences of the lost year, extra roster turnover, and other uncertainty factors is an expected regression to the mean. Another consequence is that we can expect variability. A league never shakes out exactly the way things are predicted by the experts at the beginning of the season. For the CFL in 2021, this should be especially true. Experts are always wrong about some aspects of the league heading into the season. Expect them to be more wrong about more things this year than in other years.
There are ways to exploit this in the betting markets. Linesmakers may not adjust the line very much if they suspect that league variability is higher, although, again, some form of discounting lines towards underdogs due to regression to the mean may be justified. However, they should be adjusting the relationship between the line and the moneyline. If moneylines haven't been discounted appropriately, betting underdogs to win outright can often provide significant value when variability goes up.
Consequently, early in the year, if books don't adjust their historical relationship between lines and moneylines, if you like an underdog, consider betting them outright on the moneyline. If you like a favorite, generally prefer betting them ATS (against the spread) rather than on the moneyline.
The regression to the mean principles and issues regarding the variability of performance when operating under a lack of reliable information provide some guidance for betting season long bets, such as Grey Cup futures and season win totals. Again, because our knowledge of the relative strength of each team is uncertain, we should tend to discount our expectations of what are perceived to be the best teams, and elevate the possibilities for what are widely considered to be the worst.
We should also remember that it's rare for a CFL team to play all its games, 14 in the regular season this year, with their day 1 starting QB taking every snap. How much do you like a team's Grey Cup chances or season win totals over bet if you knew they'd be playing a bunch of their games with their #2 at pivot? If that prospect doesn't faze you, then you might be looking at a pretty good bet.
Also, remember that power ratings are *never* absolute numbers. They're always relative to some other number. Let's imagine a team suffers an injury to their starting QB and, perhaps thinking of the future, they elect to start a rookie for the next few weeks. We shouldn't be surprised if that team plays poorly early on, but while this team may not ever be very good, we would expect such a team to improve at a faster rate than other teams in the league. That is, their power rating might be especially low at the point of the roster change, but we expect it to increase comparatively rapidly going forward. If the betting market doesn't adjust at an appropriate rate, this may lead to some betting value as the season progresses.
In conclusion, while I expect the 2021 CFL season to be especially unpredictable, that doesn't mean that there won't be profitable betting opportunities. In fact, chaos favors the prepared bettor. Look for opportunities where the unpredictability of this season has not been properly incorporated into betting lines and bet accordingly.
Nick Christenson has been using mathematical methods and computer modeling to as tools for successful sports betting for over 15 years. He lives and works out of Las Vegas, Nevada where, during rare offseasons, he enjoys cooking, reading, and hiking.