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Can We Just Let One Season End Before Predicting The Next?

In the last couple of weeks, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Milwaukee Bucks both earned themselves a dubious honor. Each was crowned a champion … of next season’s betting odds. (Congrats! That and $2.45 will get you a large1 coffee at Starbucks.) According to data provided to FiveThirtyEight by the betting sites SportsBetting.ag and BetOnline.ag, Tampa Bay was installed as 8-to-1 favorites to win the 2020 Stanley Cup within hours of the St. Louis Blues winning the 2019 Stanley Cup, while the Bucks were made 9-to-2 favorites for next year’s NBA title before the confetti even settled on the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 victory.

It’s all part of a movement toward increased focus on next year’s potential winners, practically before the current champs can even be entered into the record books. “The day-after, next-year title odds have certainly become a big deal in our industry,” said Scott Cooley, a spokesman for the two oddsmakers above. “We started doing them with the online books maybe six to seven years ago, and Vegas has caught on over the last couple of years.”

The media has hopped on the trend as well in recent years. ESPN reported on the 2020 NBA favorite picks in the betting markets roughly 17 hours after the Raptors’ Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors ended,2 and often the reports will come even sooner after the championship than that. Speculation about the next champ can practically bump the current champ out of the news cycle.

Those two kinds of teams — current champs and speculative future champs — overlap surprisingly infrequently, depending on the sport. In the data we analyzed, which covers the four major men’s pro leagues going back to either 2009 (for the NBA, MLB and NFL) or 2010 (NHL), the just-crowned champion was installed as the following season’s favorite 17 times in 45 chances (38 percent). Six of the 12 defending NBA champs since 2009 were in that category, which makes sense for a sport in which previous postseason success plays a disproportionate role in the championship hunt. By comparison, the defending Super Bowl winner was instantly named the next NFL favorite just three times in 11 chances over the same span, a number that includes the current Patriots, who are fresh off a win in Super Bowl LIII.

The Pats are perennial next-day picks, gaining that distinction seven times in the 11 NFL seasons we looked at, including 2019. (That’s sort of what happens when you maintain the top dynasty in the history of football, if not all of pro sports.) But even the Patriots have failed to convert those next-day titles into real ones with some regularity: They won as favorites in 2016 and 2018, but lost in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2017. That’s not too surprising — if we look at the history of next-day favorites, they lose far more often than they win (because even the favorite is typically an underdog against the field):

How often have next-day favorites won?

Eventual championship status for teams named next-day favorites according to the betting markets

NHL NBA
Season Team Won? Team Won?
2020 Lightning ? Bucks ?
2019 Lightning Warriors
2018 Penguins Warriors
2017 Penguins Warriors
2016 Blackhawks Cavaliers
2015 Blackhawks Heat
2014 Penguins Heat
2013 Penguins Heat
2012 Canucks Heat
2011 Blackhawks Heat
2010 Red Wings Lakers
2009 Celtics
NFL MLB
Season Team Won? Team Won?
2020
2019 Patriots ? Astros, Red Sox ?
2018 Patriots Astros
2017 Patriots Cubs
2016 Panthers, Patriots*, Seahawks Cubs
2015 Seahawks Dodgers, Nationals
2014 Seahawks Dodgers
2013 49ers, Broncos Tigers
2012 Patriots Phillies
2011 Patriots Phillies
2010 Colts Yankees
2009 Patriots Yankees

* The Patriots were NFL co-favorites in 2016 and won the Super Bowl.

Sources: SPORTSBETTING.AG, BETONLINE.AG

A new champion doesn’t always get very much respect from the oddsmakers in the immediate wake of its victory. The Raptors, for instance, opened the 2020 championship betting at fourth in the NBA (8-to-1 odds), while the Blues started 2020 in a tie for fifth in the NHL (12-to-1 odds) right after hoisting the Cup. Most of the time, however, the champs stay pretty close to the top of the sport. Only five of the 45 new champs we looked at fell out of the top five for their league when looking ahead to the following season: The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies (sixth looking ahead to 2009), the 2015 Denver Broncos (seventh for 2016), the 2018 Washington Capitals (eighth for 2019), the 2011 New York Giants (eighth for 2012) and the 2012 Baltimore Ravens (13th for 2013).

Number of champions in the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL with a certain ranking in the next-day betting odds for the following season, since 2009

Rank Count
1st 17
2nd 12
3rd 5
4th 2
5th 4
6th 1
7th 1
8th 2
9th 0
10th 0
11th 0
12th 0
13th 1

Sources: SPORTSBETTING.AG, BETONLINE.AG

This summer was actually an unusual moment in that regard, between the NBA and NHL. It was the first time in our data where both leagues’ champions opened in fourth place or worse in the next season’s odds at the same time. This is perhaps because both the Raptors and Blues were first-time champions in their respective sports, and each was a relative surprise champion as well (the Blues began the season as the 19th-ranked betting choice, 40-to-1 to win it all, while the Raptors were ninth with 60-to-1 title odds).

This isn’t the first time the books have shown an affinity for a team — like, say, the Lightning — whose previous season didn’t end in glorious fashion. But that doesn’t happen very often. Granting that some sports’ playoff structures don’t feature rounds of equivalent size before their playoff quarterfinals,3 Tampa Bay joined the 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2010 Miami Heat as the only teams in our sample to exit in the first round of the NBA or NHL playoffs and then immediately become championship favorites the day after the playoffs ended. (And that Heat team comes with a special disclaimer we’ll talk about later.)

Number of next-day betting odds favorites in the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL that finished the previous playoffs a given number of rounds from the championship, since 2009

Rounds From Championship Count
0 16
1 12
2 9
3 6
4 3

Sources: SPORTSBETTING.AG, BETONLINE.AG

More than half of the freshly minted next-day favorites in our sample had either just won (35 percent) or lost (26 percent) in their sport’s championship round. So it’s pretty unusual to see a team such as the Lightning flame out in the playoffs and then immediately be named favorites for the following season. Then again, Tampa Bay had been named next-day favorites going into the 2018-19 season as well (after losing a tough seven-game conference final to the eventual-champ Capitals), then proceeded to rattle off one of the most dominant regular seasons in hockey history before falling flat in one of the game’s most epic playoff disappointments. The 2019 NHL playoffs were a chaotic mess anyway — the eventual champs fired their coach midseason and were playoff longshots for most of the regular season — so it might have been the perfect mix of factors to elevate a team back to favorite status despite a postseason flop.

These next-day odds can change pretty quickly anyway. Although the Bucks were technically 2020 favorites in the moments after Toronto won it all, the Los Angeles Lakers usurped that distinction just a day later, being installed as 7-to-2 favorites after trading for former Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis. It was a pretty remarkable leap to the top of the heap, given that LeBron James and LA didn’t even make the playoffs the previous season. (None of the next-day favorites we’ve been looking at in this data set could say that.)

But that’s nothing compared with the summer of 2010, when the oddsmakers avoided officially releasing the next-day NBA odds altogether. We included their first batch of odds in the calculation above — hence the Heat’s jump to No. 1 for 2011 — but those numbers were actually released after free agency had begun. Although the 2010 season ended on June 17, odds for 2011 weren’t posted until July 9 because of the uncertainty around LeBron’s free-agency “Decision.” Considering that this summer may rival 2010 in terms of the amount of NBA talent on the move, it’s not impossible that the 2020 favorite in the NBA betting markets will shift again in the next few weeks.

The era of immediate speculation does nothing to help temper the expectations placed on teams who are “supposed” to win. For example, the Los Angeles Dodgers — who haven’t won a World Series since 1988 — have been named next-day favorites twice in the past six seasons (in 2014 and 2015) and have never ranked lower than third place in the next-day odds over that span. With each passing instance of an on-paper championship (and no real one), a team’s disappointment comes even more into focus.

But the trend of impatiently looking ahead to next season doesn’t seem like it will let up anytime soon. As the lines begin to blur between one season’s end and the next one’s beginning — particularly given the way fans consume sports now and how the media covers it — there’s too much interest in far-off futures odds for anyone to ignore them. So that means we’re in store for plenty more speculative champions being crowned, even if the actual ones aren’t finished celebrating yet.



Footnotes

  1. Sorry, venti.

  2. ESPN is owned by Disney, which also owns ABC News, which owns FiveThirtyEight.

  3. Both the NBA and NHL feature a round of 16 before their quarterfinals, while MLB and the NFL each have a round of 12.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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