Every longtime horse bettor knows the sinking feeling when a horse he or she has wagered on looks to be a lock to win in the stretch only to be caught at the wire by a late-closer.  That is how the individual who bet $1 million on the Atlanta Falcons must have felt in spades when the New England Patriots not only won Super Bowl 51 in overtime but also covered the 3-point spread.

This got me thinking about the truly unprecedented 2016-2017 year for bettors.  I’ve never seen a seven-month period of time—beginning in mid-June 2016 and ending in early February 2017–when so much wagered money was lost by unusual and shocking outcomes in premier sporting and political events.

Consider what transpired in the championships of the three major American professional sports leagues.

In June 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers staged the greatest comeback in NBA championship history by beating the Golden State Warriors.  No team had ever recovered from a 3-games-to-1 deficit.  Even more unique is that two of the last three games in the 7-game series were on the Warriors’ home court, where they were supposedly all but unbeatable.

In October, the Chicago Cubs were down three games to one in the MLB World Series and rallied to win games five, six, and seven against the Cleveland Indians, even though two of the last three games were played in Cleveland.

The 2016-2017 NFL season ended in spectacular fashion with the New England Patriots clawing back from a 28-3 deficit to win in overtime.  No team in Super Bowl history had come back from even a 14-point differential.  What’s more remarkable is that the Patriots were behind 28-9 at the start of the fourth quarter, missed an extra point, and muffed an onside kick.

The Cavaliers and Patriots’ heroics come close to falling into the category of what statisticians refer to as “tail events,” meaning that the teams were in such a hole that they were virtually assured of losing.  A tail event is one that lies beyond 3 standard deviations from the mean, which is 99.7%.  At one point in the Super Bowl, ESPN analytics estimated the Patriots’ chances of winning at about one percent.

Betting on politics in 2016 also provided very unexpected outcomes.  In June, the BREXIT vote in Great Britain was heavily bet on the side of Great Britain staying in the European Union, which was a losing bet on the opinion polls being accurate.  Similarly, in November, wagering on the U. S. presidential election was heavily on the losing side in a monumental upset and more erroneous polling.

Serious horse-race bettors certainly can empathize with “in the bag” wagers gone bad.

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