For the last few years, I have risked six-figure sums betting on the Eurovision Song Contest, my specialist subject. After another winning year I quit my day job this summer so I could focus on it full-time in 2011.
But that left the autumn to fill. And having first dipped my toe into the X Factor betting markets in 2009 by backing Jedward at 9/1 to be saved during their elimination sing-off with Lucie, I decided I would waggle a foot in the water this year. Then Wagner came along, and I ended up diving right in. I am now around £4,000 better off thanks to Wagner’s ups and downs, but it was not without its hairy moments.
Last weekend I was looking at losing £28,000 if Wagner had gone on to win the competition, and I confess to waking up in a cold sweat wondering how I’d got so heavily involved with the fortunes in a televised singing competition of a bongo-playing Brazilian who lives in a bungalow in Dudley. This is that story.
I started this series assuming I would be much more cautious in my X Factor betting, knowing it would be a more difficult nut to crack than Eurovision. For a start, I have analysed Eurovision shows and results for many years, but we have only two years of published X Factor voting figures to work on. (It was only in 2008 that the show started to release week-by-week percentage voting breakdowns after the final).
Then there is the tremendous, and predictable, bias in the Eurovision public poll based on diaspora and neighbourly voting. You can be pretty sure that Greece will give Cyprus 12 points, but who can be sure how many Liverpudlians are picking up the phone to vote for Rebecca Ferguson? Identifying each X Factor act’s core demographics, and their likely relative strength, involves a lot more guesswork.
On top of that, producers of Eurovision have to be even-handed. The Eurovision draw is public, random and published before the show; on X Factor, producers decide the running order and punters don’t know until transmission. In Eurovision, each entrant is allotted the same amount of time; in X Factor producers can vary greatly the airtime each entry gets. In Eurovision, each act is out to present themselves in the best possible light; in X Factor, producers have considerable power to help some acts and undermine others through such devices as song choices, styling, editing of VTs and judges’ comments.
In short, Eurovision promises fairness in its presentation, and predictable bias in the public vote. X Factor is biased in its presentation, and how the public will vote is harder to guess.
With Eurovision, I look beyond the winner’s market for the best betting opportunities. Likewise, I hoped to rely on X Factor elimination odds each week – and in fact, I haven’t had a bet at all on the winner’s market (though I believed from an early stage that we were heading for a One Direction / Matt Cardle / Rebecca Ferguson final).
I hoped to make use of one reliable X Factor trend, the phenomenon of the sympathy bounce, in the elimination betting. This has largely been scuppered by the continued sing-off survival of the non-bouncing Katie Waissel. The elimination market has also been complicated all series long by the wildcard twist, which saw the final 12 unexpectedly expanded into a final 16 – a salutary reminder of how punters are more vulnerable to surprises with X Factor than with Eurovision.
The wildcards meant we had more deadwood, making next eliminations harder to predict – it was clear, for example, that producers lacked any enthusiasm for acts such as John Adeleye and Paije Richardson, but it took a couple of weeks of consistently and incorrectly predicting they would be eliminated before they actually were.
The wildcards also necessitated some double eliminations to thin the field – and the suspense each week over whether we would see a single or double elimination, while great for producers, was a nightmare for punters.
That’s because a double elimination deprives the show of the opportunity to save the act which finishes bottom – and the whole purpose of this formula is to allow the show to keep unpopular but interesting acts, such as Jedward over Lucie in 2009, and Katie Waissel repeatedly this year. If it’s a double elimination, backing the unpopular but interesting act to survive is a much riskier move.
The wildcards did give us Wagner, however, so this cloud had a silver lining. From the start, Wagner was one of the favourites each week to be eliminated. But after week 1’s bongo-bashing brilliance, the producers had obviously decided to turn him into one of the show’s talking points, and therefore wanted to keep him around for as long as they could.
When a single elimination was confirmed for Week 3, I risked over £2,000 on Wagner to win £600 by laying him in the elimination market on Betfair (that is, betting that he would not be next eliminated). With a great slot in the running order, a big production and judge controversy, it seemed clear that producers would try and save him even if he did end up in the sing-off.
The pattern was repeated in week 4 and week 5. By this time several internet campaigns had sprung up, urging people to vote Wagner to annoy the show. This was odd, as the show was clearly desperate to keep Wagner in. As we wrote before the week 6 show:
From a betting perspective, Wagner’s continued survival creates a self-fulfilling circle that benefits media, bookies and show alike: “could Wagner actually win?” headlines inspire a smattering of bets at long odds, so bookies cut the odds, leading to “Wagner’s odds plummet” headlines, making people take him more seriously as a potential winner, and so on. This week he has been cut from 100/1 to 33/1, and survival this weekend could see further moves in the same direction.
So it did, but only slightly. Wagner was down to 25/1 before the week 7 show, when we laid out the case for being confident that Wagner couldn’t win.
In that week 7 show, Wagner had probably his best moment in terms of inspiring viewer support: his rebuttal to Cheryl of alleged tabloid comments about her, which I believe was set up to give Wagner the chance to look gentlemanly in his reply. I placed a further £300 laying him in the next elimination market, bringing my total winnings on Wagner’s continued survival into four figures for the series.
But with only three weeks left, it was clear that producers would soon feel Wagner had served his purpose. In the run-up to week 8, we posted about how reality shows like to milk the headline-grabbing acts but restore credibility by losing them before the final, and we explained how producers could dampen Wagner’s phone vote support when they wanted rid of him.
During this week, there was a major plunge on Wagner, who came down to around 8/1 with the bookmakers and slightly longer on Betfair. So come last Saturday, I was faced with the prospect of being able to lay Wagner on Betfair (that is, bet on Wagner not winning the whole contest) for around a 10% return on the amount I risked. I decided to go for it, risking the kind of amounts I usually reserve for Eurovision.
During Saturday’s show, when producers did everything they could to damage Wagner’s vote, I topped up my liabilities. By the end of the main show I had accepted nearly £2,800 worth of other Betfair punters’ bets on Wagner, meaning that had Wagner won the whole competition, I would have had to pay out about £28,000 to these punters.
My intermittent sleep that Saturday night was an interesting study in the psychology of gambling. Rationally, I was still confident in my reasoning, otherwise I would not have built up such a liability. But even after the Saturday show had told us clearly that the producers wanted rid of Wagner, people continued to back the Brazilian and his odds continued to come down on Betfair.
Watching this happen, I briefly lost all confidence. I knew that if Wagner survived this week, producers would redouble their efforts to get rid of him the following week – but I started to ask myself, what if the impact of social media really was enough to wrest control of the show’s narrative from the show itself and carry Wagner to an unlikely victory?
In the cold light of Sunday morning I reassured myself that my original reasoning was still sound, revealed on Sofabet that day I had a five-figure liability on Wagner winning the whole thing, and reminded myself that market support does not equate to superior knowledge – often in the X Factor markets, you see big gambles that look like they must be reflecting inside information, but turn out not to be.
And so it proved on this occasion. While I was very sorry to see Wagner leave the competition from a viewer’s perspective, I was glad not to have sweated for a further week over the prospect, however unlikely, of losing that amount of money. At least when I bet large amounts on Eurovision, the resolution – one way or the other – happens in the space of one evening.
As I try to make a go of being a full-time professional gambler on TV events, I’m relieved that my first serious foray beyond Eurovision has netted me a few grand – but I can’t say that staking more than a year’s average salary on the fortunes of an eccentric novelty act in a TV show is a stress-free way of making a living.