Episode 3 Of ‘Game of Thrones’ Was The Biggest Betting Event In Television History

by James Murphy in Entertainment  / April 29, 2019

  • Episode 3 of ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 was the biggest single betting event for a scripted TV program in history.
  • The episode took 11 weeks to film with 750 people involved in production.
  • Only three episodes remain in the final season of ‘Game of Thrones’.

Game of Thrones has established itself as an international phenomenon that has broken viewership records in countries all over the world. It’s large cast and complex, meandering narrative has received abundant critical acclaim. Last night’s episode, the 3rd of the final season, is certainly among the most elaborately produced episodes in television history taking 11 weeks to film in rural Ireland and involving over 750 people. That episode has earned Game of Thrones a new historical claim–it was the biggest single betting event for a scripted television program in history.

The HBO TV series Game of Thrones has already enshrined itself in the annals of worldwide television history. In many ways, GOT’s success is completely unprecedented. Success in an era where all forms of broadcast entertainment are in transition between their analog past and digital future is even more amazing. There have been plenty of popular TV shows but none with the overwhelming worldwide appeal of Game of Thrones. A Time Magazine cover story before Season 7 called Game of Thrones ‘the most popular television show in the world’ and even that might be an understatement. It has set viewership records in country after country and should continue to do so until the end of the season.

In a ridiculously popular show known for it’s huge cast, complex interwoven storylines and epic narrative style Episode 3 of the currently running final season of Game of Thrones might have been the most hotly anticipated episode of the series to date. Weighing in at 82 minutes long it was more ‘TV movie’ than a garden variety episode of a series. Throughout the series, a recurring theme has been the grinding inevitability of a confrontation against the Night King and his ‘army of the dead’. The moment arrived in Episode 3 and was described by HBO in it’s pre-release synopsis as follows:

“The Night King and his army have arrived at Winterfell and the great battle begins.

That was the theme that made Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3 the biggest scripted television betting event in history. Season long prop bets on Game of Thrones have been popular for awhile. A prop asking ‘Who Will Sit On The Iron Throne At The End Of The Series?’ has been a big one for several years. The past couple of seasons, there have also been a variety of betting propositions focusing on which characters will live and die throughout the course of the season. These ‘Survival Props’ as I like to call them have become almost ubiquitous entering into the final season of Game of Thrones.

UNPRECEDENTED BETTING INTEREST AND ACTION ON EPISODE 3

Bets that ask if a specific character will survive until the end of a Game of Thrones season or even until the end of the series are nothing new. What is completely unprecedented is what happened before Episode 3: a number of sportsbooks worldwide offered odds on specific characters surviving until the end of the episode. Although there are three episodes remaining to tie up all of the loose ends of the storyline Episode 3 could represent the peak interest in betting on Game of Thrones. One place that didn’t see any betting on the episode? The sportsbooks in Nevada which are not allowed to book action on non-sporting events except in rare bordering on non-existent circumstances (that’s a different topic for a different time).

There should be significant betting interest on the remaining episodes of Game of Thrones–particularly the series finale. Based on what is known about the rest of the season, however, none may offer as many betting opportunities for players as Episode 3. There’s also a good chance that none may match Episode 3 in terms of betting volume. Episode 3 was really a ‘perfect storm’ as the popularity of the show worldwide, the big cast and complex storylines and the ramped up security and secrecy from HBO in response to leaks in Season 7 combined to create a perfect event for not only fan speculation but for the creation and betting on prop bets. This was likely heightened by the anticipation and analysis heading up to the start of the ‘Battle of Winterfell’ which at times felt like the run up to the Super Bowl.

At any rate, Sunday’s Episode 3 of Game of Thrones final season is now the biggest single betting event for a scripted TV series. It’s not even close. It’s similar to the game changing volume and interest that the Donald Trump election brought to political betting. TV series betting will never match the English Premier League or National Football League in terms of volume but with a combination of strong betting action and media interest you can be sure that more scripted TV series will hit the betting board in the future.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BETTING ON TELEVISION SHOWS

Television is largely responsible for the massive worldwide popularity of sports betting. For that matter, it’s responsible for the popularity of many individual sports. The NFL likes to pretend that betting played no role in it’s growth to reach the status of the most financially lucrative sports league in the world. That’s nonsense. The NFL dates back to 1920 and existed as a niche sport for a couple of decades. It began to gain traction in the late 1940’s which almost perfectly coincides with the beginning of widespread use of the pointspread. Not long after, the NFL found itself in a symbiotic upward vortex of popularity along with betting, television and sports media. The end result is what we now enjoy–a landscape where a bettor can find live coverage of virtually any game in the world in every major or minor sport.

The history of betting on individual television programs doesn’t go back as far. Throughout the mid to late 20th Century, there was nominal interest in betting on televised ‘novelty events’ that didn’t fall within the canon of competitive sports. In the United States, this type of betting was minimal–at least outside of the realm of politics (which has a long and fascinating history in America and worldwide). There was a trickle of betting on events like the Miss America Pageant and the Academy Awards but it was of minimal significance in the big picture of betting handle in the United States.

It was an entirely different story in Europe. In particular, the highly enthusiastic gamblers of England became quite enamored of ‘novelty betting’ along with more traditional forms of wagering on sports and horses. As a result, European bookmakers became increasingly creative offering betting odds on awards shows, pageants, politics and the comings and goings of the Royal Family. Even the weather became a subject for betting propositions. Wagering on ‘Will It Snow In London on Christmas Day?’ has been a staple of British betting shops for decades and continues to this day.

TELEVISION BETTING COMES TO LAS VEGAS

Although the popularity of non sport ‘novelty bets’ began to grow in England the story of how betting began on scripted television programs now returns to the United States. The legal gambling industry of Nevada was drastically different then and sports betting not a part of the product mix of the big casinos in Las Vegas and Reno. Instead, the bookmaking was done by independent shops known in some circles as ‘turf clubs’–some were free standing businesses with names like ‘Churchill Downs’ and ‘Rose Bowl’ while others were found in smaller ‘grind joint’ type casinos. Two highly influential sportsbooks in these ‘low roller’ gambling houses were at the Little Caesars Casino across from what is now the Bellagio and the ‘Hole in the Wall’ Sportsbook at the Castaways Casino near what would become The Mirage.

It was at the ‘Hole in the Wall’ Sportsbook at the Castaways that Julius Charles “Sonny” Reizner would make a name for himself. He’s known as a legend among sports bettors and bookmakers but was an innovator in marketing within the industry. It was Reizner who started the first season long football contests. He was one of the first bookmakers in Las Vegas to promote parlay cards and to write prop bet action on the Super Bowl. He was always pushing the envelope on the sports he hung numbers on. For example, in 1979 he posted the first betting lines on the Boston Marathon. Reizner was also a first rate bettor in his own right and legend has it that he placed the first six figure baseball bet in Nevada gaming history.

During this time, Reizner wasn’t the only bookmaker in town posting exotic proposition bets. Downtown at the El Cortez, Jackie Gaughan also discovered that unusual wagering topics would not only attract betting action but tons of publicity for the casino. Gaughan created a number of bets that received national attention but none created the massive interest that a 1979 prop where bettors could predict where the Skylab space station would fall to earth. The El Cortez took an insane amount of action on the final resting place of space junk and became well known internationally in the process. Ultimately, the space station fell in Western Australia at odds of 30/1.

SONNY REIZNER POSES THE QUESTION ‘WHO SHOT J.R. EWING?’

The following year, the biggest story in pop culture was the cliff hanger season opening episode of the most popular show on television: Dallas. At the end of the November 7, 1980 episode a cleaning woman finds J.R. Ewing on the floor of his office, the victim of a gunshot. The denouement of the story arc came several weeks later during the ‘Sweeps’ period on an episode entitled ‘Who Done It’. The show would become at the time the most watched series episode in TV history with between 85 and 90 million viewers.

The massive attention in advance of the show gave Sonny Reizner the idea to set odds on ‘Who Shot J.R.’, more as a publicity stunt for the Castaways than anything else. He hung odds on every character on the show as well as some real life celebrities such as Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and Dallas Mavericks’ coach Dick Motta. To no surprise, the media ate it up. Unfortunately, not every one was amused–the Nevada Gaming Control Board ordered Reizner to take it down.

The logic? They were taking action on a predetermined event and a fair number of people (such as producers, crew members, writers) knew the outcome. That also put the kibosh on future wagers of this type–after that, Nevada state gaming regulations mandated that bets only be taken on sporting events. They established a process to petition for approval of other types of wagers but most were rejected out of hand. Although this was supposedly ‘liberalized’ a few years back the only non-sport events to gain approval to date have involved the World Series of Poker.

Back in Europe, ‘novelty betting’ would continue to be extremely popular. One TV show that attracted big betting interest was the Eurovision Song Contest. The contest began in the mid 1960’s but became widely popular for both viewers and bettors alike during the 1970’s. Although it’s largely unknown to US audiences it’s popularity in Europe continues to this day. Eurovision odds are ubiquitous at every bookmaker in the world with a European clientele.

The growth of the Internet would transform the world in countless ways and with it the nature of the sports betting industry. It also served to revive the international popularity of television betting. In the early days of the online gaming industry offshore bookmakers would quickly leverage the ‘TV reality show boom’ of the early 2000s and post lines on popular shows such as American Idol and Survivor. Sportsbooks worldwide would follow suit, often with specific odds for their own country’s licensed version of these big name reality TV franchises. Even as the popularity of reality TV has waned it has remained a popular betting event at sportsbooks worldwide.

It would be a popular HBO TV show of a previous generation that would ‘light the fuse’ for betting on scripted television events. The epic mob series The Sopranos was a perfect fit for the sports betting demographic and particularly late in the series run a number of sportsbooks worldwide would offer odds on plotlines with the most popular involving ‘who will get whacked’ on the show. Since then, there have been a few scripted TV shows that have found their way on to the betting board but none nearly as popular as Game of Thrones.

James Murphy

James Murphy is a preeminent authority on the international gambling industry and has made frequent appearances in the mainstream media including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, Entertainment Weekly, CNBC and NPR. He has previously worked as a radio and podcasting host where he broadcast to an international audience that depended on his expertise and advice. Murphy also serves as an odds making consultant for sports and ‘non-sport novelty bets’ covering the entertainment industry, politics, technology, financial markets and just about everything else.

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