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Handicapping Early ‘American Idol’ Proposition Bets

James Murphy by in Entertainment on

Here at SPORTSINSIDER.COM I spend most of my time setting odds on reality shows. For this article, I’ll move to the other side of the counter and put on my ‘handicapper’ hat. The venerable reality show American Idol has just started its 18th season and several sportsbooks have already posted some prop odds on the outcome. Since the first month or so features taped highlights of nationwide auditions the only odds that can be set are very general ones. The field is narrowed down to the Top 20 and the live elimination shows begin a couple of months in. I’ll have odds posted at that point but for now we’ll try to find some value in the odds that have already been set.

I’m assuming at this point that everyone knows about American Idol and has a general understanding of the premise of the show. American Idol first aired on Fox in 2002 and became a surprise hit. The first show ever drew 9.9 million viewers which was far off the pace of the top shows at that point but solid enough to surprise Fox executives. One year later, it became a massive ratings juggernaut and would go on to be the highest rated show on television for seven consecutive seasons. For Season 2, the show brought in an average of 21.7 million viewers per week.

Like every other broadcast TV show in the digital era, the viewership has dropped off precipitously in recent years. In 2005 through 2007 it was pulling in an average of 30 million viewers plus per week. It its final year on Fox it brought in an average in the low to mid 11 million range. In the first year on ABC the show averaged in low to mid 7 million viewer range. So far this season the show has averaged between 7.5 and 8 million viewers which isn’t great but ABC suits have to be thrilled that they’re drawing that many viewers to their 18 year old reality show.

Or at least they should be–TV executives have a hard time with ‘context’ and many don’t understand that the game has changed forever. They see that American Idol has shed over 20 million viewers since it peaked and conclude that the show has run its course. The problem is that there’s no guarantee that anything else they put on would draw anywhere near that. Even so, American Idol was life and death to be renewed after last season and even after it was brought back was subject to a round of budget cutting. Aggregating 8 million viewers per week isn’t easy in the current broadcasting environment. Some networks get that but at least some of the suits at ABC apparently don’t.

HANDICAPPING ‘AMERICAN IDOL’ PROPOSITIONS

Despite the cost cutting, all three of the judging panel–Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan and Katy Perry signed contracts before the season to return. So too did host Ryan Seacrest. Most likely, they understood that they had minimal leverage amid this belt tightening and signed for far less than they would have a few years ago. This is the third season that these three judges have worked together and that suggests that they’re generally happy with their situation (paycheck notwithstanding). This fact is very significant for our first prop bet which poses the question ‘Which judge will be the first to quit, be fired or otherwise leave the show?’

FIRST JUDGE TO GET FIRED OR LEAVE

Lionel Richie                          +100
Katy Perry                             +150
Luke Bryan                             +225

This is an opportunity for a valuable sports betting lesson: never bet a prop bet that doesn’t provide for every possible outcome. Typically, the outcome(s) that aren’t represented are the most likely which virtually guarantees that you’re getting screwed. At the prices above the implied probability is 50% that Lionel Richie leaves the show, 40% that Katy Perry leaves the show and 30.8% that Luke Bryan leaves the show. The overwhelmingly most likely outcome is that none of the three judges leave the show. Based on the wording on the wager, you’ll get your bet refunded should that happen. Even so, you never want to bet a wager with such a disadvantageous line.

The good news is that there are a couple of solid positions on the next two propositions:

GENDER OF WINNER

Male                                   -110
Female                                 -110
Transgender                            +1800

Right off the bat you can eliminate ‘transgender’. The world may be ready for a transgender American Idol winner but the demographic that dominates the network TV viewership isn’t. The audience is heavy on young viewers under the age of 18, older viewers and a disproportionate number of rural dwellers aka ‘flyover country’.

So that makes it a toss up between ‘male’ and ‘female’ right? Not quite, and I’m not talking about the fact that in the US there are approximately 105 males born for every 100 females. Once again, it’s important to focus on what has happened in the past. Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of American Idol winners have been male. It didn’t start out that way–female contestants won three out of the first four seasons and four out of the first six. A female contestant has won twice since Season 7 (2008) against 9 male winners. The overall split: 11 male winners and 6 female winners.

But what about ‘regression to the mean’ and all of that? Isn’t this something that will even out at some point? Maybe if it were a random occurrence but it isn’t–there’s a reason (or more likely a confluence of reasons) that there have been more male winners. Maybe it has to do with the viewing demographic or the preferences of the producers. There’s no reason to think that that’s going to change anytime soon. Keep in mind that the majority of the viewership has been around year after year. This core audience may be shrinking year to year but they’re the ones that are voting and the ones that producers want to bring back. Implied probability at -110 is 52.4%. Do you want to ignore that 64.7% of the winners on American Idol have been male? I sure don’t….

BET GENDER OF WINNER–MALE -110

SONG OF FINAL PERFORMANCE–SEASON FINALE

Written by Male                        -110
Written by Female                      -110
Original Song                          +500

The wager specifies that this refers to the ‘final song by final contestant before results show’. While that won’t necessarily be the ultimate winner there are some clear characteristics of winning contestants that you can expect the finalists to emulate.

The first thing we’re going to do is eliminate the ‘Original Song’ choice. Want to guess how many American Idol winners have performed an original composition for their final song? Try ‘none of them’. You can be sure that the contestants are well aware of this. If they’re not, all they need to do is look at what happened last season. Alejandro Aranda was considered the front runner headed into the finals but made the dubious decision to perform three of his own compositions including one in the final round. Ultimately, Laine Hardy won in a mild upset. TV analysts have theorized that the viewership prefers songs that they’re familiar with making the original composition a bad idea.

So that leaves us with ‘Male Writer’ and ‘Female Writer’ at -110. Once again, the expectation is that this is something of a toss up but the reality says otherwise. First, keep in mind that the songwriting profession has historically been dominated by men and to a great extent still is. More significantly, the gender breakdown of the final song performed by past American Idol winners is even greater than the disparity between the winners themselves. 14 of the 17 winners have performed a song written by a male for their final number. Oddly enough, this includes all six winning female contestants. That’s 82.3% and the ‘true odds’ at this probability is -465. Instead, we’re getting the opportunity to take the ‘Written by Male’ option at -110. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

BET SONG OF FINAL PERFORMANCE–WRITTEN BY MALE -110

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