Sports Betting Hall of Fame Class of 2021: Johnny Avello

Image source: DraftKings

From dealing dice to the DraftKings boardroom, Johnny Avello reflects on his career and how legal mobile sports betting took off in the US ahead of his induction next week into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame.

It’s only 6:30am, but DraftKings’ Director of Race & Sportsbook Operations Johnny Avello is full of energy, despite already having been at work for an hour. 

During that time he has recorded a show for VSiN, the DraftKings-owned sports betting broadcasting network. The appearance is perhaps an appropriate way to encapsulate Avello’s long and storied career, as it bestrides both his standing as one of the big personalities of the Vegas sportsbook world and his role at the vanguard of the mobile betting revolution in the US. 

But a national reputation, a senior job with one of the world’s fastest-growing gambling brands, and induction to the Sports Betting Hall of Fame would have seemed an unlikely outcome to the young Avello, as he learned how to deal table games at a New York management school in the late 1970s.

On finding that New Jersey’s casinos were unwilling to employ anyone who’d trained in New York, he headed to Las Vegas in January 1979 for a job dealing dice for $12 a day plus tips. It would be five years before he got a break into the world of race and sports by securing a role as a ticket writer at the Las Vegas Hilton. There would be no looking back.

A move to Bally’s as an oddsmaker followed and, in 1995, he stepped up to Director of Race & Sports Operations, before moving to the same role at Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 and becoming one of the best-known bookmakers on The Strip. 

Fast forward to 2018 and there was to be a twist in the tale of Avello’s career. 

“At the time I was thinking about retiring and doing some outside consultancy work,” he recalled. “But one of the owners at DraftKings, Matt Kalish, over three or four conversations convinced me that DraftKings was the place to be.

“I came on board on October 1, 2018 and there were only four Vegas staff at the time. Now the Vegas staff is over 400 and projected to be over 1,000, so we’ve come a long way,” he said.   

While DraftKings represented a major change in business culture and operational practices, the idea of mobile betting apps was not entirely new to Avello. He had been a relatively early adopter of mobile technology when he was involved in the launch of the Wynn Las Vegas Race & Sports Book app in 2016. 

“Wynn caters to a very high-end clientele, but we also had a lot of locals that wanted to bet with us because we put up the first line on football and a lot of other sports. And, you know, we did things a little bit differently at Wynn. We didn’t follow the market, when we put up our own odds, we kind of stayed with our numbers. We thought that local business was business we needed to pick up,” explained Avello. 

“The other reason for doing it was that on big days, like the NCAA tournament or the Super Bowl, the place was super crowded. We thought the app would be an easier way for the customer to be able to bet without having to come to the counter. They could be at the restaurant or in the spa and still be able to bet.

“Mobile wagering was still difficult for the player, because they had to come to the property to fill out the paperwork to open an account, add or withdraw funds. But once they had downloaded the app, it was a little bit easier for customers because they could bet from the comfort of their home or anywhere within the Nevada boundaries, as long as they had their account funded. That worked well for us.” 

One thing Avello did not foresee at that point was how legal mobile sports betting would take off in the US. 

“To be honest with you, back at that time, I never believed that sports wagering would become legal outside of Nevada. I thought it would be a real struggle for anybody to be able to get that adopted, but I was wrong. And I’m glad I was wrong,” he reflected.

Avello certainly seems to be enjoying the new post-PASPA freedoms and his role at DraftKings, even though his work life is very different to the Vegas casino sportsbook set-up that he was so familiar with. 

“The volume for us is so big. When you have a standalone property in Las Vegas like Wynn, you only have a certain amount of volume and you have some big players, and those big players could make or break your day. But with DraftKings we have so much volume being in 15 different states,” he said. 

Not that Avello is predicting that the competition from out-of-state mobile betting operators will cause the imminent demise of the big personality bookmakers at the Vegas sportsbooks he loves.  

“Well, some of the personalities are still around, people like Jimmy Vaccaro. They’re still doing business the way they’ve always done it and they’re still very successful,” he said.

The freedom to offer odds on a greater number of non-mainstream markets is now allowing Avello to build on his reputation as a pioneer of entertainment betting.

“I love entertainment, first of all, and I love to make entertainment odds. I made odds on this Survivor show back in 2000. It was really a popular show and I think that was the first time any reality show odds were ever made. This guy from TV Guide loved them and he wrote an article about it in the magazine, and the idea became real popular. I was on the Today show talking about the odds for the final four, predicting who would win it. 

“That’s kind of when those types of odds started in reality shows. But through the years I’ve done the Tonys, the Emmys, Dancing With The Stars, the Hot Dog Eating Contest – I was the first to do that and we take bets on that now at DraftKings.”

One other great passion for Avello is Oscars odds, something that he picked up from Lenny Del Genio 25 years ago. He has talked a lot about them over the years, but has only been allowed to fully bring them to life since joining DraftKings. 

“I’ve been doing Oscars odds since 1995, but never took a bet on them. In Nevada we were never able to get it approved to take a bet, so I was doing it just for entertainment purposes. Now at DraftKings, I’m able to take actual bets on the Oscars,” he said. 

“They’re coming up again soon and we will be putting up odds on all 24 categories. And we will be taking bets in various states. So I’m looking forward to doing that again.”

Johnny Avello will be inducted into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame in a special ceremony at the MetLife Stadium on December 1, 2021, during the SBC Summit North America conference and trade show. A full version of this interview features in Issue 18 of SBC Leaders Magazine which is available to read HERE.