Legalized single-game betting is now a reality in Ontario, but gambling on CFL games is far from a new phenomenon.
Savvy bettors have long found favourable odds and smart plays in the less well-publicized three-down betting market, but beware. Even the most knowledgeable CFL fan can be led astray by over-confidence, as B.C. Lions’ colour commentator Giulio Caravatta noted.
The former Canadian quarterback joined the team’s 1st and Now podcast to chat about the upcoming season, but quickly found himself reminiscing about his first CFL start.
First signed as an undrafted free agent by the Leos in 1991, he wouldn’t get the nod under centre until October 21, 1995 when the team traveled across the border to take on the vaunted 13-3 Baltimore Stallions. With future Hall of Fame quarterback Danny McManus sidelined and an unproven Canuck set to face arguably the best team in CFL history, the betting market responded accordingly.
“When I was named the starter, the spread went from +6.5 to +14.5,” Caravatta recalled. “They figured there was no chance. I’d be making my first start against Baltimore’s defence, it was going to be a disaster.”
The eventual Grey Cup champions were loaded on that side of the ball, with Elfrid Payton, O.J. Brigance, Jerald Baylis, Tracy Gravely, Irvin Smith, Charles Anthony, Karl Anthony Demetrius Maxie, and Reggie Givens. It was far from a favourable matchup for the Simon Fraser University product and he promptly threw a pick on his very first play.
However, Caravatta kept the Lions competitive, going 16-of-31 passing for 141 yards the rest of the way. B.C. ultimately lost by a score of 28-26 on a last-second Carlos Huerta field goal, more than covering the massive spread.
Of course, that was a mixed bag for some Lions fans, as Caravatta was informed of in hilarious fashion in the locker room.
“After the game I was obviously upset we didn’t win, but it was a competitive game. It wasn’t a blowout or anything, which a lot of people thought it was going to be. I remember Jim Mills, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman, he came up to me and he said: ‘Listen, I just want to let you know something: I’m really proud of you. You did yourself well tonight,'” Caravatta remembered, grinning.
“I said: ‘Thanks, Jimmy.’ And he goes: ‘But my buddies are going to be really choked.’ I said: ‘Why?’ He said: ‘They asked me if there was any chance that I would cover the spread tonight and I said no way.'”
The lineman’s advice — and Caravatta’s unexpected competence — cost those fans some coinage, but it shouldn’t have been quite the surprising outcome it was. In the era of United States expansion, travelling south always brought out the best in the CFL’s national athletes.
“It was a huge deal for all of us to be able to go down there and compete against the Americans, because all those rosters were one hundred percent American and not one Canadian on them,” Caravatta said. “A lot of guys took a lot of pride in going down and competing against them.”
The broadcaster’s amusing anecdote takes on new meaning ahead of a 2022 CFL season in which the Lions have named unproven Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke as their starter and could become the first team in modern league history to have homegrown passers in their top two spots.
As a result, most Ontario sportsbooks have the Lions with the longest odds to win the Grey Cup next season at +1600, but underestimating a Canadian quarterback could be a mistake.
“[Head coach] Rick Campbell’s job is to put a very competitive and winning football team on the field and that’s [co-general manager] Neil McEvoy’s job too. These guys are getting paid for that, so they’re not doing this because it’s a good story and they’re not doing it because he’s Canadian,” Caravatta warned.
“They’re doing it because they believe in what they see [from Rourke] and they’ve been around the game a long time. They’re not going to just do this on a whim.”