Have you ever placed a sports bet before? Did you win… or did you lose? Did it come down to the final seconds… or did you regret your decision before the game even reached halftime? At times, betting on a sports team can seem like a sure-fire win. Unfortunately, it can be nearly impossible to truly know a result before it happens, especially in the sports industry, where a simple bad bounce can alter the final score, effectively causing millions of dollars to change hands. But what if there was a way to know something about the game that others don’t?

Now, I’m not implying that a real-life Marty McFly walks amongst us. Instead, I want to take you back to October 29, 2020. In two days, the No. 2 ranked Clemson Tigers were set to take on the Boston College Eagles. At this time, placing a bet on the underdog, Boston College, to win the game could have been disregarded as a waste of money. However, pandemonium quickly struck the college football world as it was announced that Clemson’s star-QB and projected first-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Trevor Lawrence, tested positive for COVID-19. In just a matter of minutes, Boston College’s chances of pulling off an upset changed, and the sports betting lines adjusted accordingly. A bet on Boston College to win would now result in a lower expected return. That same person who placed the bet before Trevor Lawrence’s positive test though, might now be heralded for their extreme foresight, albeit lucky.

Unfortunately, Boston College squandered a surprising halftime lead, thus ruining the day for any bettor pulling for the Eagles. However, this doesn’t mean these types of events are uncommon within sports. Something that once seemed so drastic has now turned into an almost every-night occurrence. Professional and collegiate sports leagues have attempted to play through the pandemic, while at the same time learning of positive tests of their players at random. When a player tests positive, he or she sits out, often for extended periods. And when a player sits out, the betting line changes. These instances aren’t simply limited to a pandemic, though. Much like the stock market, betting odds on sporting events change rapidly, sometimes by the second, effectively allowing individuals the chance to capitalize on this invaluable information. But what is it that drives these sports betting decisions? What is it that can be such a determinative factor in a team’s chance of winning or losing a game? The answer is data.

If you were to ask a professional gambler, or even someone reasonably familiar with sports betting, they’ll say that you bet the numbers, not the teams. But what happens when a new subset of data changes the playing field? Are athletes protected in the ways we previously thought? Or is their data subject to exploitation in an industry just starting to take stride?