They comprise the mystical, elusive secret sauce in the fabled sports-betting world. Anticipated by millions. Viewed as a heavenly gift and treated as gospel once published, either at books or on devices.
They are the NFL lines, a present delivered to gamblers each week and the trigger for billions of betting dollars, much of it placed illegally, until last year.
The spreads are embedded in NFL culture. They were produced from eyeball analysis, data, gut reactions, and informal spreadsheets.
The lines carried enormous implications on how bettors viewed games, how announcers referred to them and how the NFL unveiled de-facto acceptance of gambling while bemoaning its perceived lack of purity.
The league knew gambling was its lifeblood but never said so. Now, look. Legalized betting brings an avalanche of line propositions, fluctuating like pinball totals and bringing comparable bells and whistles.
Significant line movements, competing for online establishments and the instant-access mobile intensifies the movement.
But what about the lines? How are they made? What goes into them?
We caught up with several noted operators, who shared their insights about a profession that blends modern technology with seasoned instinct.
WILLIAM HILL – Loyal to its Origins
Nick Bogdanovich can eyeball a game and make a guess close to the unofficial line. He nonetheless utilizes a power ranking on teams and retains a system that predates massive game simulations in setting the William Hill line.
“The old way is the only way I know and I stick with that,” says Bogdanovich, the director of trading for William Hill, U.S.
His organization sets the lines for Las Vegas and is Nevada’s largest operator.
“Each team has a power rating and each team has a home-field rating that we compile,” he indicates. “You do the math and come up with a number to start with. The power ratings give us a raw number and we have other intangibles to factor in. Is it a division game, how well do the teams know each other, is it a must-win for one of the teams, who do they have next week?”
William Hill’s NFL lines go up at 5 p.m. on Sunday for the following week. Bogdanovich says it may take 45 minutes to establish lines for an entire schedule although the research and data compiled throughout the season is ongoing.
Fan-favored “public” teams, like the Patriots, Chiefs, and Cowboys, generate significant interest on those teams and link them to multi-team teases and parlays.
“When the 49ers were at their peak, “they were an absolute monster” with the bettors, Bogdanovich says. “Now, not so much, but they are playing well this year and it won’t be long before they reach that status again if they keep cashing tickets for people.”
Heavy public betting may not necessarily move the lines but they will apply pressure to the books in terms of teases and parlays. The books themselves are not substantially profitable, as the 10 percent vig must cover operating costs and their margin may be two-to-five percent.
They retain in the neighborhood of 20-25 percent on teases and parlays, which have long odds but pay whopping totals when hit.
A high-profile public team does the book a favor when losing because the event destroys numerous tease and parlay tickets. Recent double-digit upsets by the Bucs over the Rams and the Colts over the Chiefs gave the books a sigh of relief.
The mobile age reduces up-front operating costs, presumably making NFL bookmaking more viable.
What moves the NFL betting lines? In past years, it was a heavy volume. Now it is heavy scrutiny.
“Sometimes, who is making the wager is the most important thing,” Bogdanovich says. “There are some professionals, sharpies, who make a living playing these games. Their action can move a line.”
Can one beat the game and continually do well? It’s difficult. The NFL players themselves often fare no better than an informed public in trying to predict their own sport. Bogdanovich says the patron must succeed at hit 52.3 percent to break even (given the vig) and the pros who live, breathe and eat wagering scenarios hover around 55 percent.
“There is a very small percentage of people who can do this and make money,” he says. “The margin is thin even for the sharpies. They have to hit a certain number of bets with a large amount of money in order to be profitable.”
Bogdanovich says the immense college schedule reduces the research opportunities and enhances the chance to make a line that will later appear off. College football and basketball give an individual bettor an edge in a particular game.
WESTGATE – Don’t Buy The Fake
Westgate, the famed Las Vegas sportsbook, emphasizes the need to know its gambling base even more than NFL players. As a large, and classic, brick-and-mortar facility, it has a long-time interaction with the “sharpies”, who can make them vulnerable with a colossal late bet following a line movement.
Like a defense that can’t fall for the play-action pass, bookmakers must predict the bobbing and weaving of professional bettors. A Monday bet made on one team may shield a much-higher wager on the opponents close to game time. The book, like the defense, must sniff out the play, anticipate where the “sharpies” are headed and get there first with a solid line.
“The main things are looking at the sharpies and knowing what side they are on,” says John Murray, the executive director of race and sports for the Westgate in Las Vegas.
“Sometimes they give you what we call the head-fake fake bet,” he says. “It might be a light wager early in the week in which they take the wrong side intentionally and try to move the market. When the limits are higher the day of the game, they will come over the top, perhaps with tens of thousands of dollars on the other side. They won’t do it all at the same facility, so you have to know what’s going on at other properties.”
“I think it’s not as important to get to the right opening number as it is to get to the right closing number first. If we do that, we will be in a good position by the time the game starts. Part of how we do that is by knowing and being able to label our guests because not every dollar is created equally. One gambler may wage or 20 or 30 thousand dollars and the line won’t move, but another will bet a couple of thousand dollars and that will move the number.”
Murray says books in general fashion their own version of power ratings. Some can involve moving down from the number 100 and others entail giving a middle-of-the-road club zero and working up or down from there. Ratings are adjusted every day and are adjusted to a growing number of intangibles.
“The aggressiveness of coaches going for two-point conversions is something that we may eventually be looking at and trying to assess,” Murray says.
“They are going for two, even at the beginning of games, because the extra point (essentially a 33-yard field goal) is not automatic anymore. One good thing coming from that is that the game-scoring totals are so much higher now and we are not landing on -3 (a betting gridlock number) nearly as often.”
“There are other factors that happen in the course of a week. The sharpies, for instance, don’t think the Chargers are a good home favorite. That game opened at 6.5 last week when they played Denver and it went all the way down to four.”
Clairvoyant indeed, as the Broncos won the game outright.
Other challenges to conventional line-setting include Miami, losing by tremendously lopsided scores, and Washington, which brings a new coach into play and lays 3.5 points in Miami. And the Redskins haven’t even won a game.
SUGARHOUSE – It Only Takes One
Matt Stetz, the COO of Rush Street Interactive, which operates PlaySugarHouse in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, echoes the human factor emphasis. Computerized analysis fits the garbage-in, garbage out mode. There is still a subjective element in assessing raw data.
Some services pitch gamblers on their success with formulas that include simulating the game thousands of times before determining a line. What they can’t account for is a key drop, bad officiating, weather or a field goal clanging off the uprights.
It’s also hard to trust a simulator in the wake of mammoth line movements. Cleveland went from a 2.5 favorite against Seattle to a 1.5 underdog based on its lowly performance on Monday Night Football against the 49ers.
“You can use algorithms and formulas, whatever you like,” he says. “But no matter how many times you do it, you only play the game one time. Yes, your formulas could be entirely correct as a percentage over thousands and thousands of games, but they can’t zero in on this one particular time.”
Stetz says his operators set lines based on where they think the game will end. Early betting action will then dictate the direction of the line. Stetz says lines move more than they used to because sophisticated information is routinely available.
Most bookmakers believe they gain the edge over the sharpies with new information because they can adjust the line before someone bets into it.
Across the industry spectrum, wagering formulas and lines appear infinitesimal. The NFL lines are a thrilling spectacle, looming as financial and emotional candy.
There is a mythic allure to the NFL lines as a perceived ticket to financial nirvana. But they are more grounded in reality than one might think.