Behind the Bets

"Cover a 6.5? Yeah, I guess." Getty Images

My sportswriting hero, Rick Telander, taught me a neat trick the year the Niners played the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. As soon as the conference title games ended he closed his eyes and picked a winner and the score. He didn't analyze a thing; he just closed and picked. His prediction: Niners in a blowout.

So when Troy Polamalu ran back a Joe Flacco interception for six on Sunday night to seal the deal, I closed my eyes and picked. What did I see for Super Bowl XLIII? Steelers 24, Cardinals 20. Then I asked myself, what's the spread going to be? I settled on the Steelers minus-six. Just gut reaction. I didn't try to reflect on why.

That night bookmakers all over Vegas started posting their numbers. And I was pretty close. The town is split. A lot of folks settled on the Steelers by seven, and some landed on Pittsburgh minus-6.5. Half a point dif, who cares, right? Well, in pro football the half a point between 6.5 and seven is as big as the Paris hotel's (ridiculously good) all-you-can-eat buffet.

First, let's get the why-the-Steelers-are-favored analysis out of the way, whether it's by 6.5 or seven. Linemakers will tell you it's because Pittsburgh's been better all year, has a killer defense that right-thinking football fans believe can stop any hot offense and because, as we've talked about before in BTB, it is probably the public's favorite NFL team. "If the Steelers had one more game to measure in the postseason it might have been a different number," says the Mirage's bookmaker, Jay Rood. "But from a regular season standpoint they pan out better in terms of ability to cover a number like this. How they closed out games was important. They don't tend to let teams get back into it if they have them down." (If that assurance isn't good enough for you and you need action, go with a prop in our contest.)

Anyway, Rood posted the game at Steelers minus-seven, a magical number for bookmakers. It's a responsible spread. In the NFL this past season, nearly 10% of games were decided by a touchdown. Which means, on the biggest betting day of the year, if the Steelers win by seven, plenty of gamblers will get their money back because of a kiss-your-sister push. "Really," says Rood, "it's a number that allows us to let the public dictate what they prefer."

Rood is a steely character who doesn't reveal his preferences. Bookmaking is about the betting public showing its hand and him responding. He's so committed to seven that he told me it might take $500,000 to a $1 million in bets for either the Steelers or the Cards for him to come off this number. That's a good barometer for not only how important that spread is, but also how much is bet on the game. At a lot of sports books on a regular NFL weekend, a slate of five games combined might not get $1 million in bets. Rood is talking about moving the line only when he has that much on one team.

Across town, at the Orleans, Scooch went a different way, by posting the Steelers minus-6.5. This is a riskier playno pushes at 6.5made by a guy who moved out to Vegas two decades ago to be a wiseguy. And while Scooch quickly blew his bankroll, lost his nerve and switched sides to bookmaking, he's still got a bit of a gambler's mentality. He knows by Super Bowl weekendwhen about 70% of bets on the game are placedhis number will move. But, for now, he'd rather move up to sevenif the action dictatesthan be on it and move off. The downside is greater. But so is the payoff.

"We feel like we have a live dog in this game," he says. "The Steelers are a public team that will get lots of action. But people like betting on a good offense because they always feel like they have a shot to win their bet. We are gambling a little bit and taking a side, but sometimes you do that as a bookmaker."

Three factors will force Scooch to move the line: How wiseguys he respects bet, the public's average bet size, and the number of bets on each side.

Now, here's the risk, and the difference in that half point. For Scooch, waiting to move to seven leaves him vulnerable to winning or losing the game. For Rood, sitting on seven for as long as possible gives him the option of a push. Either way, for both of them the next ten days will be spent wondering if they made the right choice on the biggest game of their year.

And it's likely they won't close their eyes the entire time.


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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.