One thing: Why was the late Steelers touchdown important?

When the Pittsburgh Steelers took possession of the ball on their own 30 yard-line with 2:59 left in the game, they still had a glimmer of a chance to win or tie the game before time ran out. They were down 28 to 14 and would have needed two touchdowns and two extra points to tie or two touchdowns, an extra point, and a two point conversion to win. Time was not on their side, but they did have all three of their timeouts and the two-minute warning left to stop the clock. They also have a great quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and a potentially even greater wide receiver in Antonio Brown. They had a chance even if it was a slim one, but they needed to score quickly, leaving enough time on the clock for an onside kick (a kickoff play designed to get the ball back instead of giving possession to the other team) and a Hail Mary (a last-ditch attempt to score a touchdown from very far away.)

One thing is a series of posts that examine a small part of a sporting event to explain and explore its meaning in a way that’s accessible to sports fans and laypeople alike.

They moved the ball well down the field but thanks to a phantom penalty call that took back a 29 yard pass play and a sack that lost them another seven yards and valuable time, by the time they used their third timeout, it was clear to everyone involved that they were not going to win. With only 11 seconds left, the Steelers still needed to score a touchdown, successfully convert an onside kick, and then score another touchdown. That’s almost an impossible task. Still, the Steelers kept trying, and with seven seconds left, they did manage to complete the first of those three tasks: they scored a touchdown.

Unfortunately, the NFL doesn’t allow websites to embed video, so you’ll have to watch the play on YouTube. Go watch it, but come back! Brown, the excellent wide receiver mentioned above, runs a corner route (football speak for running straight up the field and then angling diagonally toward the sideline or corner of the end-zone) and catches the ball before his momentum takes him out-of-bounds. It’s a beautiful play, but it took five seconds, leaving only two seconds on the clock. Even though the extra point attempt is officially untimed, meaning it doesn’t take any time off the game clock, two seconds is still not enough to run an onside kick and still have enough left over to run even a single pass play. The game is logically over, the Steelers have lost, the Patriots have won.

But listen to the announcer, Al Michaels. Here’s what he has to say, “That might make a couple of people happy in a minute here, ’cause Malcolm Butler gets beaten and makes it an eight point game here for the moment. There are a couple of things that are going to be in play here right now.” And a few seconds later, “Well, speak about tangentially interested, there are a few people more than tangentially interested right now.”

What is he talking about? Why would this play, which could not possibly change the outcome of the game, be important to people? The answer lies in two activities that have an important symbiotic relationship to the NFL: fantasy football and gambling.

For fantasy football owners, (if you don’t know how fantasy football works, read the Dear Sports Fan post explaining it) a touchdown counts just as much in the third to last second of the game as it does in the middle of the game. A touchdown in a lost cause counts as much as one in a close game. In fact, garbage time, as time in a lost cause is called in fantasy football language, can be an important tactical consideration. Players on teams that are often losing by large margins tend to accumulate fairly good statistics as their opponents care a little less on defense or even rest some of their better players.

As for gambling, the Steelers late touchdown was an even bigger deal. One of the most popular ways to gamble on football is betting a line. When you do this, you’re betting not on one team to win or lose the game, but on one team to exceed the expectation that a bookmaker has set for them. Before the game started, most bookmaker’s expectation for the Patriots was that they would win by seven points. Therefore their expectation was that the Steelers would lose by seven points. When the Patriots were up by 14, with only a couple of minutes to go, people who had bet on the Patriots (to exceed their expectations and win by more than seven points) were in a position to win money. That last second touchdown, brought the score to 28-21, a difference of exactly seven points. This matches the pre-game expectation or line set by bookmakers. This is called a push, when the result matches the line, and no one wins anything! Gamblers get their money back and the bookmakers are out whatever their overhead for facilitating the transaction is plus marketing costs, etc.

The last second touchdown by the Steelers was meaningless to the outcome of the football game, it was important to fantasy football players and gamblers, two very important groups of people who follow football.

Understand the odds – how betting on tennis works

When Americans think about betting on sports, our first thoughts usually turn to football and horse racing. Over in England and Europe, the sports to bet on are soccer and tennis. To explain how betting works in tennis, I called on Luke Rees, a British sports fan and writer. Here’s what he wrote:

When placing a bet on a tennis match, it can often be quite confusing to interpret the various odds available. There are numerous markets to pick from, and also many different options for those looking to boost their profits, meaning punters often decide to stay clear of the tennis game.

This article will outline the basics of reading the odds, and provide advice for tennis spectators who want to make the game a little bit more interesting.

Betting On the Money Line

Money line bets are the most basic and popular market in tennis (and the majority of sports for that matter, including horse racing). Essentially, the bookies provide the odds on the outright winner of a match, and you simply pick your favorite for the win. The favorite in a match is given a negative (-) money line, and the underdog is indicated with positive (+) money line.

Here’s an example:

  • Andy Murray -190 (favorite)
  • Vasek Pospisil +300 (underdog)
  • Negative money line: this indicates the amount of money needed to bet in order to win $100 in profit. So, in the example above, it would require a $190 wager on Andy Murray to win $100 in profit, for a total pay-out of $290.
  • Positive money line: this indicates the amount of money that would be won from a $100 wager. In the example above, a $100 bet on Vasek Pospisil would result in a $300 profit if he wins the match, for a total pay-out of $400.

The first step to take when making a bet is to look at the money line and decide if it is worth taking out a bet. For instance, you may decide that betting on Pospisil is not worth it at 4/1 odds ($400 return for $100 bet) because Murray is currently the strong favorite. But say the money line on Pospisil was 8/1 or +800: you might have a different opinion if you stood to make a $900 return.

The money line is used not only for individual games, but also for betting on a player to win the tournament outright. This is commonly referred to as Outright Winner betting: you can see some Wimbledon outright winner predictions at Bookmakers, for example.

Betting ‘Each Way’ means you place two bets, one on the player to win the tournament and one on them to finish in the top 2 places (i.e. to reach the final).

The Handicap Market

The handicap (or HCAP) market is another popular market. This is because rather than predicting the outright winner, you are instead betting on how a certain player performs. A handicap market simply means that one of the players is given an advantage at the beginning – usually by adding a certain amount of games to their overall score.

Let’s take the same tennis example. This is how it might look:

Andy Murray -7.5 -190 vs. Pospisil +7.5 -190

The money line is even on this bet, what has changes is the handicap. In both cases, a wager of $190 would bring back a $100 win if the right player is chosen. The pay-out is even, because the spread has balanced out the competition between the two players.

Imagine that this is the result from the match: 6-3 6-4 6-4

Totals Games Won – Murray 18 vs. Pospisil 11

As you can see, despite losing the match in straight sets, a bet on Pospisil would have actually been the winner in this case. The handicap of +7.5 games for Pospisil gets added to his 11 games won to give him 18.5 total. That is a half-game ahead of Murray in this case, and so a bet on Pospisil would be paid out.

Betting on Accumulators

One final interesting way to bet – if you’re feeling especially confident and want to boost your profits throughout a tournament – is to place multiple bets on a series of matches. These are known as Doubles, Trebles, and Accumulators. For the bet to come through, you have to get each result correct, otherwise there is no pay-out.

Imagine a $30 single bet on Novak Djokovic to beat Andy Murray at odds of -250 (or 2/5) returns just a $10 profit. This may not be particularly appealing, so to make it more worthwhile you could put down a treble on three different games. If all of them pay out around -250, your $25 stake will make you $50 profit. After each correctly predicted match outcome, your profits go up exponentially.

With the tennis season well underway, and the U.S Open just around the corner, now’s the time to get down to the bookies with your new betting know-how. But always remember, never bet what you can’t afford!

Luke Rees is a sports writer and enthusiast from London, UK, who likes to cover tennis, cycling, and football (or soccer to y’all). His most memorable sports experience was watching Federer and Roddick in the Wimbledon final in 2009 – he was rooting for Roddick, but Federer absolutely smashed it!

Beyond juleps and hats – the Kentucky Derby

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s so great about the Kentucky Derby? Isn’t it just an excuse to wear silly hats and drink mint juleps?


Dear Luke,

You’re absolutely right. For many of us, the Kentucky Derby is an excuse to wear silly hats and drink mint juleps while being thoroughly confused by the arcane world of horse racing. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, in fact, I’ve been happy subsisting solely on silly hats and mint juleps on Kentucky Derby day for years. This time around though, I thought I would try to add a serving of understanding to my meal, just to make it more well rounded.

The Kentucky Derby is one of the three big races in the United States that make up the so-called Triple Crown of horse racing. It’s the first and most prestigious of the bunch. The 1.25 mile race been run every year since 1875. Its long tradition, somewhat rare in this country, is part of its appeal, but for the horses owners and racing fans, the biggest draw is money. The winning horse will get $1.24 million dollars and that’s without considering the largest source of money in horse racing: gambling. Betting on horse races is a tradition that certainly predates the Kentucky Derby and it’s still going strong. You should expect that over $125 million dollars will have been bet on the race by the time it begins. This year, the race will be televised on NBC. You can tune in at 4 p.m. ET for lots of talk about the race, the hats, and the juleps but the race itself will begin at 6:24. It’s probably a good idea to turn it on at least a few minutes early. The race only lasts two minutes, so turning it on a couple minutes late could be enough to make you miss the whole thing.

Rivaling even the silly hats as a Kentucky Derby tradition is, of course, gambling. I wrote a whole post about gambling yesterday with everything you need to understand how betting on horse racing works. This morning I added a second post, where you can test your knowledge through the gift of musical theater. It’s easy to bet on horse racing. It’s actually the only sport in the United States that is completely legal to bet on online. That said, it might be more fun to bet just with your friends. You can make up your own form of betting by using your (potentially newfound) understanding of odds. Pick horses and reward the winner based on the odds. If someone picks a long shot 40/1 horse and they win, maybe you all collectively pay for the next 40 beers or chicken wings they buy or maybe even a bouquet of that many roses. That will give people a good incentive to pick a favorite (likely to win but may only get them a couple of beers/chicken wings/roses) and equally a good incentive to pick a horse that is unlikely to win.

Another great element of horse racing is the names. Horses often have absurd names. There is a reason for this or at least an explanation. Horses have to have names that are not just unique but also easily distinguishable when race announcers say their names. Quick aside on race announcers. They are an amazing mix of auctioneer, square dance caller, and huckster. To get a feel for it, watch this call by Tom Durkin:

You can imagine that if horses had similar names, all hell would break loose as people who gambled a significant amount of money on a horse named The Rural Juror ran up to collect their winners only to bump into another group of convinced winners who had bet on the actual winning horse, The Plural Furor. As many limitations do, the strict prohibition on similar sounding names for horses had led to some wonderful comedy. Take, for example, this race:

However you decide to partake in the race today, do it safely and enjoyably!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer


What musical theater can teach us about betting on horses

Betting and horses go together like two degenerate peas in a pod. I wrote about this yesterday in our post on how to understand gambling on horse races. Once you’ve picked up the basic elements of any new skill, the first thing to do is to test it in a real world situation. In the realm of gambling, that often means losing lots of money. A great alternative is to watch a race with an experienced gambler and make some imaginary bets with her so she can tally up your winnings/losings at the end to see what you would have won or more likely lost. If you’re like me, you might not be able to find an experienced gambler. The only ones I know are characters in a musical… so I figured, why not test our knowledge on them??!

I’ve annotated the lyrics to one of the great horse racing songs of all time, Fugue for Tinhorns from the musical Guys and Dolls. Each singer’s line goes in and out, but to simplify things, I’ve stuck with the loudest. The guy in the center, who starts the song is improbably named Nicely-Nicely Johnson. The shorter man who prefers the horse, Valentine, is Benny Southstreet and the third man is Rusty Charlie. Listen to the song and see if you can decipher all of the horse racing betting terms. If you need help, look at the annotated lyrics below.

I got the horse right here.
The name is Paul Revere and here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear,
can do, can do. This guy says the horse can do.
If he says the horse can do, can do, can do.
You other two guys should listen to me, because I know which horse is going to win. His name is Paul Revere and I have received information suggesting that as long as it doesn’t rain (some horses run better on a wet racetrack than others) he should win.

I’m picking Valentine, ’cause on the morning line,
the guy has got him figured at five to nine.
I’m ignoring your advice and betting on a horse named Valentine. His odds are 5/9 which means that if the race were run 14 times, he should win nine times or 64% of the time. That’s a big favorite, no wonder the little guy in the grey hat wants to bet on him.

But look at Epitaph, he wins it by a half,
according to this here in the Telegraph.
Rusty Charlie prefers a horse named Epitaph whose odds he does not quote but who the horse racing tout (columnist who predicts the outcome of races) in a New York City newspaper claims will win.

For Paul Revere I’ll bite, I hear his foot’s all right.
Of course it all depends if it rained last night.
Nicely-Nicely remains determined to go with his initial horse, although he’s still a bit nervous about the weather. And now a new concern, the health of the horse’s foot has cropped up. I’m not sure our friend here is the most convincing.

I know it’s Valentine, the morning work looks fine,
you know the jockey’s brother’s a friend of mine.
Benny is always looking for an edge and he thinks he’s got some valuable inside information. The “morning work” would be a pre-race workout the horses run. Despite this exercise being likely closed to the public, real gamblers like these guys have connections, like the brother of  Valentine’s jockey or rider for the day.

Just a minute boys. I got the feed box noise,
it says the great grandfather was Equipoise.
I wasn’t positive what “feed box noise” was but this guy on argues fairly convincingly that it’s slang for scuttlebutt or gossip that people would have traded around the horse’s feed box. That makes sense to me. The internet was also helpful in teaching me that Equipoise was a famous horse who raced in the early 1930s. A horse’s genealogy, often referred to as its bloodlines, is of intense interest to gamblers, who generally feel as if specific characteristics like a desire to run, a willingness to obey the jockey, or a dislike for being hemmed in by other horses are passed down from one horse to another over generations. 

I told you Paul Revere, now this is no bum steer,
it’s from a handicapper that’s real sincere.
Poor Nicely-Nicely. He’s still trying to convince the other two that his advice (steer) is good or at least not bad (bum). His argument is that the handicapper (tout, horse racing prognosticator) is sincere. Which seems like just a terrible argument to me. Who cares about sincerity? What we need is accuracy!

I’m picking Valentine, ’cause on the morning line,
the guy has got him figured at five to nine.
Benny is sticking to his guns.

So make it Epitaph, he wins it by a half,
according to this here in the Telegraph.
As is Rusty!

Epitaph. Valentine. Paul Revere.
I got the horse right here!

Thanks for reading and good luck,
Ezra Fischer

How do people gamble on horse racing?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do people gamble on horse racing? Like most people, I’ll watch the Kentucky Derby or one of the other Triple Crown races if its on but I never understand the gambling talk. Can you help?


Dear Kelly,

As with many sports, but perhaps even more so in horse racing, one of the primary attractions is gambling. There are lots of ways to bet on a horse race, so many in fact, that to the uninitiated it may seem like an impossible task. There are really only two key things that need to be deciphered to have a basic understanding of how to gamble on horse racing.

The first is how to understand odds. Each horse has odds expressed as a combination of two numbers that can be written as “40 to 1” or “40/1”. These numbers are simultaneously an expression of what people think is going to happen and how lucrative betting on that horse could be. The easiest way to think about this is by fitting the numbers into the sentence: If the race were run [sum of two numbers] times, you should expect this horse to win [second number] times. As you sub the numbers in, you can see why betting on a 40/1 horse (one that, if the race were run 41 times, should be expected to win only once) is called a long shot bet or one that is unlikely to pay off. A bet on the favorite, this year a horse named American Pharoah who currently has 5/2 odds (if the race were run seven times, you should expect him to win twice), is more likely to win. That’s why the payouts also vary depending on the odds. A long shot bet on a 20 to 1 horse will typically pay $21 for every one you bet while a 5/2 bet like the one you’d place on the favorite this year will typically pay only $7 for every one you bet. There’s no need to memorize the payouts but if you want to cheat sheet, ABC News has a handy one here.

The second piece of gambling on horses to learn is that there are several different things that you can bet on. This is a little like the prop bets that are so popular around the Super Bowl. In horse racing, betting on which horse is going to win is just the start of things. There are also bets called Place or Show that give you a little flexibility in case your horse doesn’t win. Betting on a horse to place means you win if they come in first or second while show means you win if they come in first, second, or third. With each additional piece of flexibility, you stand to win less though. The other main vector of betting is in the other direction — betting on your ability to predict not just which horse will come in first but also which will come in second, third, fourth, or even fifth. As you add horses that must finish the race in a specific spot, your chances of winning go down and your potential payout goes up. The name for each bet also gets increasingly silly. Predicting the top two exactly is called an Exacta, three a Trifecta, four a Superfecta, and five a Super High-Five.

Unlike other sports, where it’s usually recommended not to split your rooting interests for the sake of gambling (watching a game in which you’ve bet money against your favorite team is a confusing and disheartening experience) at a horse race, it’s often more fun to make multiple bets. If you take a liking to two or three horses, it can sometimes be better to bet different combinations of them in exactas or even trifectas than to bet them straight-up.

Now that you have a basic understanding of some of the key concepts and terms in gambling on horse racing, you can go off and lose (or win!) some money or you can test your knowledge. Keep your eyes peeled to Dear Sports Fan for our upcoming annotated version of the classic horse racing gamblers song, Fugue for Tinhorns from the musical Guys and Dolls.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

A One Word March Madness Bracket Guide — 2014

As many of you know, the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship tournament begins this week. This event bleeds far over the normal sports-fan border because of the omnipresent BRACKET. March Madness brackets are a fun and usually low-stakes form of gambling that asks people to predict the outcome of all games in the tournament before it even starts. This is harder than it sounds because a mistake in an early round can compound throughout the tournament. As such, winning is often more about luck than anything else.

To help you win your bracket, my colleague Brendan Gilfillan and I created a Dear Sports Fan March Madness Bracket with each team described in a single word. So, instead of wracking your brain picking between Oklahoma and North Dakota St., choose between Fast and Large. My favorite match-ups are between Streaky and Happy and Zone and Butter.


2014 Super Bowl: Omaha Edition

Omaha is the largest city in Nebraska. It’s also become the focus of an incredible amount of attention leading up to the Super Bowl. Why? Because Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Broncos, screams “OMAHA” at least a dozen times a game. It’s become his signature phrase and a trending topic culturally.

Manning uses the word as part of his snap count. In our post a few months back to answer the questions “What is a Snap in Football?” we wrote this about the snap count itself:

The phrase “snap count” is pretty common but has two only tangentially related meanings. One meaning refers to any vocal cue that a quarterback gives to his own team to synchronize their movement with the snapping of the football. Because only one player on the offensive side is allowed to move at a time before the snap, a good snap count provides the offense with an advantage over the defense; it knows when to start moving and can get a head-start on the defensive players. Once in a while defensive players will mimic a quarterback’s snap count in an effort to get the offense to move at the wrong time. This is illegal and a defensive team may be penalized for “simulating the snap count.” Another meaning of the phrase snap count is the number of plays a player is a part of, usually in a single game. In this use, the snap is representative of a play and the count is just the act of counting the number of plays or snaps someone is a part of.

In Manning’s case, we’re concerned with the first meaning — the vocal cue. Manning uses the word “Omaha” as a vocal cue to his team and its meaning is unknown to everyone but them. Deadspin and the Boston Globe wrote articles recently which tried to decipher the meaning of “Omaha.” Neither got very far. The Globe story contained a retelling of Manning having a little fun with reporters at a recent press conference:

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went to the podium Wednesday in Englewood, Colo., and humorously explained that “Omaha” is a running play.

“But it could be a pass play,” he said, “or a play-action pass, depending on a couple of things. The wind. Which way we’re going. The quarter. And the jerseys we’re wearing. So it really varies play to play.”

 The truth is, no one except for Manning and his teammates are ever likely to know how they’re using the word “Omaha” but that hasn’t stopped the rest of us from having a ton of fun with it.
The Denver Airport creatively edited their departure board in the spirit of “OMAHA!”


The Omaha chamber of commerce found a way to do good while having fun:

As opposed to the Governor and Lt. Governor of Iowa who just tried to start a border war:

A roadtrippers group created a sincere guide to the city including places to eat, drink, and visit.

And of course, an enormous number of people are betting on how many times Manning will say “Omaha” in the Super Bowl itself. According to this Fox Sports post, the over/under on how many times Peyton Manning says “Omaha” has been set at 27.5 and is the second most popular prop bet behind the length of the national anthem. For what it’s worth, I would take the under — what if he does switch to “Cedar Rapids?” If you need a refresher course on Super Bowl betting, check out our guide from last year.

That’s it for the Omaha edition of our Super Bowl preview. If you missed the British edition, you can find it here. Thanks for reading!

How the NFL can Ruin Your Life

Fan is short for “fanatic” and the fanaticism of NFL fans is never too far from the surface. Two articles recently struck me as being representative, in different ways, of just how important sports can be to a fan’s life. Read on to hear about how sports can make you fat and broke or svelte and rich!

One of my favorite quotes about sports, attributed to the late Sam Kellerman, talks about why fans treat sport like a matter of life or death: “Sports is man’s joke on God, Max. You see, God says to man, ‘I’ve created a universe where it seems like everything matters, where you’ll have to grapple with life and death and in the end you’ll die anyway, and it won’t really matter.’ So man says to God, ‘Oh, yeah? Within your universe we’re going to create a sub-universe called sports, one that absolutely doesn’t matter, and we’ll follow everything that happens in it as if it were life and death.” An article[1] from the New York Times by Jan Hoffman, suggest[2] that Kellerman might have been right in a very concrete way:

Researchers found that football fans’ saturated-fat consumption increased by as much as 28 percent following defeats and decreased by 16 percent following victories. The association was particularly pronounced in the eight cities regarded as having the most devoted fans, with Pittsburgh often ranked No. 1. Narrower, nail-biting defeats led to greater consumption of calorie and fat-saturated foods than lopsided ones.

In my life, I observe that it is more the act of watching football that leads to the consumption of nachos, hot-dogs, mozzarella sticks, and other delicious and waist-band stretching foods.

If putting your life on the line is not enough for some fans, there’s now a brand new way for them to put their money on the line. Gambling has long been a central focus for many who follow sports. If you don’t believe me, go watch the 1932 Marx Brothers’ movie Horsefeathers and it’s incredibly contemporary story about the fixing of a college football game. Fantasy sports has brought gambling on sports out of the alley and onto main street, in part because it distances the raw gambling from the outcome of the game. Now startup company Fantex has come up with a new way to gamble (or invest as they would have us think about it) on sports — by investing money in a player. Billy Gallagher reports on this story for TechCrunch:

Fantex strikes deals with professional athletes who give up a certain percentage of their income (presumably over an allotted period of time, like the length of their active career) in exchange for the proceeds of [an] IPO. People can then buy shares of that player’s brand, like a stock… presumably, if San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has a monster year and looks like he’s going to get a bigger endorsement deal or a larger contract in a few years, his stock would rise and a fan could sell their Davis stock and cash out with a real, monetary profit.

Gallagher argues that this is probably not going to be a great deal for the players (surely they can find something better to do with their money) but he is more optimistic about profit for the new class of fan/investors. I can’t wait until they create a market for people who blog about sports — I might be a penny-stock but who knows…

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Thanks to Patty Gibney for sending me this article!
  2. If you believe in the dangers of obesity

What is a Public Team in Sports Betting?

Dear Sports Fan (and by that I mean Ezra),

Can you please explain the science behind sports bets?  Specifically, can you explain why my team falls apart EVERY TIME I have what seems to be a reasonable bet going?


Dear Angela,

Thanks for your question. And thanks for making the same bet over and over again. I really enjoy the lunches that you’ve taken me to! I’ve taken the liberty of translating your question to “What is a public team in sports betting” for the purposes of the title because I think the answer will be found in that concept. First let’s do a little background on what kind of bet you’re making.

The last few years you, me, and a colleague of ours have made a bet at the start of each hockey season where we bet on our own favorite team. The way this bet works is not the obvious one — we do not bet simply that our team will win more games during the season than our opponents’ teams, we bet that our team will perform more better[1] than what is expected of it compared to how well the other teams do compared to what is expected of them. That means that if your team is expected to win 40 games and mine is only expected to win 30, I will win the bet if your team wins 39 and mine wins 31. Despite your team winning more games than mine, your team won one fewer game than expected and mine won one more.

In order to set our expectations, we use online sports books that are setting a line for the total number of points (teams get two points for a win, one point if the game is tied at the end of regulation time) a team will get during the season. As we wrote about in the lead up to the Super Bowl this year, lines are optimized not to match exactly what is going to happen but instead to attract an even amount of money on each side. For our purposes, it will mess up our bet if the sports books think they need to inflate or deflate the point total for a team away from what they think is most likely to get an even amount of money bet on both sides.

The most common scenario where this skew happens is when the significant portion of the general betting population likes to bet on a particular team. These teams are called “public” teams. Public teams tend to be very popular, well-known teams that have had a lot of success in recent years. Perhaps they are a little bit older now, or injuries have weakened them, or some other relatively subtle thing is going on, like locker room chemistry issues or contractual problems. The people who work at sports books know this but they also know that most casual bettors are likely to overrate the team’s success in past years and underrate the effect of these other factors.

This sounds a lot like your Vancouver Canucks, doesn’t it? They had come in first place of their division seven out of the last nine seasons. Their average age was in the oldest third of the league and one of their best players, Ryan Kessler, had shoulder surgery and was going to miss the first few months of the season. The team also had some unresolved issues at goalie where the long-standing starter (and star with diva tendencies), Roberto Luongo, had lost his starting job to a younger, cheaper, and better Cory Schneider. Of course, the other two teams in the bet, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins, are also probably public teams to some extent. My guess is that the complete hockey mania in Canada (for evidence, recall this amazing article about water consumption during the Olympic Hockey finals in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics) is the trump card which convinces sports books to inflate their lines for your team.

Then again, it could just be a coincidence… it’s only been three years in a row and that’s an awfully small sample size. Fourth time’s a charm…

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yeah, I said more better. Deal with it.

Super Bowl Prep Talk, Part Three: A Beginner's Guide to Football Betting

In this series, Dear Sports Fan will try to prepare non-sports fans and sports fans alike to converse knowledgeably during this Sunday’s Super Bowl parties. Super Bowl Sunday is probably the day when the most non-sports fans gather in front of televisions and mingle with their sport loving friends and family. In Part One-A and One-B of this series, we covered some of the key story-lines and plot points around the game. We also had a special post on Super Bowl party behavior written by one non-fan for others. This post will cover a few of the most common ways people gamble on the Super Bowl.

As Lisa wrote in her post on Super Bowl party behavior, Super Bowl Sunday is the day when the most people who don’t normally watch football watch a football game. Likewise it is a day when many, many people who don’t normally gamble on football have at least a few dollars riding on the game. Even if you don’t choose to gamble today, many of your friends and family will. There is likely to be almost 100 million dollars bet on the game legally in Vegas, and that’s just if you want to be legal about it. Here’s a quick explanation of the four most common types of bets that they’ll be making.

Betting the Line

This is the most common form of football betting. You’ve probably heard someone say that a football team is “favored by three points” or is a “ten point underdog.” This is where those phrases and figures come from. A sports book in Vegas will “set a line” for a game and then bettors will gamble on either side of that line. The easiest way to think of a line is to remember that for an actual sports game, the line is ALWAYS at zero. Whichever team wins by even as little as one point wins the game. In the world of the bet, that’s not the case. The betting line is adjusted in favor of one team or the other so that in order to win the bet, you need a team to win by more than a certain number of points. We’ll get to why the line is set where it is in a few paragraphs.

In today’s game, San Fransisco is favored by four points (somewhat confusingly expressed as “San Fransisco -4.”) This means that people who bet on San Fransisco need them to win by more than four points to win (also called “cover”) their bet. People who bet on Baltimore can cover even if Baltimore loses by up to three points. Knowing this may help you make sense of why people will sometimes seem incredibly engaged in the game at odd times.

Betting the Over/Under

This is a very common form of football line betting. When someone bets the over/under they are making a prediction about what the combined scores of the two teams will be. Basically, you need to predict whether the game will be high or low scoring. The over/under for today’s game is 48 points. If you bet on the over, you’re predicting that the combined score of the two teams will add up to more than 48; the under, less.

A quick note on lines (because the over/under is another form of line betting) and the logic of how they are set. The underlying principle of any type of gambling, is that the “house” (the entity that people bet against,) because they take a small fee on every transaction will always make money if they can balance the amount bet on both sides of a line (half on the under, half on the over; half on San Fransisco -4, half on Baltimore +4.) The house effectively pays the winners of a bet with the money they get from the losers. The only time the house can lose is if they take more winning bets than losing bets.

As you might expect, Vegas is freakishly good at balancing the bets. So, you would think that the combined score of the game is most likely to be what the line says it is, 48, but there are two things that qualify this. First — some bets are more “fun” than others — the public tends to enjoy betting an over more than an under, so the over/under will often be a little bit higher than Vegas thinks the combined scores will be. Second, well, the people who set the lines have chosen to work in Vegas. Sometimes they like to gamble a bit too.

Buying a Super Bowl Box

The Super Bowl Box is the most casual form of Super Bowl betting. You’ve probably taken part in one yourself! You make a ten by ten grid, put your name in a box, and pay someone a few bucks. After all hundred boxes are filled out someone randomly assigns a number from 0 to 9 to each row and column on the chart. Each box therefore represents a pair of one digit numbers like 4 and 7. These numbers correspond to the ones digit of the score of the teams at particular moments of the game — usually at the end of each quarter. If your numbers come up, say San Fransisco 14, Baltimore 7 (or 27) at halftime, you win a bunch of money.

This is gambling at it’s most pure. Unlike the previous two forms of betting, you don’t get to make any decisions at all. When you scribble your name on a box and put in your money, you are spending 1/100 of all the money involved for a 1/100 chance to win. As soon as they assign numbers to boxes, your chances have either gone up or down as you can see from this awesome “sucky box-o-meter.”

Making a Prop Bet

Prop bets are another form of betting that thrives during the Super Bowl. Prop is short for proposition (as you probably know from The Wire) and these bets are all about answering questions that ask “will something happen today?” These are incredibly fun to bet on, and as you might imagine because of that, are usually difficult to win. Most of these are about the game, but a good number of them are about the spectacle surrounding the game. There are two good articles on about this, one by a football analyst and one by a gambling comedy writer. Here are just a few of the bets they cover:

Will there be overtime?
Will the largest lead of the game be more or less than 14 points?
Will Vonta Leach (a guy on the Ravens who almost never gets to touch the ball) score the first touchdown?
Will the opening coin toss be heads?
Will Alicia Keys’ rendition of the national anthem be longer than 2:15?

That last one is ridiculous but I’d be willing to bet that someone at your Super Bowl party has their eyes on their watch while she’s singing. Look around and let me know.

Enjoy the party and the game,
Ezra Fischer