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SPORTS STORY

Square route

Jack Randall previews the start of the NFL season, and advises on how to take advantage of naïve betting by recreational punters

If English Premier League wagering is the Holy Grail for oddsmakers in Europe, then National Football League is its North American sportsbook equivalent. Heck, the Vince Lombardi Trophy awarded to its champion even looks a bit like the fabled Premier League chalice. But it’s the amount of odds variety, volume of betting action and loyalty to the sport that makes it sacred among fans and punters.

During the season, NFL wagering accounts for upwards of 80 per cent of volume at some books, meaning other popular sports such as college football, basketball, baseball and hockey combined generate just 20 per cent.

It’s why punters start early each summer, jumping on preseason football games (see article in the August issue of Gambling) and betting them as heavily as others will bet the regular season. European fans of the sport will recall the excitement surrounding the short-lived NFL Europe, which the NFL discontinued in 2007 to focus on regular-season matches at London’s Wembley Stadium. The match this year will feature the Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers on 31 October.

American fascination with the sport is why, soon after the Super Bowl champion has been crowned each February, odds are already posted on who will win the next championship game. By late spring, you can bet on Week 1 games, months before the kick-offs actually happen in the first week of September.

“Baseball is America’s pastime, but the NFL is America’s betting pastime,” says OddsShark.com resident handicapping expert Rich Crew. “And the way it has been historically bet on, European punters may actually be better suited to profiting from it than homegrown bettors.”

RECREATIONAL PUNTERS ARE LOYAL TO TEAMS

There is no flaw more beneficial to the oddsmaker than team loyalty. In America, many recreational bettors (known as ‘squares’) will bet on their team regardless of the odds. It was known for decades that the Dallas Cowboys’ line each week was always inflated by a point or two, because everyone in Texas bet on the Cowboys.

In fact, it was considered a sort of sports heresy to not bet the Cowboys, even if the line was -8.5 and should have been -6.5. Value bettors can find plenty of cases where a favourite’s line is too high.

The other North American factor at play is that these same ‘squares’ love to bet primarily favourites. What happens is the oddsmaker opens the favourite line a bit higher than normal, knowing the squares will bet it anyway. They move the line even higher when lots of recreational betting volume comes in.

It’s why many ‘contrarian’ bettors will simply bet against the wagering public (betting well-priced underdogs) because the lines are in their favour. There are many handicappers who turn a healthy profit each year simply by betting against (known as fading) the betting public.

The same potentially profitable situation arises in betting totals (over-under odds).

The North American bettor is prone to betting OVER the total, because they love scoring and offence. This fascination with scoring and offence and instant gratification is a prime reason why football (or ‘soccer’ in the US) has never really caught on to build a solid fan base.

“The deliberate build-ups and tactical play of football can be boring for that audience,” says Crew. “They want hard hits, big plays, slam dunks, touchdowns, goals… and they want lots of them. As such, betting UNDER the total is often a great value play, because the over-under gets artificially inflated.”

IN-GAME BETTING STILL IN INFANCY

While the European betting market is mature, and wagering on exchanges and in-game wagering are seen as superior products, North America remains largely stuck on betting point spreads with high commissions.

A typical line will be Dallas Cowboys -7, -110 (meaning they are favoured by seven points with a 10 percent ‘vigorish’ or ‘juice’ or commission to the sportsbook). Some will offer ‘reduced juice’, meaning the commission is 7 percent or 5 percent.

But it doesn’t come close to the value of setting your own odds on an exchange, or finding superior profits while betting the game in-play. ‘Live betting’ as it is known in North America is catching on, but there is still plenty of great value for sophisticated punters who can recognise and exploit weak odds.

WEEK 1 TREND BIASES

As I alluded to last month, Week 1 can be a gold mine for NFL bettors. The preseason schedule has just wrapped up and some teams come into the season with high expectations of winning – except those expectations sit with the fans and those aforementioned square bettors, not with the oddsmaker.

So a team such as Detroit, that was 3-1 in the preseason in 2009, fooled punters into thinking they had improved and would cover the point spread. Savvy punters knew the opposite was true, so they bet heavily against them and won in Week 1.

However, one trend that has proven reliable in recent years is that bad teams play OVER the total early in the season. Few would argue that the Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs have been some of the worst teams in the NFL. All have been derided for everything from their coaching to their management to their draft acumen to their play on the field.

And in three of those four cases, OVER bettors have cleaned up in Week 1 during recent years.

The Chiefs are new to the “bad team circle of shame” after a decade as one of the league powerhouses. But they certainly fit the “Bad-Teams-Play-Over-in-Week-1” trend.

In the past nine seasons, the Chiefs have played OVER seven times in Week 1, and they host the high-scoring San Diego Chargers on 13 September. In late July when this article was written, the total across most books tracked by OddsShark.com, was 45. (A contrarian trend to consider here is that the Chiefs, in their past eight home openers, have played every game UNDER the total).

But back to those bad teams. Detroit is currently the poster boy for bad teams and has played OVER in five of their past six opening-week road matches. They visit Chicago in Week 1 this year and the early total was 43, with the early point spread at -7 for the host Bears.

And Oakland, bunglers of talent and draft picks and spoilers of a once-proud logo, is a candidate to go OVER the total in Week 1 if history repeats itself. In their past seven season openers on the road, they have not played a single UNDER.

So when they visit Tennessee as big underdogs, expect the game to soar OVER the early total of 41.

Cleveland managed to buck the trend, thanks to their perennially weak offence. The Browns have played just two OVERs in their past eleven Week 1 games (they visit Tampa Bay in what could be another low-scoring battle to open this season).

So international bettors – who are either curious about the NFL’s far-reaching hype or those who are simply looking for a sport where they can find consistent betting value – often find their way to the match schedule.

They may not find the Holy Grail, but they can also find regular profits.

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