If you are like me, you are not watching the Super Bowl. If you are like me, you are only vaguely aware of it. I had to be reminded yesterday at 4:00 that it was even happening. And it was only today that I learned that it is taking place here in the Bay Area. It’s not that I don’t follow the news. But when talk turns to sports — most especially football — I just tune out. But I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about how betting lines work.
This all started because I was talking to Will and he told me that 70% of the action was supposedly on the Panthers. I already knew that the line was Panthers -6. That’s a points line and it means that if you bet on the Panthers, they need to win by more than 6 points. That also means that if you bet on the Broncos, you get 6 extra points. So if they lose by only 5 points, you would win your bet. But when Will told me about all the action on the Panthers, I asked what the line was originally. He told me: Panthers -6. That didn’t make any sense.
When betting lines first come out, they are based upon the work of sports nerds: analysts who crunch numbers to determine how the teams will perform against each other. It will probably not surprise you, given my colorful life, that I used to be one of those guys. (I didn’t do it for sports books, of course; I wrote commercial software that did these kinds of calculations for sports bettors.) So that’s fine. But betting lines don’t stay where they start. They move based upon how the betting is going.
The thing that non-betting people don’t understand (and I assume that describes most Frankly Curious readers) is that the sports books are not at all interested in who wins. When you bet, there is a vigorish or “vig.” That means you bet a dollar, but if you win, you are paid something less, like 90¢. That would be a 10% vig. That’s all the books care about. So they want to have as much money bet on one team as is bet on the other. That’s what the betting lines are all about. Then the books pay the winners with the losers’ money, and keep the vig. It’s a simple and beautiful system.
Why Betting Lines Move
The initial lines that the sports nerds come up with are not always right. But even if they are, it isn’t a question of how the teams stack up; it is a question of how the bettors think they stack up. So if there is too much money bet on one team, the sports book will move the line in the opposite direction. This is why I asked Will what the starting line was. If 70% of the action was on the Panthers, then the line should have gone up — to Panthers -6.5 or higher still — whatever it took to equalize the amounts bet.
Given that the betting lines didn’t move except maybe at some small books, I have to assume that the 70% number has to do with the number of bets. The books don’t care about that. They aren’t going to change the betting lines over that. What must be happening is that the little bettors are going strong for the Panthers and that the bigger bettors are going for the Broncos. (This doesn’t mean they think the Broncos will win, of course; just that they won’t lose by more than 6.) But if I were a betting man (And I’m not!) I would go with the Broncos, just because I have more confidence in people who are putting big money on the game.
Of course, I don’t know that this is what’s going on. Maybe the big money is on the Panthers, it is just that there is a lot of medium money on Broncos. As I understand it, there are a lot of middle class white folk who don’t like that uppity colored quarterback. And with that, I have gotten as close to the Super Bowl as I care to get.
Update (7 February 2016 3:36 pm)
I just got email from Will that the line actually did start at Panthers -3. So there has been excessive money bet on the Panthers to move the line to -6. I’m not going to change any of the above, because it is all still valid for discussion’s sake. The fact that the line did move, however, greatly complicates how the books have to manage their bets. This is why they hire really smart people, hoping to get it right to start.
Update (7 February 2016 3:43 pm)
That makes my “middle class white racist” theory invalid.