Last week, I recapped the entire college football season from the House’s point-of-view. This week, I would like to recap the entire NFL season and then finish the trilogy next week with the post-season review.
To paraphrase Charles Dickens (and hence the title), it was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons. And no, I am not talking about the performance of the Oakland Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals. What I am talking about is how the season ended and how it started from our point-of-view.
Typically, the NFL season is better for the book towards the end of the season. Bettors are a little quicker than bookmakers at figuring out which teams are hot at the start of the year but for some reason the betting public tends to stick with these teams for the duration of the season, even after injuries, scheduling and a bumped-up spread take their toll. The 2002-2003 NFL season numbers bear this out.
The first three weeks of the year were all losses for the book. It felt like every number we posted was wrong. Scoring was way up (Week 1 saw 12 of the 16 games go Over) and large scores generally mean wins for the public. Week 2 was the worst week of the year with the bettors cashing in on Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Oakland, San Diego, Miami, New England, Carolina, and Cleveland. Some of these became favorites of the betting public over the remainder of the season. More on that in a moment. After Week 3, we were down over 4% for the NFL season so far and were scratching our heads. What was doubly puzzling was that the college season was going so well at the same time the NFL season was going sour. Phone lines in Costa Rica were buzzing as book operators phoned each other looking to get consolation in the fact that they weren’t the only ones in the hole. There was talk that some smaller shops were in financial trouble as a result of increased marketing costs, credit card restrictions and poor returns.
Week 4 brought a reprieve with what was one of our best weeks of the year. After getting kicked in the wallet for three weeks, we had a week where everything went right. Players won with Tampa Bay but lost big to Seattle, Arizona, Detroit, and Dallas with smaller losses to Kansas City and San Diego. The coup-de-grace was the Ravens upset of the Broncos on Monday Night. It all added up to a return of over 20% and brought the year back into the win column. Now the phone lines were buzzing with bookmakers looking to see who had made the most.
That joy was short lived though as Week 5 was another small loss. The dark times concluded in Week 6 with what was one of the worst losses of the year for the book, San Francisco over Seattle on Monday Night Football. The Sunday had been good for the House and we were looking for a breakout week. The 49ers were bet heavy at -3 and there was lots of money on the Over as well. The 49ers won 28-21, made the heavy action on them and the Over winners, helped teasers win all four ways and erased most of the profit from the day before. It was halfway through October and we were holding less than 1% on NFL. Was this going to be a backwards year, where MLB playoffs and college football are very profitable and NFL is sub-par? It was starting to look that way. In terms of betting profitability for the NFL, it certainly was the worst of times thus far.
I received emails from players asking me how our spreads could be so far off. I will remind you as I did the senders at the time that as bookmakers we are not just handicapping the on-field performance. We also have to handicap public perception and some years that takes longer to gauge. Before the year, we knew teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland would be betting favorites given their off-season press as a result of the Gruden deal. So, even though these teams posted strong 10-6 records against-the-spread (ATS) the damage wasn’t too bad because we anticipated that action and were aggressive with the line moves. In fact, these teams were 9-2 ATS through Week 6, but only 11-10 after that in the regular season. Bookmakers had been able to figure out where the threshold was to split the results for these teams, but it had taken a few weeks. However, what was tougher to anticipate was the rush to bet on Buffalo, San Diego, Kansas City and Miami. The Bills had obtained Bledsoe, the Dolphins had traded for Ricky Williams, the Chargers had Brees and Tomlinson, and the Chiefs were looking like the 1999 Rams by posting 29+ points in five of their first six games. These teams were a combined 17-6-1 through Week 6. They continued to be betting favorites but struggled down the stretch, all missed the playoffs and went a combined 18-21-1 from Week 7 through 17. As you can see, teams that the betting public took to their hearts became less than profitable down the stretch.
It had taken 6 weeks, but it seemed that we finally had a handle on the trends of the betting public and we have not had a losing week since! In Week 13, we posted only a small profit, but the rest of the weeks were all very strong. Week 12 was the best week of the year with a 24% gain and we ended up near 6% overall. This is a great result, especially when you consider where we stood earlier in the season. A hold of 6% is down slightly from the previous year’s 6.4% but given that handle had more than doubled we were very pleased. Combined with our extremely strong college football season, we increased our total football hold percentage by nearly 1% over 2001. A stretch run of 11 consecutive winning weeks was certainly the best of times. To paraphrase from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities one last time (I promise), it had been the season of Darkness, but it had become the season of Light. Most importantly, it had not been a winter of despair.
I mentioned one of the worst games of the year but there were a couple of others. Denver’s 31-9 drubbing of Seattle in Week 11 was a bad game. The Seahawks were a go-against team for the bettors all year but managed to finish 9-7 ATS despite this bad loss. Atlanta’s 41-0 drubbing of the Panthers in Week 12 was also a big loss.
As to the best games, a few standout. Oakland’s straight-up loss as an 8-point favorite to St Louis in Week 6 was the worst game of the season for Teaser players as the score also fell 8 points off the total. Talk about a real tease. Chicago’s back-to-back covers in Weeks 9 (lost 19-13 to the Eagles as a +7 dog) and 10 (lost 33-30 to the Pats as a +5 dog) were two of the biggest wins for the book all season but were probably the two biggest nail biters. Oakland’s 26-20 win over the Jets on Monday Night in Week 13 was probably the best score of the year. Spread was Raiders -6.5 and we saw heavy Raiders money on the spread and heavy Jets action on the moneyline. Total was bet heavy on the Over at 48 so we won all the way around (except for Teaser players, they made out great on this one).
The toughest game of the year for the House was Week 9 when the Browns missed a late extra point that would have gotten them to within 2 points. They lost 23-20 and ended up pushing a large amount of Steeler’s money at -3 that could have been a big win for the book. Can you believe they still miss extra points in the NFL? Oh well!
In summary, the NFL season started rough for the House, but recovered very nicely. We saw an overall improvement in our hold on pointspreads, first halfs and Halftimes but a decline in our hold on moneyline and totals. Totals is the main reason for the drop from 6.4% as last year we held 6.2% on totals compared to just 1.5% this year. The improved success of the betting public on totals also helped them cut our win rate on teasers and parlays. I have also noticed the betting public playing fewer high-risk plays (5+ team parlays/teasers) so perhaps some of you have been paying attention to my column after all.
I’ll be back next week with a review of the NFL playoffs. Enjoy the Super Bowl and good luck.
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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino