The man behind the odds
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
September 6, 2005
You can see three televisions, three computers, a stack of oddsmaking consultant reports and even a spare preseason NFL guide.
This is an office for work, not show, and there's nothing fancy about it except for some impressive sports memorabilia gathering dust – an autographed Jordan jersey here, a signed 2004 USC Trojan helmet there.
It sure doesn't live up to the esoteric standards you might expect of the single person outside of the obvious official power structure (Paul Tagliabue) who may have the most impact on how NFL and NCAA football games are viewed, enjoyed and anticipated.
This is, after all, a Football Nation.
"Football as a whole is 43 percent of our entire handle for a year," said Scucci, "and the majority of that is on the NFL."
Scucci is officially the race and sports book manager of the Stardust Resort and Casino. But he is better known as the man who sets the first real odds and betting lines in Vegas, where his numbers filter all the way down to the local street bookie. Nevada is the only state that offers legal sports wagering.
"On Sunday night, right after the Sunday afternoon games end, I put the line out for the following week," said Scucci, who, of course, was excluding the Sunday night and Monday night games.
"Generally most of Vegas waits until Monday morning to see how we get those games bet on to limit their exposure. If [I] put a pick out as even and by morning it is plus three, then they will use what we currently are."
So for 12 or so long, lonely hours, Scucci and six other Boyd Gaming Corporation (Stardust's parent company) employees set the point spreads that are then exposed to bettors who might see a flaw in one of those lines.
That is why everyone else in town waits.
And Scucci worries.
A brief explanation for non-gamblers: In an effort to attract action on an otherwise lopsided game (say New England Patriots-San Francisco 49ers), a sports book will offer extra points to the underdog 49ers, say 10. That way, if you bet the Niners plus 10 and New England wins the actual game 28-20, you win the bet with a score of 30-28 San Francisco.
A betting line is fluid and will correct itself as money pours in for the favorite or underdog. The goal of a sports book is to have an equal amount of money on each side of the game, so if too many bettors view the Niners plus 10 as enticing, the line will drop (i.e., Niners plus nine, eight, whatever) and more people will begin betting on the Patriots.
For Scucci and the Stardust, the risk of being first is that they can't anticipate the bettors' reactions. Even a one-point mistake in a line can leave them open to hundreds of thousands in losses as bets get locked in.
Caution is the best policy. But someone has to be first.
Which is why Scucci spends his NFL Sundays seated at his wooden desk absorbing and analyzing as much information as possible. He gets recommendations from five oddsmaking consultants, but as he notes, "a consultant can make any line he wants, ultimately he doesn't have to pay it."
Scucci doesn't, either; the Stardust covers the bets. But if he is wrong too often, he will lose his job. Since the single, dark-haired 41-year-old native of Belleville, N.J., has been in the business since 1989, he isn't often wrong.
Scucci wasn't a competitive athlete and says that, while he knows football, he doesn't possess the strategic knowledge of a coach or even the personnel knowledge of some hardcore fans. "I don't know every roster by heart," he said. But Scucci clearly knows what he is doing.
Some lines are easier to pick than others – there are obvious favorites and underdogs. Other games feature teams that are unpredictable.
The three televisions will show the current games featuring those teams and Scucci will try to glean whatever trend he can. The computers will be set up on live play-by-play action or in-game reports from websites.
He looks for all sorts of things: from the obvious stuff, such as a team's running attack coming together the week before facing a weak run-stopping team, to the off-field things – like a coach losing confidence in a quarterback, something that might come out in a postgame press conference or a QB and a receiver feuding in the locker room.
Scucci tries to be aware of as much late-breaking info as possible.
"Bettors have more information now than ever before," he said. "It is critical that we have all the information they have and then some. And it is important we get it before them."
One computer keeps a running tab of how much action is bet on each team because setting the line for a popular team is different than a good team.
"Right now, the Colts [are the most wagered team] because they are the most exciting team to watch," Scucci said. "It is not always the good teams that draw money. It is the exciting team."
So the Colts' odds have to reflect that. Which means professional bettors will realize that there is often value on the team the Colts are playing because the fun money [amateur bettors] is on the Colts and the line is moved accordingly.
Invariably around 8 p.m. ET, Scucci makes a decision on about 10 games. Being wrong by even one point can be costly. And he admits that after all of the analysis from the TVs, computers and consultants, sometimes it isn't that scientific.
"Most of it is gut instinct."
Consider this gut check for Scucci – the AFC divisional playoff game last January between the Colts and Patriots. The highly-anticipated showdown featured two of the league's most popular teams, so there was going to be major action on this game. Scucci couldn't be wrong.
"I made the Patriots a small favorite, one point," said Scucci, meaning Indianapolis was getting a point. The pro-Indy bettors went nuts and money poured in quickly to lock up such odds. The line moved swiftly to adjust.
"The bettors just pounded the Colts," Scucci said. "[Indy] wound up a 2½-point favorite, that's a 3½-point line move. I took a lot of heat.
"But I thought the Patriots as a favorite were good. Put the two coaches against each other and I'll take [Pats coach Bill] Belichick every time. The Patriots were at home and they are one of the biggest winners."
Patriots 20, Colts 3. The Stardust, with all of that Indianapolis money on the table, cleans up.
"It was one of our best days," Scucci said.
His worst day? Try Super Bowl XXXV, when St. Louis, behind previously unknown quarterback Kurt Warner, beat Tennessee, 23-16.
How come? Before the season, the Stardust takes futures bets – odds on a team winning the Super Bowl. Right now, you can bet a favorite such as the Patriots, Eagles or Colts at 4 to 1. You can take a long shot such as the 49ers at 150 to 1.
In 2000, the Rams were going off as 200-to-1.
For the most part, it is a bet to lure in fans of the particular long-shot teams, some guy from San Francisco who is willing to throw $10 on his Niners for the fun of it, knowing full well there is almost no chance they will win it all.
"One guy put $500 [for the Rams] to win," Scucci said. "I had to approve that bet in July and I thought they would not even get to the Super Bowl. But then Trent Green went down and the quarterback became Kurt Warner."
The rest is history. The Stardust, with all that long-odds St. Louis money on the table, took a bath.
"Then, to make it even worse, the line was Tennessee plus seven and the Super Bowl pushed," Scucci recalled. "So we had to pay out all of the front-bet money and we didn't make a dime on the game."
Before he got into the house side of the business, Scucci tried to bet on the game professionally. It didn't work out like he thought. Because of his job, he is legally barred from betting on any game, but if he could bet, "I would do it for an insignificant dollar amount."
Take heed in that. And for all of the people who figure this guy has the sports fan's ultimate dream job – including, Scucci said, all of his buddies back in Jersey – consider that he is no longer a sports fan, per se.
"Being in this building just about ruined me as a sports fan," he said. "It led me to this business but I will never be able to watch a game like an average sports fan. Always, in terms of rooting interests, it is which side I need. I grew up a Yankees fan but I can't even [watch them] the same way."
But he can provide some advice for bettors.
He claims home field is worth between three and five points. The most dangerous thing to his profession is an unexpectedly good team that surprises oddsmakers – "The Chargers covered more games last year. They were the best team to bet, but the worst for us," Scucci said.
And never underestimate the importance of coaching.
"Bill Belichick is the best coach in football," Scucci said.
The most risky?
"[Pittsburgh's Bill] Cowler is one of the coaches in terms of betting that at the end of the year you [shift the line] against him," said Scucci, meaning the Steelers underperform in key, late season games. "The biggest games we've won are the games he's lost."
That is why the Patriots' AFC title-game whipping of the Steelers was no surprise to Scucci.
So as the season is set to open, who does Scucci think will win Super Bowl XL?
"I like the Colts," he said without hesitation. "I think they will get over the hump on the Patriots. The Colts shored up their defense a little bit. The Patriots [lost linebackers Tedy] Bruschi and Ted Johnson. That's big.
"The key [for the Colts] is getting home-field advantage. They don't want to go to the Patriots in the AFC championship game."
That pick, like everything else, is subject to change, of course.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Tuesday, Sep 6, 2005 12:36 pm, EDT