Bad NFL teams turn sports books into losers

With head shakes and hushed tones, they’re calling Sunday the worst day in memory at Las Vegas sports books.

NFL blowout after blowout caused the house to take a bath up and down the famed strip. Estimates have NFL gamblers across the city walking away with millions in cumulative winnings on Sunday alone.

Sports book execs empathized with the Browns' Robaire Smith on Sunday.
(Jason Miller/US Presswire)

“It was the worst weekend I’ve ever seen,” said Jay Kornegay, executive director of the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton and a 22-year veteran of the business. “I’ve heard from across the world and everybody got really beaten up by the NFL.”

This is NFL season where parity has gone to die. The adage “On Any Given Sunday” has become a punch line with each successive 30-point blow out.

The league is full of terrible teams – St. Louis Rams (0-7), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-7), Tennessee Titans (0-6), Kansas City Chiefs (1-6), Cleveland Browns (1-6) and Detroit Lions (1-5) with the two-win Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders and Carolina Panthers not too far behind.

The result has been a remarkable string of lopsided games in a sport where close contests have driven interest – and betting action – for decades.

“The NFL is a concern for us because there are so many non-competitive teams,” Kornegay said. “We can’t get the line high enough. History says, don’t make the line too high and overreact. Then all these poor teams don’t cover this weekend.”

No one is going to shed any tears for Vegas. This is one of the great gambling trends of all time, karma for all those bad beats through the years.

For the house, it has been a terrible season punctuated by a calamitous Sunday. The issue isn’t just that some bad teams are getting blown out. It’s that none is stepping up and making a game of it, limiting the casino’s losses.

The individual gamblers are having a field day.

“We’ve had bad teams in the NFL before, but usually one or two step up and cover,” Kornegay said.

He paused and issued a gallows humor laugh.

“I feel like we’re in a knife fight and we’re losing.”


A brief explanation for non-gamblers: In an effort to attract action on an otherwise lopsided game (say, Indianapolis Colts at St. Louis on Sunday), a sports book will offer extra points to the underdog, in this case the winless Rams. Without a spread, everyone would bet the Colts and the house would get massacred.

The Golden Nugget sports book, for instance, opened with St. Louis getting 12.5 points (the half to help with ties). That way, if you bet the Rams and the actual game ended 21-10 Indy, you’d win the bet with a score of 22.5-21 St. Louis.

A betting line is fluid though and will correct itself as money pours in for the favorite or underdog. Despite the Rams getting all those points, at home no less, the money kept going to Indy. The line reacted by moving all the way to 14 points at kickoff.

The goal of a sports book is two fold. One is to have enough big spreads that when a few of the underdogs inevitably cover, the house offsets the losses. The second is to have an equal amount of money on each side of the game to limit exposure.

In this case, the money didn’t even out though. The Las Vegas Review Journal reported that in some sports books, 90 percent of the action was on the Colts. The bettors had good reason: Undefeated Indy won 42-6, covering with ease.

The question for the sports books is how big of a spread can you dare to throw out to the bettors. Traditionally double-digit underdogs are relatively rare. Most NFL games are decided by a touchdown or less and often a field goal or less.

Right now gamblers see as many of 10 clubs that are capable of getting drilled each week. The sports books are having an impossible time finding anyone to bet on a St. Louis or Oakland.

The Rams can be competitive against other lousy clubs. However, in three games against winning teams (Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and Indy) they’ve lost by an average of 27.7 points. When the Rams host Super Bowl contender New Orleans in a few weeks, who would dare bet on them?

What spread number could possibly make it interesting?

The books have thrown up some massive numbers in college football, where especially in non-conference play the talent differential creates huge blowouts. Currently, national championship contender LSU is a 36-point favorite going into Saturday’s game against lowly Tulane.

You’ll never see that in pro football though. Kornegay said the highest spread he’s ever seen came in 1976, when the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers were 24-point favorites against a Tampa Bay team that would go winless (Pittsburgh covered, winning 42-0).

In 2007, the powerhouse New England Patriots were often 20-plus favorites. That was just one team though. This is a league-wide epidemic not of great teams, but terrible ones.

Especially beneficial to gamblers are parlay bets where they can string together antes on three, four, five or more games to improve their odds. The chances they all come through is small, which is why they’re offered. A five-team parlay will generally net you at least a 20-1 payout.

Last weekend you could’ve teased favorites New England, Indy, Green Bay, the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets and not even worried. The closest game against the spread was the Patriots (minus-15.5 against Tampa Bay) cruising to a 35-7 victory.

As bad as it is for the casinos, it has to be worse with your friendly, neighborhood, illegal bookie. A Las Vegas casinos gambling operation can take sustained hits and survive. A local bookie, even one tied to organized crime, doesn’t have backing of that magnitude.

Geography also can play a huge roll in gambling trends – how many people in Indiana actually bet against the Colts? The limited number of gamblers can make for crushing defeats (or victories).

“I think there are a lot of new post office boxes out there this week,” Kornegay said. “Bookies may have just up and gone. Call them and get, ‘This number is no longer active.’ ”


The sports book executives are getting smacked right now, but even with this unusual season of horrible football teams, confidence remains high. There’s a reason they keep building bigger and bigger hotels in Nevada.

While a lot of people are flush with winnings right now, they rarely walk. In addition, a fresh group of weekend gamblers keep arriving at McCarron International Airport. Nothing stays the same.

“The beauty of sports betting is that people have some kind of insight into the game,” Kornegay said. “Now that everyone is predicting it correctly, we’re going to have a lot of experts out there.

“They’re going to reload.”

The casinos won’t even consider taking a NFL game off the board – as they sometimes do with college mismatches. The spreads will get more and more tantalizing. The house will use its trained professionals to attempt to figure out how to even the money out. And the bad teams can’t keep getting crushed, can they?

“We’ll continue to adjust the lines; we just have to hope some of the poor teams step up and stay within a couple of touchdowns,” Kornegay said.

This sounds like a calm, calculated and historically solid plan. Except, have you watched the Rams and Bucs and Lions and … ?

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 Tuesday, Oct 27, 2009