Las Vegas oddsmakers put a lot on the line for the Super Bowl

New York TimesFebruary 1, 2014 

— Johnny Avello has a big title, executive director of race and sports operations at Wynn Las Vegas – but in a town that talks about point spreads with the same intensity that farmers discuss the weather, he has an even bigger reputation. He is considered a don in one of this town’s most respected fraternities, the brotherhood of bookies. Call him a wizard, a Wizard of Odds.

It is a title bestowed on those who put out point spreads, or lines, on scores of sporting contests all year round but have a turn in the mainstream spotlight only once a year when the Super Bowl transforms the country into a coast-to-coast sports book. They are the men – and they are almost all men – who decide the numbers and proposition bets for football’s biggest game, affecting everything from office pools to bets made with neighborhood bookies and organized crime syndicates.

In Nevada, more bets are placed on the Super Bowl than any other sporting event. Last year, for example, a record of nearly $99 million was bet in Nevada’s sports books. Of that, the books kept $7,206,460.

While even the best quarterbacks fumble and the seemingly invincible teams find ways to lose, the sports books nearly always wind up ahead. In Las Vegas they have a $5.5 million average win margin over the last 10 Super Bowls and they have won 21 of the last 23 outright.

The Wizards know things. They know there are two kinds of money: the sharp dough of professional gamblers and the square dollars of the public. They know that betting lines are meant to be moved.

They know fact – that legendary gambler Billy Walters, widely considered the most successful sports bettor in the country, always finds a way to lay his money down despite their best efforts not to take it.

They know fiction – that for every photograph of a six-figure winning ticket that Floyd Mayweather tweets, the champ also has a half dozen losers that never see the light of day.

Avello and his colleagues make the market in a sports betting industry considered to be worth more than $400 billion globally. On paper, it seems straightforward enough: Set a line, or number, that attracts an equal amount of betting money on the favorite and on the underdog and then pocket the “vig” or “juice,” or 10 percent fee for handling the bet. It rarely works out that cleanly, but over the course of a year, the ledger consistently favors the side of the sports books.

In 2012, $3.45 billion was wagered in Nevada, and the books kept more than $170 million.

Flood of square money

In a world where algorithms rule, putting out a number remains an old-school endeavor. Each oddsmaker creates his own power rankings, and some confer with math-based consultants. Mostly, though, they read the sports pages of local newspapers, surf the Internet, watch games and trust their instinct as keen observers of the human condition.

“I can’t tell you who the winner’s going to be, but I can put a number out there for you, that might draw some two-way action and is somewhere in the ballpark,” said Nick Bogdanovich, director of trading at William Hill U.S. “It’s what we do. We do it year in and year out, and you develop a feel for it.”

They know that square money is enthralled by favorites and falls hard for teams that have done a lot for them lately. The Broncos, for instance, not only covered against New England, but looked good doing it. It’s part of the reason Denver is the 2 1/2-point favorite even though oddsmakers opened with the Seahawks – a team they believe is better – as a 2- to 2 1/2-point favorite.

In Las Vegas, there are more than 180 sports books catering to every imaginable market.

The flood of square money that inundates the Super Bowl makes the game one of the easiest lines of the year for oddsmakers.

“It’s the only line that we make for the entire year that is geared towards the betting public,” said Jay Kornegay, the director of the sports book at LVH – Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. “Most of the betting public are just your average Joes that are just fans and doing it for entertainment on a weekly basis. They will overrun any type of sharp money that we will take on the Super Bowl.”

Jewels of specificity

If this year is like past years, the books will bet right on the nearly 400 propositions – or prop bets – that so reliably lure in gamblers. The prop bets are jewels of specificity that range from the obsessive – the over/under total rushing yards for quarterback Peyton Manning – to the ridiculous. At William Hill, for example, you can bet that LeBron James of the Miami Heat will have more points, rebounds and assists against the Knicks on Saturday than Manning will have passing attempts. There are prop bets for which team will call the first timeout; whether or not Richard Sherman will record an interception; whether Inter Milan will score more goals than Sherman will have tackles.

The prop bets are popular year round, but they have become a hallmark of the Super Bowl and one of the game’s most popular gambling features. Most experts say they became a phenomenon in 1986, when Chicago defensive tackle William Perry rushed for a surprise touchdown in Super Bowl XX. Bears coach Mike Ditka had used Perry as a short-yardage specialist, but no one believed he would run his defensive tackle into the end zone in the championship game. When Perry scored in the third quarter of a 46-10 Chicago rout, the books losses were in the six figures – and a new craze for prop bets was born.

Now, the prop bets allow for gamblers to bet on every single player on the field. Prop bets are expected to account for as much as 40 percent of the more than $100 million that will be wagered on Sunday’s game.

Communication key

Defense decides who wins the money game: the books or the gamblers. When Bogdanovich’s computer beeps on the William Hill trading floor, he knows a big bet has come in that needs to be reviewed and, if necessary, the line moved one way or another.

“There are some professionals that are really good,” he said. “You try to identify them and respect their money and sometimes, you get them working for you. You mentally make notes on who is lining up on which sides.”

Communication is key as well. The oddsmakers often check in with one another to track where the smart money is going. The wiseguys know this and try to camouflage their opinions. Billy Walters, for one, employs multiple runners who bet at books across the state. He has taken tens of millions from the books over the years.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Kornegay of the LVH.

Come Sunday, the Wizards of Odds will have helped give Nevada one of the biggest weekends of the year. It is not only the fact that more than 310,000 visitors will pour into town and spend more than $106.2 million on nongambling entertainment. It is who those visitors are and what they mean to the city.

“It’s some of the top casino guests that have been playing throughout the entire year,” Kornegay said. “We have tailgate parties, kickoff parties on Friday night, Saturday night.

“We have to put on a show to make sure we keep these guests coming back.”

It’s about keeping the neon buzzing, the music finger-snapping and Las Vegas in the money.

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