by Jeremy Martin
Ever since the Arena Football League's debut in 1987, it has been widely viewed with skepticism by most NFL fans and football bettors in general. The game is played indoors on a field that is 85-feet wide and 50-yards long. Players, who are often too small or too slow to make it into the NFL, are required to play on both sides of the ball. Punting is not allowed.
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The creators of the game wanted to create a high-scoring, offensive brand of football that would be attractive to fans that had grown tired of the defensive battles in the NFL. They haven't had much success in capturing a wide audience, but that may be changing.
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The league signed a deal with NBC in 2002 for the network to televise games. The contract, which gave NBC an equity stake in the league, provides the AFL with a real chance to survive and possibly even flourish during the winter-spring months when the NFL is in its off season.
Just as the Arena Football League is increasing in popularity among fans across the country thanks to the NBC deal, it is also seeing an increase in handle at sportsbooks in Las Vegas and overseas. While many books have taken Arena Football action for years, some have recently experienced a small surge in handle on the sport and sportsbook managers believe that trend will increase in the future.
"We're not getting a whole lot of action, but probably more than last year," says Bob Scucci, race and sportsbook manager for the Stardust. "We are putting 'totals' on every game, which is something we didn't do last year. (It's because of) the fact that they play during a real slow part of the (year), namely in February where you haven't hit the peak of March Madness yet and it's after the Super Bowl. There's a month when people might crave something different. (The Arena Football League) might just fill a void."
Since arena football is a new phenomenon to many books and managers have higher-volume sports to worry about, bookies that take AFL action rely heavily on odds services like Las Vegas Sports Consultants for opening odds, line movements and injury updates. Ken White, the new owner of LVSC, has been handicapping the Arena Football League for years and is considered an expert on the sport by many in the industry.
White's oddsmaking strategy for the Arena Football League is similar that of other sports, even though the game itself is much different. In developing power ratings, he assigns numerical values to players for each of the 19 teams in the league. Since most players play offense and defense, the process of developing these numbers is much different than that of the NFL.
"I have to try and find out what their true position was, if they were an offensive or defensive player in college or even in the NFL or NFL Europe," says White. "I think they will be stronger on that side of the ball. So I will try and find out if (teams) have a mix of those guys. Because if they have all offensive players, they are going to be weak defensively and if they have all defensive players they are going to be weak offensively."
Size and speed are evaluated differently in the AFL. White says that speed is not as big of a factor in arena football because the field is so much smaller. While offensive linemen in the NFL average around 330 pounds, a player in that position in the AFL would not be considered undersized at 280 pounds. "I would probably give (an offensive lineman) who is 280 pounds a pretty good size rating," he says.
The Arena Football League was designed as an offensive league, with most combined scores for a game nearing the century mark. According to White, the quarterback position is rated much differently than it would be in the NFL.
"Because (the quarterbacks) pass for so many more yards and so many more touchdowns, I have taken an average of the league and how the league does and I have changed my rating scales to how the AFL would come out in average quarterback (rating), it's much different than an NFL guy," adds White. "So the offensive ratings are a lot higher than the defensive ratings, that's why you get higher totals in the games."
As it is in the NFL, kicking is also a big factor in the AFL. However, field goals and extra points are done much differently in the arena game. In the AFL, the goal posts are nine-feet wide with a crossbar height of 15 feet (as opposed to NFL goal posts, which are 18 ½ feet wide with a crossbar height of 10 feet). One point is awarded for a normal post-touchdown conversion and two points are earned for a conversion by drop kick. A field goal counts for three points and a field goal by drop kick tallies four points. "It is good to have an accurate kicker (in the AFL)," says White. "A couple of the better teams have the better kickers."
Since players play both offense and defense in the Arena Football League, injuries are also a very important factor for oddsmakers and handicappers, maybe even more so than in the NFL. Arena teams have 19-man active rosters and eight players are on the field during play. Besides the kicker and quarterback, each team has one offensive specialist and two defensive specialists. All other players go both ways.
Home field advantage in arena football counts for five points in the point spread, as opposed to the NFL where it counts for three, according to White. This is both because the games are higher scoring and that the crowds in the AFL are livelier and they are right on top of the action because of the way the fields are configured.
All these differences make the AFL tough to handicap for oddsmakers. White says that LVSC spends almost as much time on their arena numbers that they spend on setting lines for the 'major' sports.
"I feel the numbers are (solid)," comments White. "We put a lot of work into them. We've seen huge differences so far between ourselves and the offshore (sportsbooks) because they put up different lines out there and it's kind of a little competition we've got now, to see who makes the better number.
"The tough part about it is that right now there isn't a lot of action out there besides 'wise guy' action. There's just not a lot of people going to the book to bet arena football. Somehow we want to change that and get more people involved. Since the games are on NBC now we can get some more people involved by watching and going down to the book to place a wager. We know that it is all 'sharp' money coming in (on the AFL) so we have to be on our toes in this sport and make the best number we can."
Despite White's assertion that the lines for the Arena Football League are solid, Scucci says that his lines at the Stardust see a lot of movement, which gives bettors a wide range of options in terms of the numbers they can get on a particular game, especially with totals. As a result, the Stardust and most other books offer low limits on arena games.
"(Totals) are a lot more volatile," he says. "When you are talking about totals that are close to 100, you can be five or six points off and it won't make much of a difference. To see a five or 10 point move on a total wouldn't be out of the question. "To see a ('side') move from 'pick' to four is not unusual at all. So that is just an indication that that the lines are not solid and there is going to be a great deal of trial and error before we really nail this down.
"You can have a lot of exposure (on arena football games), even with low limits. It doesn't take long to lose a lot of money when you are four or five points off from where you should be. There is going to be a learning curve. We went through the same thing with NASCAR 10 years ago when we started booking it. When the bettors know a lot more about the sport than you do, it makes it difficult to put up solid lines."
One reason arena football may eventually have widespread success in both the sports betting world and the business world is that, unlike the other sports leagues, the AFL has realized that embracing the sports betting industry may help them achieve their long-term goals.
"(The AFL) is in favor of advertising point spreads and letting people know about the sport and who's favored," says Scucci. "They are not fighting the casino industry to get our lines off the games. They realize that betting on the games can be a positive to the sport. As a result, the league has been very cooperative in giving information about injuries or anything we need to know. It helps when you have the cooperation of the league."