by Jeremy Martin
When it comes to key numbers in the NFL, no number is more important than three. Historically, roughly one in six games in the pros falls on this number. Because of a variety of reasons, more games than ever before are landing on the number three. This key number can cause headaches for bookmakers whose goal is to balance action on each game. As one offshore bookie stated, "the number three, obviously, is death in our industry."
This key number is tricky for several reasons. Bookies are hesitant to move off of a three because they run the risk of getting sided. If they move through three (a move from 2 ½ to 3 ½, for example), they expose themselves to getting middled and paying out both sides if the game falls on three. Even if bookmakers stay at three all week and the game falls on that number, they 'push' or pay back all bets, losing out on all of the vig (commission) as well as all operational costs associated with taking bets for that game.
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In order to lower their exposure on games that are posted at three, most bookies have shifted to the off-standard line, which involves adjusting the vig instead of moving off the number. If there is heavy action on one side, for example, the bookie will increase the juice for that side and lower it for the other in order to promote balanced action. "It takes a super wise guy to make a limit bet, and that will usually get it moved (off three)," said Doc from Rio, the head oddsmaker for Skybook.
When the number is at three, the book's hold percentage for that game usually decreases, according to Rob Gillespie, president for Bodog.com.
"You are getting action on one side at 3 minus $1.20 and then to get action the other way, they are not betting it back at 'even,' they are betting it at 3 plus $1.05," he said. "So you are taking away the risk of maybe getting sided or middled but instead of getting 4 ½ percent (hold) you are shooting for 3 ½ or four (percent).
"And also there are the pushes. You do a lot of that work and then you get nothing for it. And then everyone who bets a teaser on the side gets a win out of that. So those pushes can be very expensive at three without even moving on or off the number."
The other key numbers in the NFL, in order of relevancy, are seven, 10, six and four. Four used to be more important to the bookies, but has decreased in recent years because of advents such as the two-point conversion.
"Four is almost dead now," said Doc from Skybook. "If a game used to be 21-10, the team would score late and it would (fall) on four. Now it is either three or five because they go for two usually. So four has become almost obsolete. (Because) of the two-point conversion, three is impossible to deal with. It seems like every rule change made by the NFL (was made) to get a game to fall (on) three. And every year more and more fall."
Parity in the NFL is another reason that three has become increasingly important. Home field advantage in the NFL is worth roughly three points to bookmakers. There are so many teams that are evenly matched that bookies are forced to post three-point spreads on more games than they would like.
In addition, as the overall quality of kickers in the NFL has improved, three has become even more treacherous for bookies.
"Field goals are just so incredibly important," commented Gillespie. "The kicking in the NFL has (become) so good in recent years. It used to be a big deal for a kicker to be 80 percent (for the season). Now you have guys who have perfect seasons. You have guys routinely hitting 25 or 30 in a row. Kickers are just that much more reliable."
"In a tied (game) situation, the team that has the ball late in the game is looking to run out the clock and score a field goal," added Doc from Skybook. "They are just not looking to score touchdowns like they used to because the kickers are so good now."
If a bookmaker decides to move off of a three, they want to make sure that that is the right choice for their bottom line. It is more likely that a number would move off three early in the week rather than later.
"You are not going to want to jump on and off three all week long; I don't care what game it is, you just don't want to do it," said Jay Kornegay, executive director of race and sports for the Las Vegas Hilton. "It depends where everybody else (in the industry) is and what kind of game it is. Is there weather involved? Injuries? I'd be more likely to move off a three on Tuesday than I would on Sunday."
A ½ point line move on or off three can be more significant for a bookie than a much larger line move that does not involve this key number.
"If a game opens at 3 ½ and goes up to six, you are exposed but you are probably going to be okay," said Doc from Skybook. "Conversely, if a game opens 3 ½ and barely goes down to three, now you have a small risk you have to worry about."
The professional bettors, referred to as 'wise guys' in the industry, "love to take shots at threes," he added. "Any time that a game is around three, you are going to have (the pros) betting the side to get you to three. It never fails. If a game opens at two or 2 ½, they are going to bet the favorite to get it to three just to take a shot at the three. Obviously, you have to jump ship and try and get it to three as soon as possible if you see that happening. If a game is at 3 ½, they will probably be trying to bet the underdog to get it down to three. They just like to take shots at threes."
To contact Martin, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.