Going Against Public Teams
by Jeremy Martin
When it comes to betting on NFL football, there is one constant, never-changing truth. The recreational or 'square' bettors like to take the favorite and the 'over.' This group makes up the biggest portion of the betting public and they are the ones that keep the sports books profitable.
The public's love of the favorite can be taken even one step further. Certain teams take on a 'public team' status due to their success on the field. When the public develops this love affair with a particular team, they respond with heavy betting action. Teams with big-name stars, explosive offenses and a good record tend to take on a public team status. To the hordes of recreational bettors, laying the points on a public team is of no concern. Even huge point spreads will not weaken their zeal to bet on these squads.
It's in a bookie's best interest to try to balance out the action on as many games as possible each week. If successful, they are assured a profit because of the vig (commission) that is charged on sports bets. However, when public teams are involved it becomes increasingly difficult to get balanced action.
Therefore, bookies are faced with a quandary. If they set the line without the public in mind, they have to open their doors to the professionals in order to assure two-way action. The professional bettors - or 'wise guys' - make a living at the expense of the sports books. A more attractive option is for books to 'shade' the favorite. This involves tacking an extra point or two onto the line for the favored team. If the bookmaker thinks Philadelphia is a seven-point favorite over a much weaker team, for example, the line could be set at nine because the bookie knows they everyone will be betting the favorite.
This strategy, in effect, pits the bookie against the public - which is more desirable than going against the wise guys. If the bookies are adding points to the favorite, this would obviously create some chances to find value in going against these public teams. In addition to the extra points that bookmakers add to public team, they must also move their lines according to incoming handle. When going against public teams, it is often best to wait until right before game time to place a wager. This gives the smart player the best chance at getting the number he or she wants.
"The savvy bettor knows that when you see a real public team playing a not so public team, if you wait close to game time generally the public drives the number up a point or maybe a point and a half," said Leo Shafto, head oddsmaker for Royal Sports. "There certainly (can be) value (there)."
Public teams tend to gain popularity after the first month of the NFL season. Teams that go 3-0, and especially 4-0, are the ones that the public will jump on with reckless abandon. According to Bob Scucci, race and sports book director for the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, three wins to start the season doesn't necessarily win over the public. Four wins, however, is golden in the public's eyes.
"That (four) seems to be the critical number," he said. "The teams that go 4-0 usually make the playoffs and most of the time go pretty deep into the playoffs. We notice it after the fourth victory. That's when the money starts piling on. It's deep enough into the season where (bettors) know the team is not a fluke. There aren't four bad teams in the NFL."
Case in point is a team like Jacksonville, which is 3-0 straight up and against the spread with wins over Buffalo, Denver and Tennessee. Scucci said that he doesn't expect to get a huge amount of public action on the Jaguars this week for their home game against Indianapolis (the Jags were four-point dogs at press time). If the team does win that critical fourth game, they should become a public team - especially with teams like San Diego, Kansas City and Houston on the horizon.
Scucci thinks the public teams this year will be the Eagles, Minnesota, the Colts, Seattle and Oakland. The Raiders may seem like a surprise to be on this list. This is one of the rare teams that holds public team status from year to year unless they have a disastrous campaign like they did last season. Even though they are only 2-1 on the season, Scucci has been seeing a lot of renewed interest in the team from the public bettors. It doesn't hurt that the Stardust gets a large influx of Raider fans visiting every weekend from California.
One notable absence from Scucci's list of public teams is New England. This squad went 14-2 last season ATS en-route to a Super Bowl victory. The Stardust director thinks that this team does not have the (offensive) glitz and glamour that is a prerequisite for public team status. There's no McNabb to Owens, Manning to Harrison or Culpepper to Moss. The notion that the Pats are not a favorite of the general betting public is probably the only way the team managed to do so well ATS last season.
"It's a funny kind of phenomenon," commented Scucci. "The Pats win (so many) games in a row and for some reason the public still doesn't jump on this team. Maybe it is because they don't do anything terribly exciting. But all they ever do is win."
The public can be fickle and bookmakers must be able to adjust when public teams fall out of favor with the bettors. Kansas City is a great example. This was the most popular public team from last year. It had everything the public loves - an explosive offense and a roster full of Pro Bowlers. During its 9-0 start last year, the public developed a love affair with the team that has continued into the early part of this season. This is despite the fact that the team showed signs of being one dimensional down the stretch in 2003.
Now the Chiefs are 0-3 and winless ATS. The public has dropped them like a bad habit. The books were slow to adjust on the team after a big home loss to Carolina on Monday Night Football, Kansas City's second loss. They were installed as more than a touchdown favorite last week at home versus Houston. Scucci said the Stardust got beat pretty bad on the game because there was heavy action from the public on the Texans. The books had to rethink their strategy and this week the Chiefs are a 5 ½-point dog in Baltimore. Scucci believes the line could be close to seven by game time.
It is just as important for bookmakers to determine which teams will become the darlings of the public as anything else they do to prepare the number for a game. Mistaking where the public money will land could mean potential disaster for the books and potential profits for the die-hard students of football betting.