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NFL Bacarrat

Recently, this message was posted to the Sports Gambling Discussion List. It is an excellent question regarding an often misunderstood phenomenon in sports wagering.

"My question is: This past week was a dog weekend, mostly the underdogs won...is this because the lines maker overrated the favorites? How do you handicap this and when do you know if the line is lopsided? I'm not trying to get into your handicapping secrets but a little insight will be helpful."

Oddsmakers have an excellent grasp of public perception. They have to. The very nature of their task is not to formulate a line which is consistent with a realistic outcome, but to formulate a line which will split public opinion and therefore dollars wagered. Not suprisingly, many of these numbers fall reasonably close to the final outcome but when there are huge discrepancies, they are accounted for by one of several factors:

Chance: It is the nature of the game. The sharpest oddsmakers and handicappers in the business can’t predict Lady Luck. When a team commits an unreasonable number of turnovers, games will get out of hand.The public over- or underestimates a team: Most common with public favorites like Green Bay for example, who went 5-9-2 ATS in ’97 largely because public expectations of them were higher than reasonable and as a result the line on the Pack was set higher in expectation of heavy action and further driven up by actual monies wagered on them.

With that in mind, is there anything to be learned when an unusual amount of underdogs or favorites win in a given week? Well, let’s first lay the groundwork for this discussion. Understanding the numbers is fundamental in this or any discussion regarding sports wagering.

Firstly, betting patterns show that the public generally likes betting on favorites. Not suprisingly, favorites wind up on the short end of the stick when it’s all said and done at the end of an NFL season; not overwhelmingly, mind you, but marginally enough for books to enjoy a padded advantage on the public-at-large on top of the 110-100 juice they already enjoy.

 

“..one might expect the remainder of the 1998 season
to favor the underdogs by a tune of 108-83-86
which would produce a profit for a dime bettor
of $16,700 by simply betting blindly on every underdog”
Over the years favorites have covered approx. 48-49% of NFL games. Since the NFL went to a 240-game schedule when Jacksonville and Carolina entered the picture, NFL underdogs have gone 375-325-20 which accounts for all regular season games from 1995, 1996 and 1997. Moreover, they’ve been consistent with underdogs winning (ATS) 124 games in 1996 and 1997 and winning 127 games in 1995.

That brings up an interesting scenario for contrarion bettors in 1998. As of week 3 of the 1998 season, favorites have already gone 26-16-1. Therefore, if one were to agree that the numerical realities in the NFL were to hold, then one might expect the remainder of the 1998 season to favor the underdogs by a tune of 108-83-6 which would produce a profit for a dime bettor of $16,700.00 by simply betting blindly on every underdog the rest of the season. However, that is simply a numerical theory which could bankrupt one quickly should the “theory” prove wrong. Allow me to draw a parallel between that and a favorite past time of mine — Baccarat.

 

Baccarat — the 50-50 Proposition

Of all the casino games, Baccarat offers the best percentage to the player. It’s a simple game where there is a “player” hand and a “dealer” hand. Bettors can bet on either the player hand or dealer hand to win – neither hand holds an advantage over the other – it’s simply a 50-50 proposition (actually it’s a little worse when considering pushes but for this discussion we won’t go there).

The house makes its money by charging a commission on profits made by those who have won by betting the dealer hand. Therefore, over the long run you lose a little betting on the dealer hand but in theory should break even (less pushes) betting the player hand. To beat the game, players devise numerical strategies. Some players like to ride a streak; if the dealer or player hands wins two in a row, they jump on and ride it till the hand loses. Another strategy is to lay low and bet heavy when a hand is “due” or in other words, should the player hand lose three straight, bet heavy on the player hand to win. Another strategy and probably the most foolish is the double up strategy, where a player would simply bet the player hand and keep doubling up until it wins. This strategy is entrenched in the philosophy that this 50-50 game will have to even out and the odds of one hand or another winning 12 straight or more is minute enough to warrant the risk. These players go broke quick after hitting the wrong side of that unbelievable run.

Whatever strategies a player eventually creates, he usually bases his decisions on a scorecard which all Baccarat players keep in hopes of recognizing some winning formula or pattern in the results. We have prepared our own “scorecard” of NFL games over the past four seasons for illustration in this discussion.

 

1995 SCORECARD 

WEEK Home Teams Favorites Home Fav’s Home Dogs
1 7-7-1 8-6-1 4-4-1 3-3
2 5-10 9-6 5-6 0-4
3 8-7 7-8 6-6 2-1
4 9-3 7-5 7-3 2-0
5 5-7-1 5-7-1 2-4-1 3-3
6 7-6 6-7 5-5 2-1
7 8-5 2-11 2-5 6-0
8 6-5 2-9 2-5 4-0
9 6-7 7-6 5-5 1-2
10 7-6 7-6 6-5 1-1
11 7-7 7-7 6-6 1-1
12 5-10 7-8 4-7 1-3
13 10-5 8-7 5-2 5-3
14 7-8 6-8 5-7 2-1
15 7-8 8-7 4-4 3-4
16 7-8 5-8 4-7 3-1
17 6-9 8-7 3-4 3-5
TOTAL 117-118 108-127 75-85 42-33

1996 SCORECARD 

WEEK Home Teams Favorites Home Fav’s Home Dog’s
1 12-3 8-7 7-2 5-1
2 9-6 11-4 8-3 1-3
3 7-6 9-4 7-4 0-2
4 5-8 3-10 2-7 3-1
5 9-4 10-3 7-1 2-3
6 3-9 7-5 3-5 0-4
7 4-8-1 3-9-1 2-7-1 2-1
8 8-4-1 5-7-1 5-4-1 3-0
9 7-7 6-8 5-6 2-1
10 7-7 5-9 4-6 3-1
11 9-6 5-10 4-5 5-1
12 5-10 6-9 5-9 0-1
13 8-7 5-10 4-6 4-1
14 10-5 11-4 8-2 2-3
15 10-5 6-9 6-5 4-0
16 8-7 7-8 5-5 3-2
17 10-5 7-8 7-5 3-0
TOTAL 131-107 114-124 89-82 42-25

 

1997 SCORECARD 

WEEK Home Teams Favorites Home Fav’s Home Dogs
1 8-6-1 5-9-1 4-5-1 4-1
2 5-9-1 4-10-1 1-6 4-3-1
3 3-10 4-9 3-9 0-1
4 7-6 6-7 6-6 1-0
5 9-4 8-5 7-3 2-1
6 5-7-1 6-6-1 4-5-1 1-2
7 7-5 5-7 5-5 2-0
8 5-7-1 6-6-1 2-3-1 3-4
9 4-8-2 5-7-2 3-6-2 1-2
10 7-4-3 6-5-3 4-2-3 3-2
11 7-8 12-3 7-3 0-5
12 9-6 7-8 5-4 4-2
13 9-6 7-8 6-5 3-1
14 3-11-1 4-10-1 1-8 2-3-1
15 5-8-1 5-8-1 3-6-1 2-2
16 7-7-1 6-8-1 4-5-1 3-2
17 7-8 7-8 6-7 1-1
TOTAL 107-120 103-124 71-88 36-32

 

1998 SCORECARD 

WEEK Home Teams Favorites Home Fav’s Home Dogs
1 7-8 9-6 6-5 1-3
2 8-7 7-8 6-6 2-1
3 9-3-1 10-2-1 9-2 0-1-1

In the above tables, noteworthy results are listed in bold print. What stands out in the above tables are:

 

  1. Home underdogs are a consistently solid bet in the long run, which is something we already knew. 
  2. Underdogs hold a marginal edge over the long run, which is something else we already knew. 
  3. There is NO PATTERN of results. 

Take 1996 for example. In week 13, underdogs went 10-5 and the following week favorites cleaned up 11-4. In weeks 4 and 5 of ’96, exactly the same phenomenon occurred. Can we assume then that after a big dog week that favorites would win the next?

Not so. Have a look at 1996 weeks 2 and 3. In week 2, favorites covered 11 of 15 games and those who covered the board of underdogs in week 3 expecting a turnaround would have been heavily punished as favorites continued their roll, covering 9 of 13 spreads. The same situation occurs in 1995 where underdogs took it home in weeks 7 and 8.

Now, instead of going on with specific examples, I’ll leave it to you to browse over and draw your own conclusions. As you will see, it’s very much the same as Baccarat in that numerically, we are dealing with something that is 50-50 by nature and holds no rhyme or reason in so far as numeric patterns go.

 

“In the overall you can count on nearly a 50-50 split
but on each individual flip you can count on nothing.”
For those not familiar with Baccarat, let’s liken it to a coin flip. Odds are that if you flip a coin 240 times you will get 120 heads and 120 tails, or very close to it. Along the way you will encounter a streak where the coin lands on heads 10 in a row, for example. But understand that no matter how many in a row it lands either way, that does not increase the chances of landing on the other side one iota beyond 50%. In the overall you can count on nearly a 50-50 split but on each individual flip you can count on nothing. In so much as numbers are concerned – it is important to be aware of what they are – it is important to understand how they work – but to rely on these types of random numbers to wager specific games is foolhardy.

Having stated that, we still do find value in these numbers in the overall analysis. Sports wagering is, after all, different than Baccarat and coin tossing in that there are tangible factors that play with the critical numbers. Public opinion, oddsmaker adjustments and outside events (weather, injuries, etc.) make for an ever-changing landscape in which these numbers are decided. Knowing the long term reality of the numbers assists us to the extent that it sets up a numerical environment which favors one side or another.

For example, so far in 1998 favorites have gone 26-16-1 ATS after week 3 of the regular season. It would be naive to assume, therefore, that week 4 will be an underdog slaughter of the favorites based solely on the numerical truths to this point. However, we can expect these early results to increase public confidence in NFL favorites to a degree which would drive up the numbers and therefore increase the “value” in the point spreads favorable to the underdogs.

It’s equally reasonable to assume that when the season is all said and done, underdogs will have done no worse than a 50-50 result, but in fact will likely hold a marginal edge. This is a reasonable assumption based not on a numerical theory, but in fact based on 30 years of wagering research which shows a distinct public fondness for playing favorites. The fact that favorites have done so well in 1998 early on should have an impact on the offered lines as the season progresses.

In other words, it sets up “an environment” which favors underdog wagers. But it does not substitute sound handicapping of specific games. Remember, Brett Farvre could care less that favorites covered 10 of 13 games in week 3. The onus is still on you as a handicapper to decide if Brett Farvre and the Packers can handle a 7 point spot in Carolina. Being aware of the current “underdog environment” however, may lend added confidence to a given underdog selection and likewise should be cause for second thoughts on a favorite which you are humming and hawing about, particularly if there has been significant line movement through the week.

In the final analysis – be aware of the numerical situations, current and overall for the season, but don’t let numerical situations take the place of sound handicapping. Roll up your sleeves and do your handicapping as you normally would and don’t let the numerical situation scare you off a favorite you are really sold on. But likewise be aware of the environment and don’t be afraid to pass on that wishy-washy favorite or upgrade an underdog selection from a reasonably strong wager to a solid wager. Numbers are important but they are no substitute for sound capping.

Good Luck and God Bless.

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