Overall—and I’ll spare you the details—my football gambling track record isn’t pretty, so when I ended the 2016 regular season well in the black, I knew something was off. And after reaching out to a bookie on the West Coast, my suspicions were confirmed. No, I had not finally cracked the football gambling code. My winnings were simply part of a larger trend.
“Usually around 10 percent of the guys finish up on the year,” the bookie said. “This year, it was probably 22 percent.”
Local bookies aren’t the most sympathetic figures; it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy whose business model is contingent on fathers drunkenly betting the family’s Christmas fund on the Cleveland Browns. (“Sorry, sweetie, Santa must have run out of Shopkins. Maybe next year.”) Still, due largely to this dramatic increase in winning clients, the bookie saw, he says, a 10-percent drop in football related revenue in 2016. And given the fact that football betting makes up 75 percent of his total business, that sudden drop had an even more pronounced effect on his wallet than it seems.
(Given the illicit nature of their business, it was impossible to confirm the figures the bookies I talked to for this story shared with me, at least without risking my thumbs, so take their claims with a grain of salt.)
According to the bookie, his numbers were not an outlier. Similar stories were playing out with colleagues in his area. When I contacted a second bookie based in the Midwest—a self-described “middleman,” presumably for a larger organization, but I wasn’t about to ask—his mood was even less cheerful.
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“Terrible, just terrible,” he said while describing the season.
According to the middleman, 2016 was one of his worst years in recent memory.
“Favorites and overs, favorites and overs,” he said, describing the bets that wreaked havoc on his bottom line. “Patriots and Atlanta. The Steelers. The typical teams will kill you.”
When pressed to explain the losses, he blamed the Vegas sportsbooks.
“Vegas kept putting out the wrong numbers,” he said. “They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
According to Walter Cherepinsky, a veteran football gambling and fantasy sports blogger, the bookie’s anger toward Vegas is justified.
“Horrible teams like the Browns, 49ers, and Rams failed to cover on a weekly basis because the spreads were too low,” Cherepinsky said via email. “[Vegas sportsbooks] were too slow to make adjustments.”
Cherepinsky should know. He’s spent the past 17 years running WalterFootball.com, a Drudge Report-esque site catering to degenerates instead of deplorables. In a recent post, Cherepinsky put 2016’s Vegas betting lines in historical context: He found that teams favored by six points or more covered nearly 65 percent of the time. That’s the highest win percentage against the spread in over a quarter century. And given the general public’s tendency to bet high-profile favorites, it was very bad news for bookies.
“Laying points is more often a losing proposition than not,” Cherepinsky wrote. “But that hasn’t been the case this year. In fact, we’ve never seen anything like it.”
But the bad news (or good news, if you’re a gambler) didn’t stop there. Cherepinsky also found that the 2016 NFL season saw an inordinate amount of highly-favored teams winning outright, as well as a higher-than-normal amount of postseason games hitting the over. This spelled trouble for any bookmakers who offered combination bets such as teasers and parlays.
“From 1989 to 2016, favorites of six or more have won outright 77.5 percent of the time, but this year they were [87.7 percent], the highest percentage since at least 1989,” Cherepinsky said. “When favorites of six or more win outright, teasers hit, and that means the books lose.”
While the fact that Vegas so often missed the mark in 2016 could simply be a statistical anomaly, Cherepinsky feels it might have more to do with sportsbooks attempting to influence “sharp bettors”—knowledgeable high-rollers who place extremely large sports wagers.
“It seems as though the books were catering toward the sharp money too much,” Cherepinsky said. “And the public took them to the cleaners most weeks in the second half of the season.”
While the West Coast bookie I spoke with agreed that Vegas dropped the ball on setting lines for high-profile favorites, he was even less enthusiastic about its work on setting moneylines for underdogs.
“Moneyline dogs stood out,” he said. “Even the public knew when they were bad. It’s not necessarily that more won, but [those] that did had a lot of action.”
An out-of-whack moneyline is always bad for bookies. But it becomes an even larger issue during the playoffs, when gamblers who normally choose from over a dozen weekly games are offered only four. The amount wagered on a single game intensifies, and if the public smells blood, everyone and their brother ends up piling on the same team, creating a huge liability for whoever is taking bets.
“During the regular season, our handle is not drastically different from the playoffs,” the bookie said, referring to the total amount bet each week. “Those guys who were betting $400 on three or four games are putting it all on one or two in the playoffs. Wildcard weekend, three-out-of-four favorites won. And the one dog that won [Green Bay], everybody played it on the moneyline. And it was the only dog people played.
“Green Bay, Dallas,” he said. “That game hurt.”
Of course, there’s nothing to stop local bookies from ignoring Vegas and adjusting their lines as they see fit. But doing so runs the risk of losing clients to competitors offering more favorable spreads. And deviating too far from Vegas also makes them a target for gamblers seeking to “bet the middle,” exploiting a gap in spreads between two different bookies in order to shift risk back onto the bookmakers. In other words, whatever the theory, in practice Vegas ends up having the final say.
While the problems plaguing Vegas sportsbooks trickled down to their small-time counterparts, that wasn’t the only shit rolling down the hill; the NFL’s much-discussed drop in ratings also had a negative effect on bookies. After all, if fewer people are watching, fewer people are playing.
“Less money was played, for sure,” the West Coast bookie said.
After looking over his figures, he attributed roughly half of his 10 percent decline in football revenue to a decreased interest in the sport. However, while many commentators have attributed NFL viewership woes to everything from the election to players protesting police brutality, he had a different take.
“Last year everyone was playing so much fantasy sports, kind of like when [Chris] Moneymaker won the World Series Of Poker, and everybody fucking played poker,” he said. “The FanDuel/DraftKings scandal probably hurt. People who weren’t very good anyway saw that and said fuck it.”
According to the bookie, when fantasy football took a hit, it spilled over into gambling.
“Lots of people watching [the NFL] weren’t big sports fans, but were watching for their fantasy players,” he said. “As much as the fantasy sports guys say it’s not gambling, it’s fucking gambling. And when those guys didn’t stick around, they stopped playing with us, too. Some of it could be Colin Kaepernick and his nonsense, but I doubt it.”
J. Matheli should have gone to law school.