A ridiculous proportion of the NFL's popularity can be tied directly to gambling. So what if, when considering how replacement refs are making games skewed and unpredictable, it was Vegas and not the viewers that finally forces the league's hand in negotiating with the locked-out officials? We considered the possibility before, as a long shot. But it's just Week 3, and already the scabs are giving oddsmakers major headaches.
First, a few numbers. Home teams went 14-2 last week, and are 23-9 on the year. They're 19-12-1 against the spread. Visiting teams have been whistled for 231 flags, compared to just 188 for home teams. Taken together, it's likely more than noise in a small sample.
The book Scorecasting found that home field advantage is almost totally about the officials, and how they tend to get swayed by home crowds. A veteran ref should be able to resist the urge to throw a flag when it's not warranted, even with 70,000 fans out for his blood. The new refs? Possibly a bit more intimated. And we've seen that, in the form of late flags and flags on nonexistent penalties. Defensive pass interference calls are up, as are defensive holding and illegal contact flags. You can barely touch receivers now, especially if they play for the home team.
Vegas is responding. According to the AP, Cantor Gaming oddsmaker Mike Colbert says home teams should get an extra half-point. And as Cantor goes (they run the sports books at the Hard Rock, the Tropicana, and the Venetian, among others), the rest of Vegas might have to follow.
A half-point isn't peanuts. That's about the same swing as a superstar skill position missing a game with an injury. Add to that Vegas predicting 46.1 points per game this weekend—the highest ever—and it's clear bookmakers are struggling with predicting how well the replacement refs can do their jobs.
"It's starting to concern us a bit," Colbert said. "(Officials) should have no influence on the total or the side.
"You've got to use prior experience - I don't know if anyone has prior experience with something like this."
Here's the thing to remember, though: point spreads aren't meant to predict how a game is going to turn out. They're intended to split the difference on where the bets are going to come in. So for oddsmakers, they're not just dealing with the uncertainty of the inexperienced, overmatched referees—they have to take into account the public's perception of the inexperienced, overmatched referees. It's a convoluted game of telephone, with scabs on one end and billions of dollars on the other.
Vegas hates uncertainty. But what about the bettors? Are they backing off? Just the opposite.
"Las Vegas is projecting the biggest football season ever," says R.J. Bell of Pregame.com. "I understand the theory that the replacement refs represent uncertainty, and uncertainty is bad for action—but in my experience, that's something that gamblers might talk about, but it won't hinder the amount they bet."
Bell adds that the first sign of trouble would be sports books lowering their limits, something that would only happen if they take baths week after week. We're not there yet. There's more money coming in than ever before, possibly from bettors who see the uncertainty and want to take advantage of lines they believe are off. It's a strange new world with these replacement refs, but it's not so far removed that bettors will take their action elsewhere.