Bookmaker Windfall in College Football Assured by Top Teams' Weekly Upsets

Sports books stand to profit from a college football season where No. 1 teams were beaten three weeks in a row because bettors tend to wager on favorites.

The University of Oklahoma (6-1), which led the initial Bowl Championship Series rankings, lost last weekend to Missouri (7- 0); Ohio State and Alabama (both 7-1), who were atop the Associated Press polls the previous weeks, also were toppled.

Nevada sports books, which won an average of $18 million in college football wagers over the past 10 years, might see an increase of as much as 22 percent this year because college football fans are more likely to wager when underdogs are winning. Casual bettors typically like favorites, so casinos win, said Jeff Sherman, assistant general manager for the Hilton sports book.

“There is always more action on teams who are highly ranked, because people pay attention to what the media is saying about those teams,” Sherman said in a telephone interview. “Any time one of those teams goes down, it obviously bodes well for the books.”

The Nevada Gaming Commission reports that the state’s sports books have earned an average of $52 million each fiscal year on college and professional football wagers over the past decade. College football accounts for 35 percent of that total, about $18 million a year, according to RJ Bell, founder of Las Vegas-based Pregame.com, a handicapping information website; and Adam Young, head oddsmaker for Bodog.com, a gambling website.

Bell said the additional winnings the upsets generate for the books would push that to about $22 million.

Bettors Like Favorites

For most games, sports books offer odds for both teams to win outright as well as set a point spread, aimed at getting the same amount of money on each team. Casual bettors, who make up about 90 percent of the Hilton’s clientele, according to Sherman, tend to bet favorites because those are the teams with the most national interest.

Bookmakers tend to make money even when the underdog covers the spread and doesn’t win, because more often than not, there is more money on the favorite, Bell said.

“If you bet an underdog you are also accepting that you are betting the worse team,” Bell said in a telephone interview. “Instinctually that is not an attractive proposition for many people.”

The upsets have not made bettors lose faith in heavy favorites nor their ability to pick winners. The Hilton has had no drop in volume following this season’s major upsets, Sherman said.

“People just adjust to what they see,” he said. “Bettors may lose confidence in a certain team, but they will reposition their money on other games.”

Open Offenses

Limits on scholarships and high-scoring offenses have created an era of increased parity in college football, said Mike Seba, senior oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants Inc. Over the past four weeks, for example, Antigua-based Bodog.com has featured four different favorites in its BCS championship futures bet -- Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and now Oregon.

“In years past there has generally been a clear No. 1 with an easy schedule,” Young said. “This year teams have more tough games, and as a result there are more teams potentially playing for a BCS championship.”

The upsets at the top of the rankings have attracted money to the sports books that might not ordinarily be wagered. Young said Bodog has seen increased volume on its BCS championship futures bet, and wagers spread across a larger number of teams. He wouldn’t be specific.

“Unbiased bettors now have a wide variety of valid options, so a lot of different contenders are getting increased action,” Bell said. “Secondly, each of these contenders has a rabid fan base that will also back that team.”

More Contenders

The Hilton has seen distinct changes in the betting landscape following this month’s upsets. These changes, including more title contenders, work in the bookmakers’ favor.

“Earlier this year there was the perception that Alabama and Ohio State had some distance between other teams, but now it is much more open,” Sherman said. “That favors the casinos because if we can increase our handle (total amount wagered) and spread the money out across a number of different teams, it increases our pool.”

Sherman and Young both said the college football season has been good to bookmakers so far, but wouldn’t be specific on how profitable the upsets are for their books.

The University of Oregon (7-0) is No. 1 in the AP writers poll, and a 7-4 favorite to win the national title, according to the Hilton. Auburn University (8-0) leads the BCS rankings and is 7-2 to win the title, according to Bodog. Oregon is a touchdown favorite on the road against the University of Southern California (5-2) tomorrow. Auburn also is a touchdown favorite on the road over the University of Mississippi (3-4).

“This is a tough matchup for Oregon, but it is already our biggest bet game of the week, and everyone is taking Oregon,” Young said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York enovywilliam@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net.

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