The Detroit Lions, with more winless seasons than playoff appearances over the past 10 years, would have made $450,130 for a bettor who wagered $100 on the club in December and stayed with it.
Undefeated through five games this year for the first time since 1956, the Lions are 13-0-1 against the point spread in their past 14 games, including preseason, according to RJ Bell, founder of the handicapping information website Pregame.com. That means a $100 bet on the team starting Dec. 5, 2010, with winnings continually reinvested, would have grown 4,500-fold. The Lions are 4 1/2-point favorites when they host the San Francisco 49ers in two days.
The Lions finished 0-16 in 2008, haven’t had a winning season since 2000 and haven’t made the playoffs since 1999. The team is undervalued by bettors because of its small media market and history of losing, Bell said.
“Detroit has a long history of underperformance and futility,” Bell said from Las Vegas in a telephone interview. “Whenever a team that has a decade of history in a certain direction, in this case a poor history, does something that deviates from that direction, it’s generally considered an aberration.”
Nevada sports books took in $1.2 billion in professional and college football wagers during the fiscal year ending in June 2010, according to Nevada Gaming Control Board senior analyst Frank Streshley, who is based in Las Vegas. NFL bets account for roughly 66 percent, or $792 million, of that total, according to Bell.
The purpose of the point spread is to get similar amounts of money bet on each team. That reduces risk for the bookmaker, who makes money on the betting fees. The odds of a team randomly winning 13 games against the spread without a loss are 8,192-to-1. Las Vegas Hilton sport book assistant manager Jeff Sherman said he couldn’t remember another team with a similar streak.
“It’s extremely rare,” Sherman said in a telephone interview. “Usually at four or five consecutive, bettors think, ’This team keeps covering, let me bet on them,’ and the line gets inflated.”
Sherman said betting on the Lions has increased as the season has progressed.
Bell said the market’s continued undervaluation also applies to teams such as the Buffalo Bills and 49ers, both currently 4-1 after a combined two winning seasons in the past nine years.
“There are certain teams that are looked at with a skeptical eye because of previous losing seasons, just as there are teams that everyone wants to believe are good,” Bell said.
The 49ers are 4-0-1 against the spread this year, the only other team that hasn’t fallen below the points each game in 2011, according to Bodog.com, an Antigua-based gambling website.
Adam Young, Bodog’s head oddsmaker, said Detroit’s 13-0-1 run is more of a coincidence and an oversight by oddsmakers. The Lions rallied from 20-point deficits to cover against the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings this season, and played the final eight games of last season without quarterback Matthew Stafford.
“The stat goes into last year, when Stafford was injured and the team was mostly underdogs, whereas now they are more often the favorite,” Young said in a telephone interview. “It’s two different teams, really.”
Detroit’s current team is a reflection of the draft picks afforded to them by that previous futility. The Lions picked either first or second in the 2007, 2009 and 2010 drafts, and used those spots to select wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Johnson has set an NFL record with nine touchdown catches through the team’s first five games and Suh led his position with 10 sacks as a rookie last season. Stafford, whose mother hadn’t been born yet when the team last was 5-0, is one of six quarterbacks with a passer rating over 100 this year.
Sherman and Young said that bettors will continue to favor the Lions until the streak ends. Action on this weekend’s spread at Bodog has been heavily weighted toward Detroit, with roughly 60 percent of bettors choosing the home team, Young said.
“Bettors are more likely to follow the trend and keep betting on Detroit,” he said. “Instead of the guy who goes to a roulette table, sees there have been 10 black numbers in a row and therefore bets red.”
The Lions have averaged 63,950 fans at their two home games this season -- over 99 percent of Ford Field’s capacity -- after averaging 49,395 two years ago. During the team’s Oct. 10 victory against the division-rival Chicago Bears, Detroit’s first Monday night game since 2001, the noise from the largest football crowd in stadium history contributed to nine false-start penalties on the visiting offense.
Country Catching On
Defensive end Cliff Avril said the fans’ passion and team’s resurgence don’t surprise those in the Lions’ locker room.
“We know the potential we have, we know what kind of guys we have,” Avril said after the 24-13 win against the Bears. “So it’s not surprising, it is just a great feeling for the rest of the country to see.”
The rest of the country is catching on quickly, according to Bell. He said the length of the streak and the team’s performance against the Bears will alert bettors around the country that the team has broken from its previous direction.
“The big marquee games help offset the small media market, because no matter who’s on ‘Monday Night Football,’ you get a lot of attention,” he said. “The public has already caught up.”