03/11/2004 12:00AM

Arena Football winning bettors over

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Arena Football, the fun, indoor game with a field half the size of the conventional variety, no punting allowed, and with nets in the end zone to keep missed field goals in play, has been around for 20 years.

The game has grown in the past five years, especially after Kurt Warner went from arena ball to leading the Rams to the Super Bowl. And it has continued to prosper, with the Arena Football League growing to 19 teams and having a national TV contract with NBC the past two seasons.

Interest has grown in the betting arena as well, with more Las Vegas casinos offering the sport. Chuck Esposito, director of race and sports book operations for the Caesars Entertainment properties, said handle has increased by 20 percent over the past two years.

"It really helped a lot when we got a team," Esposito said of last year's move of the Gladiators' franchise from New Jersey to Las Vegas. "That dramatically changed the number of people here who follow the league, and we now have regular customers asking for the numbers before we put them up each Wednesday."

Chris David, managing editor of VegasInsider.com, is considered one of the foremost experts on Arena Football handicapping. VI's odds are posted each week on NBC's pregame show and David's analysis of each week's action is circulated to beat writers across the country and posted on the VI website.

David says arena play is a totally different game. Players are asked to do different things, such as playing on both offense and defense. It's eight-on-eight, and the offenses are in control because all of the rules are pretty much set up to help them. David said teams get an average of 11 to 12 possessions a game, and it's very important to convert those possessions into touchdowns. Teams that settle for field goals - which are attempted at uprights that are half as wide as the ones in the NFL - are up against it.

David said the biggest surprise in the first five weeks of the season has been the play of the three expansion teams, especially the New Orleans VooDoo (4-1) and Austin Wranglers (3-1), who are 1-2 in the Southern division.

"People who bet them early in the future books at 50-1 have to be feeling really good right now," David said. "The Colorado Crush (4-1) have already won twice as many games as they did all last season and were 40-1 before the season. They could be the arena equivalent of the Carolina Panthers, who went from a 1-15 record to playing in the Super Bowl two years later."

But David isn't sure the Cinderella teams will be able to avoid having midnight strike.

"I hate to use the word parity, but there's certainly a sense of balance in the league this year," David said, pointing out that there are no undefeated teams after only five weeks. "In the end, however, I think the top teams will come through."

According to odds by Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the San Jose SaberCats are the 3-1 favorite to win the Arena Bowl on June 25, followed by the Los Angeles Avengers (6-1), Chicago Rush (7-1), Arizona Rattlers (8-1), and the New Orleans VooDoo (10-1).

The hometown Gladiators have seen their odds raised from 10-1 to 25-1 after an 0-2 start. They then won two straight before losing last Sunday at Georgia. This Sunday, the Gladiators face a tough divisional test against the Rattlers, who also started 0-2 but have won three in a row. The Gladiators are favored by 3 points in the key Western division game at 3 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The total opened at 100 but had been bet down to 99 at most local sports books as of noon Thursday. Although the league has a reputation for high-scoring games, the under actually holds a 27-18 advantage so far this season, as oddsmakers appear to be setting the totals higher in anticipation of bettors wanting to take the over.

Underdogs have also been cashing, with a 30-15 record against the spread, while road teams are 24-21. Road teams were doing even better before last week, when home teams went 7-2 against the spread while winning every game outright.

"The trends are reverting back to form," David said, pointing out that the over was also 7-2 last week. He expects that reversal to continue with the Gladiators-Rattlers game.

"Arizona and Las Vegas both possess solid offenses," he said. "Both teams have seen the under go 4-1 on the season. I think we will see some fireworks this week in Vegas, as points will be posted in bunches."

College basketball field levels out

If David thinks arena football has parity, it's nothing compared to college basketball. With top stars such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony playing in the NBA instead of in college, the playing field in college has been leveled.

"This year, more than ever, the NCAA tournament is wide open," Esposito said Thursday morning. "St. Joe's got blown out [Thursday] for their first loss, so they're not invincible. Stanford was unbeaten, and then they were lucky not to lose two in a row. There are going to be a lot of upsets. There are a lot of young teams that are hungry with something to prove. There are going to be 45 to 50 teams that really think they have a legitimate shot of winning the championship."

After the last of the conference tournaments wrap up this weekend and the NCAA field is announced Sunday, Esposito said the Caesars properties will put up opening-round numbers Monday morning. Except for a few big spreads with No. 1 seeds vs. No. 16 and No. 2 vs. No. 15, Esposito said he doesn't expect to see too many other big point spreads.

More weekend sports on tap

"Sugar" Shane Mosley is a -300 favorite to beat Ronald "Winky" Wright on Saturday night at Mandalay Bay here in Las Vegas, in a fight that has been dubbed the "War at 154." Mosley (39-2 with 35 knockouts), who will try to unify the light middleweight class, is a popular fighter with a huge following. He also owns the WBA and WBC belts, whereas Wright (46-3, 45 KOs) is a relative unknown even though he holds the IBF title. The fight is expected to go the distance, with bettors taking the "will go 12 rounds" being asked to risk -180, while the "will not go" is at +160.

* After a very successful stop in Las Vegas last weekend, when Matt Kenseth defended his title in the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 - and won his second straight race on this year's circuit, too - NASCAR heads back to the South, with the Golden Corral 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. In addition to the show put on at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, local sports books were also reporting record handle on the race. This week's betting will pale by comparison with last week's race. Tony Stewart is the 6-1 favorite, followed by Jeff Gordon at 7-1, Kenseth and Bobby Labonte both at 8-1, and the trio of Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at 10-1.