07/25/2001 11:00PM

Punters' paradise


Forget the XFL, NFL Europe, Arena League, and CFL. Those were just hors d'oeuvres on the football bettors' menu. And not very tasty ones at that.

The main course is the National Football League, and we're getting our first taste in less than a week. The preseason schedule begins next Friday. It's only the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons, but it's still preferable to watching or wagering on the Scottish Claymores and Barcelona Dragons.

There are three other games next weekend, including the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 6 between the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins. Nevada bettors have shown that they're ready for some football by moving that line a whopping seven points.

The Stardust opened the Rams at -4 earlier this month. The game didn't get much action until last week and was at -3 as recently as Tuesday. That's when St. Louis coach Mike Martz was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as saying, "We're going to use [the Hall of Fame Game] timing-wise as a scrimmage." The Rams, the favorite to win the Super Bowl, have five preseason games, so Martz obviously wants to bring his team along slowly.

Wise guys came in with limit bets (the Stardust's preseason limit is $2,000) on the Dolphins plus the points. The line dropped to -2, then -1, and other properties started making the Dolphins the favorite, and so did the Stardust. As of Thursday morning, the Dolphins were a 3-point choice.

Early bettors who took the Dolphins +4 must decide whether to go for a very hittable middle by taking the Rams +3. Trading has officially started on the football stock exchange.

Nevertheless, the NFL's regular season is still where the majority of players make their bets. And the sports books want that action. Today is the first day to sign up for the Las Vegas Hilton's SuperContest. The entry fee is $1,500 and is played by most of the top handicappers in town. Contestants pick five NFL sides a week, and the leaders' picks are posted on a board in the sports book and all of the selections are available on a handout.

The Stratosphere, which had a high-end contest the past two years to try and challenge the SuperContest, has discontinued the World Football Handicapping Championship and will host a combined season-long contest with sister properties Arizona Charlie's East (Decatur Boulevard) and Arizona Charlie's West (Boulder Highway). There is a $15 entry fee, and if you buy four entries you get a fifth one free. Players pick 15 sides (with selected totals added on the bigger bye weeks) per week and the grand prize is $100,000 to the season champion. Each week, $10,000 will be given to the person who picks the most winners, with a $2,000 progressive bonus for anyone having a perfect week ($2,000 is added each week until it's hit).

Details will be coming soon on Station Casinos and Coast Resorts football contests. In the past, players paid a $25 entry fee (Stations normally allows four paid entries per person, with a fifth one free, and Coast Resorts gives a free entry with two paid) and picked straight-up winners in those contests.

The Stardust and the Sunset Station will also soon be announcing the contestants in their invitation-only contests in which handicappers' selections are released free to the public in contests on the radio and sheets handed out in the sports books.

Plan for college

Even though the NFL is king, there is one minor league that bettors will seriously bet: college football.

After surviving a scare in Washington, D.C., with proposed legislation to ban Nevada from accepting wagers on college sports, the state's sports books are happy they will still be taking bets this fall. The first game is the John Thompson Challenge Classic between Louisville and New Mexico State on Aug. 23.

Park Place Entertainment (whose properties include Caesars Palace, Las Vegas Hilton, Flamingo, Bally's, and Paris) is reviving the College 101 handicapping contest with a $50,000 guaranteed first prize. It costs $50 to enter, and players can enter up to five times at each property. Ten selections are made each week from a list of games. In addition, the top three leaders at the halfway point of the season will win trips to the Rose Bowl, which is the BCS title game this season.

The Imperial Palace also has 77 college games already on the boards, plus over/unders on 25 top college teams.

It's enough to whet any appetite.