12/08/2005 1:00AM

Success of NFL favorites causing a perfect storm


From a betting perspective, this NFL season has been unlike any other.

But first a little background.

In the history of sports betting, the public tends to bet favorites, figuring the better team will probably win and should be able to win by at least "that much against that team" - regardless if the number is 3 or 7 or 20 or whatever the line is in a given case. It sure looks simple, but if that was how it worked, none of us ever would have lost as horseplayers or sports bettors. Novice bettors soon find out that upsets happen a lot more than most people realize and that the point spread is the great equalizer.

In general, professional bettors love to fade the public. The saying goes that if you like a favorite, bet it early before the line moves, and if you like the underdog, bet it late. The wise guys - and again this is in general terms - are much more likely to wait until just before gametime to bet an underdog and get the maximum value.

Usually, underdogs cover slightly more than favorites. In the past, this has meant that professional bettors and bookmakers usually end up on the same side of games and the long-term effect is that the books and wise guys both feast on the losing general public.

Now to the present. This is far from a normal year.

Favorites are covering at a nearly 60 percent clip: 112-76-4 against the spread. Excluding ties, that's 59.57 percent win rate before rounding up. This has led to the sports books here in Las Vegas - and bookies everywhere for that matter, whether they be illegal backroom operations or offshore corporations - bleeding a lot of red ink. It's especially true of bookies that take parlay action in which previously chronic losing bettors are cashing for huge sums this year because they're stringing together all the favorites. Every week here in Vegas, tales are told of people hitting multiple 3-, 4-, 5-, 7- or 10-team parlays. One casino company that was taking 15-team parlays (worth $100,000 for a $5 bet) paid out over a half-million dollars and discontinued the bet because it wiped out years of profits on those parlay cards in a matter of weeks.

There has been a lot of finger pointing as to whom or what's to blame for this crazy season. Some point to the oddsmakers for shading the numbers too low. And then, even when favorites were covering in record numbers and it appeared there was a clear case of haves and have-nots in the NFL, the oddsmakers have been said to be slow to adjust, perhaps waiting for things to even out like they usually do.

Still others are pointing fingers at the Gaming Control Board. In recent years, a lot has been done to discourage action from big bettors in Nevada. Limits have been lowered so that getting down big money is much harder than it used to be - especially at the "right" number that the pros shop for. All transactions of $10,000 or more generate a report. Phone accounts, which used to be a big tool of big bettors and syndicates, are limited to $2,200 in daily action, with several major books no longer having phone accounts.

All of the above has had the effect of sending a lot of big business offshore, where big bettors can get down much more money much easier and with less scrutiny. Add in how difficult it can be to fight traffic - both vehicular and foot - to get in and out of a lot of the sports books here, and it's no surprise that a lot of pros see betting in Vegas as an inconvenient way to do business.

In a normal year, the books wouldn't be complaining about that. In theory, losing those sharp players just means that they stood to make more money from the public without sharing it with the wise guys.

But as any bookmaker knows, that then means you're gambling instead of booking. And when the favorites started to roll in, the books didn't have the big action to balance their liability. But even if the books did have that balance on straight bets, it still wouldn't have saved them from the parlays.

When taking a step back and looking at the whole situation, it truly is a combination of things. In a way, it's like what the National Weather Service called the "perfect storm" in October 1991. You'll probably recognize the term from the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger or the major-motion picture of 2000 starring George Clooney. In that case, it was a lot of different meteorological factors and pressure systems that came together at the right time to create a catastrophic event.

The same could be said of the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast this past year. Yes, the hurricanes were big but the utter and complete devastation was a culmination of the building in that region, the lack of adequate safety measures, the effects of global warming, etc.

The same thing here. The fact the favorites are coming in at record numbers this year was a bad enough storm, but when you combine it with the events that preceded it - lines set lower than in the past, professional bettors being forced to take their business elsewhere, etc. - all those things also led to this perfect storm.

And this storm has a recovery effort under way, too. Bettors who have had their money tied up in offshore books all season will be looking to recover their money soon. With football being the No. 1 betting sport by far, it's quite common for recreational players to withdraw from their accounts at the end of the season. Books that have not prepared for such a disastrous season, or ones that have squandered players' post-up money on the assumption that the majority of bettors will lose eventually, could be hard-pressed to pay off all the winners at season's end. Obviously, if you think your book deals to a lot of unsophisticated chalk players - which this year in the NFL would be aka "a winner" - that could be a warning sign.

Already there has started to be rumblings on Internet forums about offshore sports books taking their time with payouts. I'm leery about suggesting a "run on the bank" here that could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but everyone has to make that decision for himself about whether he thinks his money is safe.

So, just be forewarned that another storm may be brewing.