09/12/2005 12:00AM

USA Today piece on lines got it part wrong


Last Thursday, USA Today ran a cover story in its sports section that detailed how football lines are set. Among the claims in the story was that the Stardust every week puts up the first betting lines on NFL games and that those lines are copied by sports books and Internet sites around the world.

The piece gave people around the country an insider glimpse into the legalized sports betting in Nevada. It made the state look good, and as a transplanted Nevadan I rarely have a problem with that. The problem with the story, as industry insiders and those in the know realize, is that it was outdated.

The days of the Stardust putting up the first lines in the world are long gone, as the offshore books CRIS and Olympic have beaten them by about an hour the last few years. The Stardust no longer puts up even the first lines in Las Vegas.

By my count, the Stardust is No. 3 every Sunday, and No. 4 if you count the fact that the Plaza has had lines on every NFL game to be played this season posted since Derby Week. So to call what goes up on Sunday night the "openers" is misleading in itself.

That point notwithstanding, the Las Vegas Hilton puts up lines on Tuesday for the games of the following week, 12 days in advance. So, this Tuesday, the Hilton posted lines for the games of Sept. 25-26, five full days before the Stardust will post its numbers.

But even for the most current adjustments, the Las Vegas Hilton - which will take down those early lines when the 10 a.m. Pacific time games began Sunday - posts updated lines at 4:30 p.m. They're followed by the Stratosphere, which is putting up its NFL numbers at 5 p.m, and then the Stardust at 5:30 p.m. (Note: the Stardust can still lay claim to being the first in town with its college football openers, though it's a virtual dead-heat because the Stratosphere is also putting up its college lines around 5:30 after bettors make their plays on the NFL board.)

In addition, Imperial Palace sports book manager Rich Dressler said he plans to put up the next week's NFL lines after halftime betting of the afternoon games close, at roughly 3 p.m.

So, while the efforts of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which was also featured in USA Today, and Bob Scucci and his staff at the Stardust are to be applauded, it isn't quite the picture painted by America's Newspaper. There is no one person coming down from the mount with the sacred tablets with next week's football odds. It's a process that plays out both here and offshore.

Last impressions are strongest

Sunday's games shook up the NFL with the Broncos, Vikings, and Rams suffering surprising defeats - and other teams, such as the Texans and Titans, playing even worse than expected. Some of the best advice I can give to bettors is to not read too much into a team's most recent performance, but obviously bookmakers know that most gamblers don't heed that advice and they adjust lines accordingly.

Take Sunday's upcoming Ravens-Titans game as an example. When the Hilton posted the line last Tuesday, it had the game at pick-em. After the Titans got blown out 34-7 by the Steelers, the line was adjusted on Sunday afternoon to Ravens - 5 1/2. The Ravens didn't look too good on Sunday night versus the Colts - and starting quarterback Kyle Boller was hurt - and as of noon Monday the line was down to Ravens -4.

Most other NFL lines are around where they were a week earlier, with the exception of the Steelers going from -3 to -6 versus the Texans, the Bengals going from -1 to -3 versus the Vikings, the Jets going from -7 1/2 to -6 versus the Dolphins, and - most significantly - the Chiefs going from a 1-point underdog versus the Raiders to a 1 1/2-point favorite on Sunday night.

Of course, the biggest change has nothing to do with the two teams' performances on the field. When the Plaza first put up its Week 2 numbers, the Saints were -5 1/2 vs. the Giants. After the league announced the game would be moved to New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Hilton put the line up at Giants -3 1/2. Both teams played well Sunday, and the line has settled at -3 everywhere.

* On the college betting boards, most of the line movement was by a half-point or a point. The most interesting development was the fact that the Stratopshere opened Wake Forest at -12 1/2 versus East Carolina while the Stardust opened it at -15 1/2. Not surprisingly, the professional bettors snapped up the three-point middle. Then the Stratosphere's line went up to 13 1/2 and the Stardust's dropped to 15.

Also at the Stratosphere, Alabama opened as a 1-point underdog at South Carolina and was bet to a 2-point favorite, while the biggest early move at the Stardust was Texas, fresh off its thrilling win over Ohio State, being bet from -38 to -40 versus Rice. (Note: The Stratosphere opened the line at Texas -41.)

Agassi nearly hurts hometown books

For a great many people, Sunday was all about football.

But on Sunday, Jay Kornegay, the Hilton sports book director, was watching the U.S. Open tennis men's final matchup, Andre Agassi versus Roger Federer, with particular interest. When the match was over, Kornegay rolled his eyes and let out a sigh of relief.

Tennis is not a big betting sport, not even its majors, but Agassi is a Las Vegas native and is popular all over the country, and he took nearly all of the betting for Sunday's match.

"We took 57 bets on the match, and only one of them was on Federer," Kornegay said after consulting a computer.

The Hilton, which also had liability in its future book on Agassi at 40-1 to win the tournament, opened Federer at -900 and closed him at -600, so there were a lot of bets in the 4-1 to 6-1 range on Agassi. Kornegay couldn't go into actual dollar amounts, but had Agassi won, Kornegay confirmed that the book's loss would have been more than on any football game Sunday.

With Federer 7-0 versus Agassi, 5-0 in Grand Slam finals, and 23-0 in championship matches, Kornegay wasn't worried until he heard that Agassi won the second set. Then, when he saw Agassi break Federer's serve in the third set, all his focus turned on the match.

"Here it is, the opening Sunday of the NFL season and I'm watching tennis," Kornegay said with a laugh, since he was able to laugh by that time. "When I said 'It's out,' I wasn't talking about a receiver out of bounds but about a tennis ball on the baseline."

Federer rallied to win the third set in a tiebreaker and then closed out the match by winning the fourth set.