can neatly divide any Nevada sports book or sports bar
into two groups: fantasy football guys and gambling guys.
It’s not that there isn’t sports gambling going
on in other places and other states, it’s just that
its legal here and people are more up front about it. At
one table they have their fantasy rosters in front of them
while they watch the games and the guys at the next station
are reviewing their betting slips and parlay cards. No
And yet the divide between the two camps couldn’t
be larger. Fantasy players look at handicappers as gambling
degenerates and football betters view fantasy players
as adults playing a child’s game. Both sides have
the same interest, watch the same games, and both focus
on the game’s statistics and yet both camps prefer
to close their eyes and pretend the other doesn’t
But having hung around these places every Sunday in
the fall, you can’t help striking up conversations
with those on the other side of the great divide. And
what do you know? Almost all the gamblers also play fantasy
football (even the heavy-hitters, although they are loathe
to come clean about it) and almost all the fantasy football
players I’ve spoken to have on at least one occasion
used their football knowledge to place a bet or play
in the office pool (the author included). At last, some
So, is there something you can learn from sports
gaming that would give you an edge in your fantasy
you listen to Nevada sports radio this time of year,
you can’t avoid the handicapping shows. If a casino
doesn’t have its own hour or ninety-minute show
then they have their sports book director as a guest
on someone else’s show. It’s all football
handicapping, all the time. A listener is bombarded day
after day with nothing but statistics and analysis: some
good, some not but information nonetheless. Much of this
is opinion, some of it good research, and some requires
some skill with statistics, but there is fantasy gold
buried there if you know how to find it. My goal is to
find that gold for the reader each week.
Given that who wins a football game is unimportant
to the performance of an individual player within the
game, fantasy players should not be terribly concerned
with point spreads. On the other hand, the totals
line put out by the line makers is interesting.
In this type of wager you are betting that the total
number of points scored by both teams will either exceed
or fall short of the betting line. The factors captured
by this number are relevant. It measures a team’s
ability to sustain peak performance or recover from dull
efforts, the psychology of a key divisional game vs.
other games, and the underlying philosophy of a team,
an ability to create or avoid turnovers, and other factors
that come into play. A high total line tells the reader
that the casinos are expecting an offensive shootout
(good for your fantasy players) a low total line can
be read as a tight, defensive battle (bad for fantasy
players). Moreover, a team’s performance against
the totals line can also be revealing.
Technical handicappers believe there are certain patterns
that have developed over the years that are unique to
a specific team. In other words, teams are organic and
have personalities of their own. This personality is
reflected in the ownership of the team, the coaches,
general manager and scouting staff and their philosophies,
the types of players they sign and draft, etc. Some organizations
put an emphasis on offense (Rams and 49ers) some are
built on defense (Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Baltimore).
Changing these personalities is a slow process that occurs
over the course of many seasons and tends not to be noticed
if they change at all. Usually evolution is noticeable
only with a change in ownership or relocation.
This may all seem silly to the reader. Ok, let’s
put it to the test. If the casino line makers don’t
know what they’re doing then you should see a difference
between the totals line they set and the actual results.
A sports book sets a totals line so that the casino does
not have a stake in the outcome of a game. They want
half the money to be on the Over (above the totals line)
and half the amount bet to be on the Under (below the
totals line) that way the losers pay off the winners
and the sports book gets the 10% “juice” (the
cost to place a bet) without any risk. There have been
1,480 regular season NFL games played over the past six
seasons. 731 of those games have gone Under, 720 have
gone Over and 29 games were exactly on the line (Push).
Excluding the Pushes, 50.4 % of the games have gone under
and 49.1% over. And you still think they don’t
know what they’re doing?
Well, they’re better than you think. Not only
are they very accurate, but also they do it in a way
that doesn’t give the handicapper an angle to use.
Look at 2002. The actual won-loss-tie record for the
season was 255-255-2. The totals line went 256-248-8
(overs-unders-pushes) or 50.0%-48.4%-1.6% dead-on except
for the ties and pushes. The casinos went 166-166-8 (overs-unders-pushes)
on grass and 90-82-0 (overs-unders-pushes) on turf and
you can go on and on. Just about every way a handicapper
can dice and slice a game the casino is no more than
6% off the mark. Yes, they (and their computer software)
are very good.
So the totals number is a reliable or is it? Rarely
do you see a line that is lower than 33 or higher than
45. That’s because the casinos know that that the
average points scored in an NFL games is annually between
37-41 points per game. The lines maker also knows from
past data that about 50% of all NFL game totals fall
between 33 points and 51 points. Knowing this, it’s
not hard for a fantasy player to make an informed decision
about what the casinos are thinking. If you see a total
of 33, the sports books are looking for a tight defensive
battle and if you get a 45 line then your looking at
a tack meet.
Now it’s time to think in terms of probability.
How much more of a defensive battle is a game rated at
a 33 than a game rated at a 45? Twelve points doesn’t
sound like a big difference, but it is. Looking at all
the totals of all the regular season games played since
1981 and throwing out the replacement games gives you
get a database you can work off. Only 28.45% of games
played during that period ended with less than 33 points
scored. So, a 33 total has a lot more meaning than a
34 total because a 33 represents 28.45% of all games.
In other words, a game may rate a 31, 30 or 29 total,
but because a lines maker won’t go below a 33 he
gives the game a 33 rating. Therefore a 33 total on a
game is a strong indication that the game will be tight.
The opposite is also true. Because the casinos don’t
normally go above a 45 total on a game (with the exception
being the Rams over the past few years) a 45 total means
that the team mascot better be in good aerobic condition
because he’s got a few push-ups to do on Sunday.
The next tidbit of gaming information useful
to fantasy owners is power ratings. These rankings are
by the casinos, but are the output of handicappers
and statisticians and can be found free on the web.
Of course, a lot of gambling services and handicappers
and even software manufacturers sell their product,
but their services don’t come cheap.
A power ranking is the product of linear regression.
The purpose of the calculation is to eliminate or reduce
the variability in performance. A number of things can
happen: the team may not play to its full potential,
or random factors like the bounce of the ball or a bad
call by a referee may also affect the outcome of a game,
and a team’s strength of schedule will influence
the outcome between two evenly matched opponents and
team’s with a disparity of ability. Regression
lets you eliminate these factors from a team’s
An Offensive Power Rating is the number of points a
particular team’s offense should score against
the average NFL defense. It takes into account good defensive
play as well (field position and turnovers). A team with
a high Offensive Power Rating will score more points
than a team with a low Offensive Power Rating.
Defenses are also rated. The average NFL defense receives
a rating of 0.0. A team with a “+” rating
is better than average by a certain number of points
per game while and a team with a “–“ is
worse than the league average by a certain number of
Home field advantage is another concern. Eating home
cooked meals and sleeping in your own (presumably) bed
is comforting. Playing on the road at Oakland and having
to navigate through the war zone outside the stadium
is certainly more difficult than listening to the home
fans boo their Cincinnati Bengals. Most raters give home
team a 2.5 point to a 3.0 point advantage and others
build it into the power ratings and use a 0.0 +/- system
similar to that used to rate defenses.
The number of points a team is expected to score can
be found by adding an offense’s Power Rating to
the opposing defense’s Power Rating plus any modifier
for home field advantage. Using this formula you get
a .70 to a .75 correlation.
Example: The Bears are playing the Packers on a neutral
field. The Bears offense has a Power Rating of 17.59
and the Packers have a defensive Power Rating of 1.50.
The Bears will be expected to score 17.59 – 1.50
= 16.09 points. The Packers have an offensive Power Rating
of 23.40 and the Bears defense has a Power Rating of
0.75. The Packers would be expected to score 23.40 – 0.75
= 22.65 points. The total line should be 39 (38.74) and
the point spread should be 16.09 – 22.65 = Packers – 6
From a fantasy point-of-view this analysis is informative
in several ways. You know how much playing on the road
or at home will help or hurt your players, you can calculate
approximately the number of points your team’s
offense will score (and by using a little allocation
method, the likelihood your player will score). When
choosing your starting line-up, this method is helpful.
Example: You have to choose between starting the Bears
defense and the Packers defense. Assuming you get fantasy
points for limiting scores against your defense, the
Packers are a much better start this week as the Bears
are only expected to score 16 points while the Packers
are expected to score 23.
Example: You have to choose a running back Your choice
is between the Packers back-up running back and the Bears
starter. The Packers running back scores 25% of the team’s
touchdowns. The Bears running back scores 35% of Chicago’s
touchdowns. Which is the better play? The Packers are
expected to score 23 points (two touchdowns and three
field goals or three touchdowns and one field goal).
The Bears are expected to score 16 points (one touchdown
and three field goals or two touchdowns and one field
goal). Assume (for right now) each scenario is equally
likely. The Packers running back would expect to score
[(12 points x .25) + (18 points x .25)] / 2 = 3.75 points.
The Bears running back would be expected to score [(6
points x .35) + (12 points x .35)] / 2 = 3.15 points.
The Packers running back is more likely to score this
Have you every wondered why QB Brett Favre will
destroy a team on grass and then turn around and play
game in a dome? Have you wondered why the Saints
and the Dolphins get off to great starts only to collapse
Trends are a hybrid between more statistical methods
of evaluating games and more opinion-based models. This
analysis has more to do with team psychology and recent
performance then cold, hard numbers. Trend analysis models
don’t try to answer the question, they only identify
trends and anomalies that should be considered by fantasy
Some players simply perform better against certain teams
and worse against others. This may have something to
do with psychology, it may have something to do with
personnel match-ups, weather conditions, offensive/defensive
schemes, or travel. Whatever the reason, these trends
persist even with changes in coaching staffs and personnel.
Fantasy owners should consider these trends in selecting
If you want someone’s opinion on football,
all you have to do is walk into any sports book in this
Sports book guys are not shy. You can cut the testosterone
around the place with a knife. They’re not afraid
to speak their mind and their not going to be polite
when you suggest something on which they don’t
There’s an upside and a downside to all this verbalization.
The positive is that there’s a never-ending stream
of information being put out. The flip side is that you
have to weed through the nonsense to find that nugget
I mentally filter through the info stream to get what
I want. First, I totally disregard anyone that represents
a gambling service. Their business is selling, period.
They don’t care if their picks win or lose because
it’s all win-win to them. If you win, you think
their service had something to do with it and you buy
more pick packages. If you lose, now you’re desperate
to get you money back and will buy more of their product
assuming that the service is “due”. Second,
I disregard the fat guys that sit around the sports book
all day. If all you do is gamble and you can’t
afford a clean shirt, you’re not very good at it.
Finally, I disregard the sports book directors. As noted
before, their objective is to gin up more bets, ensure
that 50% is on each side of the line, and not get sued
or thrown in jail. They get on the radio and talk a bunch
of nonsense without ever saying very much or taking a
stand…in other words, they’re worthless.
I do pay attention to professional gambling shows. These
are handicappers that make their money, not through selling
their picks, but by selling advertising on their shows.
They have a commercial interest in getting it right and
passing on good information. If they get the listener
on the right side of a wager, word gets around and the
audience increases. More/better information-more listeners-more
If you keep an open mind and don’t mind
a little effort, fantasy owners can learn something from
industry. This weekly column will keep The Huddle subscribers
up-to-date with the best analysis and opinion from the
Vegas Strip. Looking at fantasy football from the gaming
angle is just another way to give you an edge every week.