When it comes to the Super Bowl, betting fans place it all on the line

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pick a number, any number. And make it a meaningful one, something you really care about.

Your birthday? Good one. Anniversary? Understandable.

But now really put some thought into it: What digit will mean more to your life in the next two weeks than any other (don't worry, we won't tell your spouse)? Which number will help spark each of your next dozen conversations?

OK, now we're talking. It's the Super Bowl line.

And it's New England by 7.

Somewhere in the shadow of the Las Vegas glimmer, less than two miles from the famous hotels and casinos, five men sat around a table Sunday night with the task of providing that magic.

They convened, they discussed, they tweaked.

And by the third quarter of the AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, they had crafted the most sacred number in all of sports: the Super Bowl line.

"I wouldn't say it's a lot of pressure," said Tony Sinisi, odds director for the Las Vegas Sports Consultants. "Once you've been doing this a while, it's not a big deal anymore."

Not a big deal? Sinisi's firm provides the line to nearly 90 percent of the sports books in Las Vegas. His number ultimately decides the fate of more than $80 million, an amount that will be legally wagered within Vegas on this game alone. And some industry estimates put the total number of Super Bowl bets placed at online sports books in the $400 million range.

More money likely will be gambled on this year's Super Bowl than any other sporting event in history. Last year's mark reached $81 million in Las Vegas, almost twice the amount gambled on the entire NCAA men's basketball tournament. Experts expect this year's numbers to creep even higher.

"It's a huge day," said Golden Nugget Sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich, who will take some of the city's highest wagers, some exceeding $200,000. "It's a huge event for the city of Las Vegas. It's just a phenomenal weekend."

Of course, that doesn't account for the amount of illegal gambling that's done, a sum so monumental it can't be calculated. "Our numbers pale in comparison to the amount of illegal gambling on the Super Bowl," Bogdanovich said.

That's because unlike any other sporting event during the year, the Super Bowl isn't about the professional gambler. It's about the amateur. It's about everyone and anyone, even those willing to simply fill in a square in the office pool.

"This is the one game of the year when the line is based on the general public, the amateur bettor," said Cesar Robaina, a well-known Vegas oddsmaker who was tutored by the legendary Roxy Roxborough. "That's the game when everyone has an opinion - whether it's your grandmother, your neighbor or your uncle.

"Everyone wants to know, 'So who are you taking in the Super Bowl?'"

So, who are you taking in the Super Bowl? It's a fine question. But what does it mean? After all, even if you're "taking" the Eagles, you're not necessarily picking them to win. And that's probably the biggest misperception about the line.

"We're not predicting the outcome," Sinisi said. "We're trying to balance the action. We're trying to even out two teams that might not already be even."

Indeed, it's an oddsmaker's job to make sure neither team is an obvious winner when the line is factored in. Oddsmakers want to make sure there's the same amount of money bet on each "side" of the line.

"You have to put out a number that everyone thinks is the right number," Robaina said. "You want it to be tough for someone to bet on either team. At the same time - it seems silly - but you don't want to pick the exact number."

Picking the exact number means the book ends up refunding a majority of the bets, a nightmare for a sports book. That's what happened in the 2000 Super Bowl, when the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans, 23-16, in a game the Rams were favored to win by 7.

So, how do the oddsmakers come up with the line, this all-important number? The LVSC has five oddsmakers devoted strictly to developing odds for NFL games. Before Sunday's championship games even began, the group already had created lines for each of the four potential Super Bowl matchups.

As it became clear Sunday that New England and Philadelphia would meet Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla., each of the oddsmakers independently came up with his or her final line based on statistical analysis, historical significance and, yes, gut feeling.

Dan O'Brien, one of the five deciding oddsmakers, picked New England to win by 6. Kenny White, boss of the crew, chose the Pats to win by 3. Another picked New England by 6, another chose 6 1/2 and the final oddsmaker was torn between 5 1/2 and 6.

White then considered all of the input to create a final number - Patriots by 6 - which was distributed to the clients.

O'Brien said he decided to pick New England by 6 because he thought Philadelphia is a stronger team than the Carolina Panthers, New England's opponent in last season's Super Bowl. New England was favored by 7 in that game but failed to cover.

"Especially considering what we saw happen in that game, I just felt like 7 was a little too high," O'Brien said.

But that doesn't mean the game's line won't change. In fact, by Sunday night, it already had jumped to 6 1/2 and by yesterday it had become 7. Those betting early began picking New England to cover the spread. And as more people bet on the Patriots, the line began to shift - much like a stock increases in price as more people purchase it. The line could change again, too.

For instance, if Philadelphia wide receiver Terrell Owens - who has been injured - is cleared to play, O'Brien said it could affect the line by as much as two points in the Eagles' favor.

"He definitely has the ability to affect the line," O'Brien said.

Confused? Don't be. The process is simpler than it can sometimes seem.

Here's the Oddsmaking 101 breakdown: An oddsmaker sets the line. The sports book uses the line. The gamblers bet on the line. And depending on how the public bets, the line will shift based on those numbers.

Get it? Good. Because it's time to place your bets. As Sinisi said, "It's almost an American tradition that you want to have a rooting interest."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Wanna bet?

Las Vegas' Imperial Palace, which allows betting on nearly 200 Super Bowl "prop" bets each year, helped pioneer what has become a huge industry in the gambling world. A prop bet involves a certain player or team achieving a specific goal. While most sports books won't release their prop bets until Thursday, here's a few from last year's Imperial Palace menu. (Note: The number found after each bet is called the money line. For example, -200 would mean you would have to wager $200 to win $100. And +175 means you are betting on the underdog to win, which would pay $175 for a $100 bet.)

Will either team score in the first 6 1/2 minutes?

Yes: Even; No: -130.

Will either team score in the final two minutes of the first half?

Yes: -200; No: +160.

Which team will use a coaches challenge first?

Panthers: -115; Patriots: -115.

Will New England QB Tom Brady throw an interception?

Yes: Even; No: -130.

Will there be a safety?

Yes: +700; No: -1000.

Will the game be decided by exactly 3 points?

Yes: +325; No: -450.

What will be the first turnover of the game?

Interception: -160; Fumble: +130.

Will New England's Ty Law intercept a pass?

Yes: +135; No: -170.

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