Let me explain sports betting opening numbers

Aug 13, 2013 3:10 AM

In the modern era of sports betting, what exactly is the “opening line?” It’s most assuredly not a meaningless question. There are many bettors who consider the opening number an important part of their handicapping.

Long term winning bettors don’t bet bad numbers – if they miss their targeted strike price they’ll leave the game alone. So the opening number – or what they consider to be – holds significant weight in future wagering decisions.

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When I first moved to Vegas in the late 90’s, there was no debate. Joe Lupo, Bob Scucci, Doug Castanada and the rest of the bookmakers at the Stardust hung the very first numbers worldwide. When posted, the ‘Dust held a lottery to determine the order of who could bet first, second, third and on down the line. Bettors coveted a place at or near the front of that line – it legitimately made a difference.

The Sunday Night lottery at the Stardust during football season was a spectacle to behold. The book was packed; the energy electric in anticipation of those virgin numbers hitting the betting board. Even during basketball and baseball season, when opening numbers were posted first thing in the morning, it wasn’t unusual to see dozens of high limit bettors waiting for their crack.

The ‘Dust didn’t hold their monopoly on the opening line for long. Other books in town wanted to (or were under pressure to) create additional handle. Particularly during football season, they posted earlier than the ‘Dust. At varying points Bally’s, the Imperial Palace, the Wynn and the MGM Grand sports books posted the very first football pointspreads for the following week.

I can still vividly remember Jay Kornegay’s (the LVH Superbook director for the last decade or so) book at the IP packed with limit bettors at halftime of the afternoon games on an NFL Sunday, when he posted his first lines for the following week. It was like the ‘Dust all over again!

By the mid-2000’s, the ‘Dust had closed for implosion – its influence on the sportsbetting marketplace had waned considerably from their heyday in the 90’s. Cantor Gaming wasn’t yet on the scene in Vegas. It seemed as if the offshore world was going to dwarf Sin City when it came to influential sports books setting opening numbers.

MLB and basketball opening lines were now posted the afternoon before the games, while opening football lines were all over the place, and most of the very first bets against those numbers were of the arbitrage variety, not opinions.

Bettors were very happy to lay -2.5 on a game in one book and take +3.5 at another. If you were trying to track line moves off the opening numbers there were enormous differences, depending on which book or books you were tracking.

Frankly, that hasn’t changed all that much over the last six or eight years. Different books, both here in town and offshore, are posting different numbers at different times. Those differences aren’t just a half-point here or there – particularly early in the season. They can be quite dramatic.

When it comes to Week 1 numbers for the NFL and college football, it’s no easy task to figure out which bets off the openers were opinions or purely arbitrage.

NFL Week 1 numbers have been posted at some books since May. NCAA Week 1 numbers have become widespread this past week but true “virgin” lines were up well before MLB’s All Star break. In this type of environment, bettors tracking the opening numbers are left with a wild hodge-podge to consider.

Last week, at the first meeting of the year for the legendary “Tuesday Group” of sharp bettors here in Vegas, there was a spirited debate about what the official college football Week 1 opening numbers actually were. It was a similar story in the NFL, although the disparity between opening numbers in the pro ranks was much less dramatic.

Two-time Hilton (now LVH) Supercontest winner Steve Fezzik won the argument at the Tuesday Group, because his theory made the most sense. He said the concept of any single book posting the opening lines for any sport is simply outdated. The books post their initial opinions, but it’s the global betting market, not the sports book, that truly sets the opening number.

The majority of the moves off the initial openers (both offshore and here in Vegas) are arbitrage; with wiseguy bettors looking to snap up off-market numbers in the brief period when they are available. That’s why we see relatively light action when any single book posts their numbers. The heavier action only comes when another book (or two, or three) posts their opening lines, and bettors take advantage of the variance.

For Week 1 of the NFL and college football seasons, those initial variances have been ironed out over the summer months. The NFL openers got pounded into a consensus line fairly quickly; but the college marketplace took longer. Books posted later and there was substantially more variance from one to the next.

So what exactly is “opening line?” For Week 1, I used a consensus of major sports books as of last Wednesday, Aug. 7. At that time, the market had begun to mature, and there was only a half-point difference – at the most – between one book’s lines and others. By and large, those numbers haven’t moved.

If you’re looking for the consensus opening lines, walk into any sports book or look online today, write down the current numbers and feel comfortable that you’re not missing anything. These numbers won’t start to jump around again until the final week before the season begins.

A consensus opening line takes out the oversized influence of any one book, and takes rogue numbers coveted by wiseguys but available to only a few bettors for a very short period of time, out of the equation. If you are routinely beating the closing number (at kickoff), you’re doing your job as a savvy bettor. Getting the very best number each time from every book is nearly impossible.

Once the regular season begins, the concept remains the same. Cantor has lines up for every single NFL game this year through Week 16. LVH posts “look-ahead” lines more than a week before those games are played. Those can’t be considered opening lines.

On Sunday afternoons during football season, the Wynn Las Vegas has been posting the very first numbers in recent years. Other books in town and offshore follow soon after. I don’t consider any of those the true opening numbers anymore. Instead, an 8 a.m. Monday consensus line is a far better tool for bettors to use when making their subsequent wagers throughout the week.

Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]

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