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This college football trend is upsetting to Las Vegas sports books

College football games have often been a losing proposition for the gaming industry this season, because so many favorites have been winning big enough to cover the point spread, which favors bettors.

November 01, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Louisiana State football Coach Les Miles celebrates with his players following the Tigers' 49-3 victory over Northwestern State in September. Louisiana State's blowout victories have translated into losses for Las Vegas sports books.
Louisiana State football Coach Les Miles celebrates with his players following… (Sean Gardner / Reuters )

A Michigan woman recently placed a $15 "parlay" bet at the Las Vegas Hilton's sports book on a bunch of college football games for the upcoming Saturday and, in each game, she picked the favorite to win.

If any of her picks failed to cover the point spread or lost their games outright, she would have lost her bet. Thus, her odds of winning the entire parlay were a whopping 600 to 1.

She won anyway. The payoff? A cool $9,000.

"This sums up our season as bookmakers" in college football, sighed Jay Kornegay, the Hilton's sports book director, after relaying the woman's story.

College football has been a financial headache for Las Vegas sports books much of this season because the top-ranked teams not only have mostly won their games as expected but have routinely covered the spreads, an unexpected trend.

Kornegay estimates that the books in Nevada have lost millions of dollars on college football since the season started in September because, he said, favorites are covering the spread more than 70% of the time.

Alabama, the No. 2 team in the BCS standings, and Oklahoma State (No. 3), for instance, have each covered the spread in seven of eight games this season, and No. 1 Louisiana State has in six of its eight games, according to the website VegasInsider.com.

The books enjoyed some relief the last two weekends, including Saturday when several top teams did not cover the spread, such as Oregon and Virginia Tech. Another favorite, Clemson, lost to Georgia Tech.

"It's just nice to get two solid Saturdays under our belt," said Jay Rood, who oversees the sports books for a dozen MGM Resorts casinos in Nevada.

But Stanford (No. 4 in the BCS), perhaps the worst culprit for the books this season, largely did cover the spread yet again in its dramatic triple-overtime win over USC, 56-48, on Saturday night.

Stanford took the field against the Trojans not only 7-0, but having beaten the spread in all seven games. "Stanford has been the big skunk in our woodpile," Kornegay said.

Stanford began as a 7.5-point favorite over USC and later, as game day drew closer, the spread widened to eight points, Kornegay said. Because Stanford won by eight, all the bettors who had Stanford at 7.5 points won their wagers and those with Stanford winning by eight points were a "push," or draw.

The result: "Most books definitely lost on that game," Kornegay said.

And they lost partly because college football rules dictate that teams must attempt a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown in the third overtime. Had Stanford won earlier by a touchdown and conventional extra point or by a field goal, it would not have covered the spread and the books would have prevailed.

Instead, "the people that had the 7.5 [spread], which was predominantly the action on the game, won," Rood said.

Stanford not only is on the West Coast, it often plays late in the day. By then, many gamblers who have made parlay bets that include Stanford already have seen their other teams cover spreads earlier in the day.

So Stanford often decides whether the bettors or the sports books win parlay bets. So far this season, it's mostly been the bettors when Stanford's on the card.

Betting on all sports through the Nevada books was $2.8 billion last year, or 2% of the $138.4 billion in total wagering in the state, and $1.2 billion of that was wagered on professional and college football combined, according to Nevada's State Gaming Control Board.

The agency doesn't break out figures for college football alone. But it's widely agreed National Football League games account for the majority of total football betting.

Though there might be 70 or 80 college games on which to wager, generally only 12 to 15 involving top-ranked teams draw most of the action, oddsmakers said.

Sports wagering also has one of the lowest winning percentages for the Nevada casinos. It was 5.5% last year (amounting to $151.1 million in total winnings for the Nevada casinos) compared with 10.7% for blackjack and 12.5% for craps, gaming board figures show. Slot machines were 6.2%.

Most people gambling at Las Vegas sports books aren't gaming fanatics, they're tourists who enjoy placing wagers just as they would at a slot machine or card table, casino officials said.

With college football, they tend to bet that week's favorites or their favorite schools. Many also make parlay bets. And with the dearth of upsets or closer scores so far this season, those bets are paying off.

Still, the books expect their fortunes to keep improving.

"We know through experience that eventually it's going to swing the other way" back toward the casinos, Kornegay said. "We just don't know when."

For those looking ahead, Stanford is favored by about 20 points in Saturday's game at Oregon State.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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