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The NFL’s Replacement Refs Are Changing the Odds for Gamblers

Gambling on NFL games is a huge industry, full of people making wagers on who will win this weekend, and the new referees are introducing a new set of probabilities

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If you thought that the majority of an NFL game was played on football the field, think again. For many, the action of the field is secondary to the action in their wallets. Gambling on NFL games is a huge industry, full of people making wagers on who will win this weekend. The Wall Street Journal writes:

The NFL says its surveys show that “a very small percentage” of the more than 100 million people who watch the NFL on TV bet on the games — but there is no question that the NFL is the nation’s most popular gambling sport. Bettors wagered $81.5 million in Nevada’s sports books on this year’s Super Bowl — a sum that’s approached $100 million in previous years, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission. A total of $1.1 billion was wagered on football, both college and pro, in Nevada over the 12 months ending in April 30 (not including parlay bets), nearly three times the amount wagered on basketball. Analysts estimate that tens of billions more are wagered on the NFL at offshore casinos. (Internet betting is illegal in the U.S., although individual bettors are rarely prosecuted.)

Deadspin reports that the new referees—stand ins for the regular refs who are currently negotiating their contracts—are changing the betting. Because the referees are making games harder to predict, the betting odds are getting weirder. Take home field advantage, for example. A veteran ref probably won’t be swayed by an army of fans screaming at him. A replacement might (and we’ve seen that they do on the field). The calls are more frequent and more likely to be for the home team. And that changes the odds, writes Deadspin:

Vegas is responding. According to the AP, Cantor Gaming oddsmaker Mike Colbert says home teams should get an extra half-point. And as Cantor goes (they run the sports books at the Hard Rock, the Tropicana, and the Venetian, among others), the rest of Vegas might have to follow.

A half-point might not seem like much, but it makes a big difference. That’s the same change, Deadspin explains, as if a star player had to miss a game because of an injury. If Tom Brady was out with and ankle injury, the Patriots would lose a half-point. That’s Tom Brady, the man who holds the NFL record for most touchdown passes in a regular season. He’s got the fourth-highest career passer rating of all time. The guy’s won three Super Bowls. These replacement refs change the odds of the game as much as losing Brady does.

If you’re unclear on how odds works, Deadspin explains:

Here’s the thing to remember, though: point spreads aren’t meant to predict how a game is going to turn out. They’re intended to split the difference on where the bets are going to come in. So for oddsmakers, they’re not just dealing with the uncertainty of the inexperienced, overmatched referees—they have to take into account the public’s perception of the inexperienced, overmatched referees. It’s a convoluted game of telephone, with scabs on one end and billions of dollars on the other.

So are the bettors getting shy? Actually, the opposite is happening: They’re looking at the biggest football betting season of all time. So if there’s one thing you can thank the replacement referees for, it’s adding a little more excitement to the betting game.

More from Smithsonian.com:

What’s the Deal With the NFL’s Replacement Referees?
How to Train a World Cup Referee

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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