Originally created 01/25/03

For Vegas oddsmakers, the big game is big business



LAS VEGAS -- Deep inside The Mirage hotel-casino, far from the stadiums, Robert Walker scanned the 38 TVs in his office during the NFL's conference championship games last weekend.

As a sports book director, Walker was looking for clues to help him figure out the betting line for Sunday's Super Bowl - which team should be favored and by how many points.

Plenty was at stake: Millions of dollars are bet on football's biggest game.

"You don't want to be wrong on this one," Walker said, "which is what stinks, because there is nobody else to blame but me."

He and a handful of the most powerful oddsmakers in Las Vegas determine who loses and who cashes winning tickets. The favorite must win by more than the point spread for a bettor to collect, while the underdog bettor is given the points.

By Thursday night, more than a million dollars had streamed into Walker's sports book.

"Now it's a waiting game," he said. "We don't know which way it will go. I want to see this game played."

Walker's Super Bowl betting line - decided in a few short minutes - is determined by a season's worth of wins, losses, knowledge and analysis.

Walker rarely second-guesses himself and listens to few others. His homework usually pays off.

"He has one of the sharpest minds in the oddsmaking industry," said Bob Scucci, a former colleague and now the oddsmaker at The Stardust hotel-casino. "He crunches the numbers, but he also has that savvy you need as a book manager."

Last year, $71 million was bet on the Super Bowl in Nevada, the only state with legal sports betting. In 1998, sports books took in a record $77.2 million on the game.

That includes dozens of exotic propositions or side bets that range from who will score the first touchdown to which team will take the first timeout.

Walker, a former reporter who has 17 years of oddsmaking experience, said there's nothing really complicated about deciding the line.

"It's all math. We don't have any more information than anybody else. After we make the line, it's all about the weather, injuries and wise guys," he said.

The trick, Walker said, is drawing action from both sides; he wants people to bet on both teams.

Walker isn't trying to predict the outcome of the game. He wants to come up with a line that he won't have to change in the days before kickoff. The more the line moves, the better chance the casino has of getting "middled," or losing both sides.

"It's not about how much we are going to win," he said. "We don't want to get annihilated."

Last Sunday, Tampa Bay upset Philadelphia in the NFC championship game to reach the Super Bowl. Late in that night's AFC championship game, Walker was approaching the deadline for setting his line. Oakland was leading Tennessee comfortably, and Walker got on the phone with a former oddsmaker at another casino.

The minutes were ticking away in the fourth quarter. A decision had to be made.

As he chatted with his pal, all sorts of stats and trends flowed through Walker's mind: The public is behind the Raiders; Oakland has a strong offense; Tampa Bay's strength is its defense; the public would rather bet on offense than defense.

Walker smiled. Time to gamble.

Oakland by 3 1/2 points.