Saying the house always wins is like saying Notre Dame had no chance against Alabama. If that were true, millions of viewers wouldn’t have made bean dip for Monday’s BCS National Championship broadcast, and bettors wouldn’t have banked on David kicking Goliath right in the balls.
Goliath dispatched David, 42 to 14, easily beating the 9.5-point spread posted by the LVH sports book. It was welcome news for director Jay Kornegay, as many bettors backed the Irish on the money line. But the good fortune of one college game hardly soothes the sting of the NFL regular season, which dealt sports books a brutal financial blow. Bettors backed elite teams week after week, and those teams covered spreads in bunches on the same days more consistently than normal. Without getting into the nuances, it was a perfect storm that just kept raging. Kornegay told the LA Times: “We know the general public now has tremendous sources of information, that the regular player is sharper than the guy 10 years ago, but we’ve never seen a streak like this before.”
Having worked for Vegas sports books since 1989, he has tracked the impact of the Internet (Twitter!) and expanded sports coverage (Golf Channel!) on the sophistication of betting. Serious players have armed themselves more and more with stats and algorithms. Average players continue to trust their guts and play largely for fun, but Kornegay said the pool of true novice bettors is shrinking thanks to the 24/7 flood of information. As bettors improve, so do bookmakers, which is why Kornegay said they won’t make drastic adjustments until they know if this rough NFL season represents a significant trend or an anomaly. Information changes the game, but only so much.
“There are computer programs that … take all this analysis of the stats from two teams and spit out a final score. But we don’t know there’s going to be that bad call. We don’t know he’s going to drop that touchdown pass. … That’s the unpredictability of sports betting, and that’s why there’s no such thing as a lock,” Kornegay said. “The human element in these games—it’s tremendous how it plays in the final outcome.”
And it’s a powerful force at the betting window. Players bought into a Notre Dame win not just because of the No. 1 rank, but because of Rudy, because Americans love winners almost as much as the idea that odds can be overcome. Even if we get better at playing with our heads, our hearts can’t resist a good Hail Mary.