By Tim Graham
Last week, a minor skirmish broke out on my Twitter feed over what Las Vegas thinks of the Buffalo Bills' win total for 2012.
The problem is that too many people view an over/under number as a prediction of reality.
Actually, it's a prediction of money.
While some online sites started the Bills out at 6.5 wins, Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Bills at 7. LVSC is the world's most influential oddsmaking operation, setting lines for a vast majority of legal sports books.
To further illustrate the concept that win totals aren't based on reality, consider that LVSC has posted early point spreads for every 2012 NFL game except for Week 17 (because many teams bench their starters to get ready for the playoffs). The Bills are favored to win eight of the 15 games forecasted, and probably would be favored at home in Week 17.
So why wouldn't LVSC peg its win total for the Bills at 8.5?
I called LVSC for expert insight to share on the Press Coverage blog. The oddsmaker who answered the phone? Joel Staniszewski, a Sloan native who graduated from St. Joe's and Buffalo State.
What are the odds of that? I should have asked him, but we were too busy talking about Bills wagers.
The first thing to consider about win totals is that they're posted before the free-agency period begins. Buffalo was assigned its 7 without knowing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson were on the way.
"The number is put up based on what oddsmakers think will get the most bets on both sides," Staniszewski said. "A team like the Bills that's traditionally poor, they're going to get a lower number because oddsmakers know that people are going to bet them under.
"The only people that are going to bet them over are homers who want to bet the Bills, which are few and far between."
The perfect scenario oddsmakers shoot for is an equal amount of money on either side. That's guaranteed money because they keep half the wagers plus a built-in commission commonly referred to as "the juice."
To that end, oddsmakers must account for all those people who view the Bills as a perennial doormat and the scarcity of Bills fans who will wager big money to show their confidence.
So when the Bills do make dramatic moves to improve their defense, why doesn't the win total then shoot upwards to reflect how much better their roster is?
"You let the people who are betting determine where you're going to move the number to," Staniszewski said. "You don't want to move the number too much. You've got to be smart with the number, assuming who's going to bet what."
Subtle movement protects the sports books. Suppose the Bills opened at 6.5 wins before free agency and then they signed two of the best defensive free agents on the market, whipping fans into a frenzy and making seven victories seem super attractive.
Sports books couldn't simply switch the win total to 7.5 or 8 because bettors who previously took the over would also bet the new under. And if the Bills finished 7-9, then books would face the possibility of cashing out an inordinate amount of tickets.
Sports books, therefore, must move their lines slowly and based on the money coming in to protect themselves.
And the money -- wiseguy money, even -- has been coming in on Buffalo. The LVSC win total for Buffalo now is at 7.5 wins and creeping toward 8. Money on Buffalo also is reflected at the Bovada.lv online casino, where the Bills' odds to win the Super Bowl have shrunk from 60-to-1 to 50-to-1.
"From what I gather," Staniszewski said, "the people that have bet the over are people that would be considered the sharp bettors, the people you keep an eye on and move the line a little when they bet it as opposed to when Joe Shmoe comes in and bets it.
"Those that are really keen to it know that if the Bills' defense can get even to the middle of the pack and their offense can stay as high-powered as it was in the beginning half of the year, this team can cause some damage."
(Photo: Associated Press)