Betting the Super Bowl
From Super Bowls to the World Cup, Michael "Roxy" Roxborough Makes the Odds for Las Vegas--and the World
Watching the 1995 AFC Playoffs in his office on the Las Vegas Strip, Michael "Roxy" Roxborough pumps his fist as the San Diego Chargers score the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For Roxy, that touchdown means millions of dollars.
"You'll probably never see me this excited about a game," Roxy says. "In fact, I generally try not to watch. But everybody in the world is on Pittsburgh, and we really need San Diego. It's by far the biggest game of the year for us."
By "us," Roxy means his clients--sports bookmakers from around the world. Roxy Roxborough is the man who sets the Las Vegas line, which in turn becomes America's--and the world's--line. When you call your bookie in Milwaukee to find out how many points the Bucks are giving to the Clippers, the number you'll hear was gleaned indirectly from Roxy. When Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf joke about the over/under total on ABC's "NFL Monday Night Football" ("If the Lions kick this field goal, the game will truly be over, in more ways than one!"), the number they're referring to came from Roxy. And when you wander into a casino like the Sands and see a phalanx of propositions on football, baseball, basketball, hockey, boxing, NASCAR and Indy racing, the World Cup, tennis--even PGA golf--the one bet you can reasonably be sure of is that Roxy Roxborough is the guy who came up with the odds.
From his buttoned-down appearance, you would think Roxy more apt to prepare your taxes than to declare the Knicks a 6-to-1 dog to win this year's NBA Championship. His conservative mien is no accident. "We run this business as a corporation--objectively," he says. "Over $2 billion was bet in Nevada sports books [the place where sports bets are made] this year. We can't afford to get involved emotionally."
His company, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, employs a staff of analysts and clerks who, with the aid of computers, news wires and video monitors, determine the relative power of every team and player in America that someone might conceivably want to bet on. Then they make "the line," a numerical expression of probability. (Note to Cuba watchers: Roxy's odds of Castro losing power before 1996--5-to-2 against). Contrary to a popular misconception, Roxy and his people do not have "inside information," nor are they in the business of "predicting" the final outcome of a sporting contest. An oddsmaker's job is to generate action. Generally, the larger the bookmaker's handle (dollar volume of bets), the more profit.
"Odds-making is a little art and a little science," Roxy says. "Sports are so well covered these days, especially the NFL, that we have virtually the same amount of information as the sharp gambler. Having the information is not difficult; it's the interpretation of that information that makes a difference."
Roxy's clients pay him between $1,500 and $2,800 a month for his odds, updates and reports. (His odds also appear in syndication in more than a hundred newspapers.) Though many of Roxy's odds produce "two-way action," where the betting is balanced on both sides, some, by design, do not. In those cases, such as the AFC Championship game, where Pittsburgh was favored by 9 points, the bookmakers badly need one team. "The money is pretty balanced on the NFC game," Roxy says, glancing at one of the many computer terminals that line his office. "But the AFC game will be a multimillion-dollar decision."
Despite the prodigious sums at stake, Roxy claims to hate watching the games. "In the six hours it takes to watch two football games, I can analyze 50 teams. At this point in my life, all the teams, all the players are simply numbers." He rubs his chin pensively. "The irony is that 95 percent of the public bets for entertainment, for the rush of adrenaline you get in the last two minutes, when your money is on the line. Like everyone else, I started out as a sports fan. Now I'd rather listen to ocean music."
Given his background, the line against Roxy one day becoming the heir to Bob "the Man" Martin, Las Vegas' previous Arbiter of the Odds, must have been about 100 million-to-1. After a respectable Vancouver, B.C., childhood, a stint managing a fast-food restaurant and a few semesters at American University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in betting the ponies, Roxy settled in Las Vegas in 1976. "I came to Vegas to be a professional gambler, so I wouldn't have to hold a conventional job. But I ended up working 60 hours a week at gambling to escape working 40 hours a week."
He was particularly successful at betting baseball totals, charting the wind and atmospheric conditions at the ballparks. "Today, no bookmaker would think of posting odds without getting a weather forecast. Back then, believe it or not, no one ever checked." He was so proficient that the sports book at Club Cal-Neva in Reno asked him to set their baseball totals. Soon Roxy was making the line across the board. With only a single customer, he founded Las Vegas Sports Consultants in 1982, working from his kitchen table. Assignments at other northern Nevada casinos followed, and in 1983 Roxy landed the high-profile job of setting the opening line for the Stardust. "I had to decide then if I wanted to be a professional gambler or a professional oddsmaker," he recalls. "I felt doing both would be a conflict of interest, so I gave up sports betting and became an oddsmaker."
"I'd be happy if he retired," says Lem Banker, a well-known Vegas sports bettor with a 36-year reputation. "He's a very smart fellow, a very astute handicapper, and he makes a tough line."
According to Gary Olshan, chief analyst at "The Gold Sheet," a handicapping newsletter aimed at sophisticated gamblers, "Everyone who bets sports has great respect for Roxy. He's got a difficult job and he does it superbly. The lines have gotten a lot tougher since he took over."
Although Roxy no longer bets on the games--indeed, he owns a 10-percent stake in a Nevada bookmaking operation called Leroy's--he hasn't forsaken his "hobby" of betting on horseracing. Though he's characteristically modest about his equine accomplishments, Roxy is one of only three voting members of the National Turf Writer's Association (a group of leading writers who cover horse racing) in Nevada, contributes odds on the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races to the Daily Racing Form and has owned several thoroughbreds. He's visited 65 tracks in seven countries, making a few wagers here and there. In 1992, for example, he hit the pick 9 at Santa Anita, winning $108,000. Naturally, his office is decorated with signed racing programs and horse memorabilia.
Also hanging on the wall is a plastic bag containing a nylon rope. The sign on it says: For: a middle on Super Bowl.
If, indeed, the sports books were to get "middled" on the Super Bowl (beaten by bettors on both sides of the action because of an inaccurate line that had to be moved several points), more than a few people in Roxy's business might be mildly suicidal. But the fact is, in the past 15 Super Bowls, the line has been involved only twice in the wagering decision. In 1989, the 49ers won but failed to cover. And in 1979, the Steelers beat the Cowboys 35-31. Because of a line that moved from -2 1/2 to -4 1/2, many books suffered the dreaded middle. But most of the time, to cash a winning ticket on the Super Bowl, bettors only have to pick the game's victor, independent of the point spread.
Roxy, of course, is aware of such trends. Though most of the odds he posts are aimed at the so-called "smart money"--the sophisticates who bet sports for a living--the Super Bowl line is aimed at the masses, the casual gamblers. Before the NFC Championship game begins, Roxy posts two numbers on a large bulletin board: SF 16 and D 13 1/2. "These are my tentative numbers against San Diego," he announces. "Let's see how the game goes." After San Francisco takes a commanding first-quarter lead, Roxy changes the "SF" number to 16 1/2. "I don't know," he says, thinking out loud, "it just doesn't look right." But before he and his associates can refine the Super Bowl odds, Roxy must issue the line for half-time betting on the NFC Championship. Based on the Niners' first-half domination, Cowboy Emmitt Smith's hamstring troubles and Niner Jerry Rice's improbable last-second score, Roxy makes San Francisco a -140 favorite (bet $140 to win $100) to "win" the second half. As the clock expires, an employee enters Roxy's odds on a computer; instantly, his line is posted all over Nevada, Mexico, England and everywhere else Las Vegas Sports Consultants has clients.
Within seconds, thanks to LVSC's on-line update system, Roxy learns the betting public's response to his line: big money is pouring in--all on the Cowboys. Like a currency trader unloading millions of pesos, Roxy quickly "trades" the number downward. "Minus 130," he says, staring at a computer screen, trying to discern if the move has attracted any money on the San Francisco side. "Go to 120," he orders. Seconds later he shakes his head incredulously and says, "Okay, make it even." Remarkably, the money is still pouring in on the 'Boys. Apparently the bettors think the Cowboys will rally in the second half and make the game close. "Cowboys minus 130," Roxy says, smiling sheepishly.
Finally, the action stabilizes. "I guess we were on the wrong side of that one," Roxy says. "It happens." The phone rings. The sports-book manager of a major Strip property wants to know, "Who made that line? Your girlfriend?"
"We botched that one," Roxy says, matter-of-factly. "Hey, get yourself another Ouija board."
When the second half starts, Roxy retreats to his office to begin formulating proposition bets for the Super Bowl. "The closer the game is to a pick 'em, the more betting you'll see," he says. "With a point spread as big as we'll be forced to make for San Diego-San Francisco, or even San Diego-Dallas, we'll need a lot more props to generate action." Pouring over statistics and computer analyses, Roxy issues odds on dozens of exotic wagers: "most sacks," "total yards," "first scorer," etc. (According to one professional bettor, the price for a safety occurring--12-to-1--was a decent value. It didn't happen. Jerry Rice being the first to score a touchdown--3-to-1--did.)
Later, when it becomes clear the Niners have handily vanquished the Cowboys (and covered the 7 1/2-point spread), Roxy positions himself between two key staffers--his odds manager, Scott Kaminsky, and one of his chief oddsmakers, Cesar Robaina--and says, "Okay, let's get to work." He erases the 16 1/2 on the board and writes "17".
"I'm thinking 17 and 51 [the total number of points scored], though I'm also inclined to go a little higher," Roxy says.
"There's no defense that can stop San Francisco," Kaminsky says. "I'm leaning toward 18 or even 19. Total domination."
"San Diego needs turnovers. That's the only way they'll stay in the game," Robaina comments.
"So you like 18?" Roxy asks.
"I think 17 1/2 is good," Robaina replies.
Roxy looks at a computer printout of the teams' respective power ratings. He shakes his head. "Look, the computer makes no difference right now. We need to find a number that will make someone bet on San Diego. We know San Diego won't win. But we need to start with a number that will generate some action. We've got to put up a number that will make everyone who wants to bet on San Francisco think twice: 'Do I really want to lay that many points?' I think 17 1/2 is a good place to start. Seventeen-and-a-half and 52. That seems right."
"San Francisco has really become America's team. They've demolished everybody they've faced in big games," Kaminsky says. "Of course, we can always move it up."
"OK," Roxy announces. "Seventeen-and-a-half and 52." In less than two minutes he's decided the opening line for a game that will attract an estimated $5 billion in wagers. "Put it on the system," he says. Seconds later, every phone in the office starts ringing. Newspapers from all around Nevada and the rest of the United States and Canada want to hear Roxy's reasoning. "It's simple," he tells them. "We've seen throughout the season that nobody will bet San Diego. We want to give them a reason to change that."
Caesars Palace is the first major Las Vegas casino to release a Super Bowl line: Tweaking Roxy's number slightly, they open at 18 and 52. Four other of Roxy's major Strip clients mull the point spread for five minutes before posting the 17 1/2 and 52 figures. The MGM Grand opens at 17 and immediately lays several sizable bets on the 49ers. Kaminsky reports the news to Roxy. "Go to 18," he orders. By early evening, most Vegas sports books are dealing San Francisco at -18 1/2. By the next day it's 19, and the total has moved up to 53 1/2. Though one Vegas casino briefly posts 20 for a few hours as a publicity stunt, in the days preceding the big game, the number settles in at 18 1/2 or 19.
"I think we've done a good job," Roxy says a few days before Super Bowl Sunday. "We seem to have found a number that's bringing in some action on San Diego. Of course, we won't know where this is going until the Friday before the game. That's when the big money starts coming in."
Where would his money be if he were betting?
"I think a lot of wiseguys will be sitting this one out. But if I had to make a pick, I'd be taking the Chargers and the points. That's where the value is--and that's where you'll probably see the wiseguys betting."
A few days after the Super Bowl--which, to Roxy's surprise, attracted a record handle, including a single $2.4 million wager at the Mirage--America's line maker is circumspect. "We clearly did a good job. The consensus line never moved more than two points," Roxy comments. "We ended up winning the straight bets, the props, the halftime bets and the futures [bets made far in advance on who will win the Super Bowl]. But we got beat on the parlays--the 'favorite' and 'over' parlay. [Bettors who picked both 49ers and more than 52 points total earned 13-to-5 on their wagers.] Of the four scenarios, only one--favorite and over--beats us. And that's the one that came in."
He shrugs. "San Diego scores on their last drive, we go from a medium loser to a big winner." But that didn't happen. Roxy smiles. "That's why they call it gambling."