USC-Utah fallout; NFL line moves 

September, 16, 2011

How much money are we talking about?

It's nearly impossible to ask that question out loud without sounding like some character from a Damon Runyon story. It's dialogue from those in the know, who have a yen for being on the inside and speaking in codes about knocking someone off or picking up a lovely lady on the wrong side of town or running a scam. It's what someone says right before they are about to make the worst decision of their life because the answer to the question is so high as to be unimaginable.

How much money are we talking about? Enough to make it worth 50 years in the hole eating bread crumbs and drinking rust-colored water.

This past week, as the debris from the USC-Utah point spread fiasco was swept away, I heard that question a lot. For a refresher, on the off chance there is one of you actually reading this who isn't a degenerate wishing he (or she) actually did live in a Damon Runyon story, here is what happened: The USC Trojans closed as an 8.5-point favorite over Utah on Saturday. At the end of the game Utah lined up for a field goal, down by three points. If it missed, Utah bettors covered. If it was made and the game went into OT, they'd still be in good shape.

Instead, USC blocked the kick and ran the recovery back for a touchdown. Those six points turned the game from a cover for Utah bettors into a cover for SC bettors, since the Trojans seemingly won by nine. But, SC was flagged on the play for excessive celebration, as players on the sideline ran onto the field. Officials did not indicate the touchdown should count, so scoreboard operators did not put it on the board. The final score was listed as 17-14 and sportsbooks began paying bettors who picked Utah to cover. Two hours later officials from the Pac 10 corrected the error and made the final score 23-14 in favor of SC. Now those who bet USC had winning tickets.

Confusion, naturally, reigned, as people went dumpster diving all over Vegas in search of tickets they had trashed, ripped up, wrapped around their gum or wadded into a ball. There was almost literally money on the floor. So, how much money are we talking about? So high as to be unimaginable. Reportedly The Mirage, which paid out Utah bettors then paid out SC bettors, lost more than $100K. The Hilton followed a similar practice. Now calculate all the people who bet on the game statewide, then nationwide and on the Internet (where sportsbooks regraded the game and took money out of the accounts of Utah bettors and put money into SC bettors' accounts).

The story captivated conversation for several days of the news cycle, longer than Barack Obama's Presidential Address to Congress. How much money we are talking about is a big reason why. But so is the illicit nature of gambling, which -- despite ever increasing coverage of lines, totals and how they are moving -- is still something that largely evades the square world's attention. When a story like this happens on a regular weekend day -- not a Super Bowl or during March Madness, but on a Saturday in September -- and actually does conquer the zeitgeist, those who aren't in the know are reminded of how prevalent gambling really is. I'd need the imagination of Willy Wonka to tabulate how much money we are really talking about, but probably enough that I'd consider something horrible -- like agreeing to a pact that keeps the Cubs from ever winning a World Series in my lifetime. OK, then I'm just getting paid for the inevitable. But you get my point.

Here's another way to illustrate it: Last weekend I flew out to Vegas for 12 hours to sign up for the Hilton Contest. With the price of admission being $1,500 to buy in, it cost me a little more than $100 per hour. I had no choice; the deadline for the contest was 11 a.m. PT on Sept. 10. My only other previous opportunity to sign up was two weekends before, when a hurricane slammed the East Coast and shut me out, flooded the house I had moved into four days earlier and knocked out the power in my town. (For another kick in the teeth, I just leased a spiffy, new, three-row Toyota Highlander with a DVD player, and my 8-year-old puked in it five minutes after my wife picked it up. This was the morning after he told me, "Dad, sometimes I really don't like you for making us move.") If I wanted in the Hilton, my only window was between the end of the workday on Friday Sept. 9 and before a family event I had committed to Sunday, 9/11.

I arrived at the Hilton on Saturday at 7 a.m. to get my entry in and fork over my money. I'm such an idiot I had forgotten to get cash and had to pay $30 in fees to take out the $1,500 in cash from the Hilton ATM. I was No. 500 to sign up. Before the contest was closed, there would be 517 of us, bringing the purse to more than $775,000, the highest ever in the more than two decades the contest has been around.

That is one contest, at one casino, that requires you fly into town to sign up. And the appetite is so voracious that there are three-quarters of a million in a pot. So when a story like USC-Utah breaks and captivates the world, with people pulling their best, how-much-are-we-talking-about attitudes, I can only think:

If you have to ask, you can't imagine.

Anywho, there will be just as much dough on the line this weekend in college and pro football (not to mention the Red Sox fans playing an emotional hedge to thwart off feeling completely empty from their team's inevitable collapse).

To help me break down the NFL line moves this week I called up Paul Bessire from He has been a column regular because of his unique algorithm that, when applied to the 50,000 simulations he does for each game, predicts what the final score will be.

Matchup: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos

Line move: Broncos opened as six-point favorites, now 3.5-point favorites.