Replacement NFL Refs Throw Off Big-Time Gambling

Robert Siegel talks to ESPN the Magazine editor Chad Millman about the effects of NFL replacement referees on gambling.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The National Football League's lockout of its regular referees continues. Fans, media, players and coaches are bracing for another weekend of shaky and sometimes bizarre officiating from the beleaguered replacement officials. And while some gnash their teeth about the integrity of the game, Las Vegas is starting to worry about the integrity of its lines. Setting the lines, that is determining how much one team should be favored over another, is hard enough for sports books, but with the replacement referees, it's now even more complicated. And joining me on the line is Chad Millman. He's the editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine, and he writes for ESPN about sports betting. Welcome to the program.

CHAD MILLMAN: How are you doing?

SIEGEL: And so how have the replacement refs affected sports books?

MILLMAN: Well, it's interesting, you know, before the season began, the books were not really thinking about it very much because they were seeing that both teams were being affected by the replacement refs equally. There was no advantage, so there was no real reason to change how they set the point spreads. And what they've seen the first two weeks, which is admittedly a very small sample, is that teams that are more aggressive passing teams have a bit more of an advantage because the refs are calling more defensive pass interference calls.

They're seeing that the home teams are having fewer penalties called on them. The home teams are actually having an advantage. So if you're finding a team that happens to be an aggressive passing team and it's a home team, then as a bettor, you're finding more opportunities if you look at the point spread and think, oh, maybe this is a little bit off there.

SIEGEL: Now, we should explain because there's a point spread if a team is favored by a spread of, say, seven points and you bet on the favored team, they have to win by more than seven points.

MILLMAN: Right. You have to win by more than seven points. It's called covering the spread.

SIEGEL: OK. So let's take into account then the advantage that is at least perceived in favor of a big passing team and a home team, how much has that budged a point spread in Las Vegas for next week?

MILLMAN: I think it's interesting because it hasn't budged it much yet. I think where you've actually seen it more and where you're seeing a huge impact so far is in what are called the total bets, so the total points scored in a game. The first two weeks of the season have been the highest scoring in NFL history. And you're seeing that the total points scored bets, the over-under bets as they're called, that number is creeping higher and higher.

SIEGEL: Are people possibly attributing too much to the fact that the refs are replacement refs who clearly have been erratic in several occasions? Would the NFL very mindful of the bounty story out of New Orleans for last year when the regular refs come in and be calling a lot more penalties than they were before for reasons that the NFL wants regardless of who the referees are?

MILLMAN: It's possible, but I think what's happening is the replacement refs don't know the rules. And I also think that you're seeing that maybe refs are more influenced by the power of cheers when they're throwing out a flag or the power of boos when they're not.

SIEGEL: I guess, one thing that is inevitably new for a replacement ref who hasn't been officiating big college games, and a lot of these guys have not, is it's unusual to be booed by, say, 70,000 people all at once.

MILLMAN: Exactly. I mean, it's a daunting thing to be these replacement refs right now and to be in that stadium and knowing that you are the story. I mean, refs don't like to be the story. They like to be as invisible as they possibly can, and these guys every few plays, they are having a run at the sideline to speak to NFL officials to get rules interpretations, and it's a difficult thing for them to negotiate.

SIEGEL: Well, Chad, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

MILLMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Chad Millman of ESPN. He writes a lot there about sports betting.

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