Behind the Bets: Public Trading

Rams players looked into their "home" crowd on Sunday and saw this. Getty Images

[Ed's Note: Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.]

All hail Rams O-lineman Richie Incognito, heretofore known as the NFL wise man. No joke. He may get into trouble, but the guy makes some keen observations.

Heading into the Rams-Bears game this past weekend in St. Louis, Incognito called out his hometown fans, saying, "They don't know how to cheer, when to cheer. We get the other team's fans coming in, and they cheer real nice for us. It provides for a good football atmosphere having the Chicago fans down here."

Naturally, Rams fans were outraged by Richie's critique, while also wondering when they'll have a team worth cheering for. Personally, I'm impressed that he noticed the noise. In fact, Richie's insight provides a nice jumping off point for today's BTB lesson: Know who the public teams are.

These are the franchises—in any sport—that have at one time during their existence been consistent winners and used that success to build a rabid nationwide fan base. By virtue of winning they also convinced wiseguys and squares alike they were safe bets. "Look," says MGM Mirage sports book boss Jay Rood, "people like going to the cashiers window."

Think back to the Steelers-Chargers fiasco from a few weeks ago. Approximately $100M was bet on that game worldwide, with $66M of it on Pittsburgh. Are the Chargers—with LT, Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers—so bad they deserved to get half as much action as the Steelers? No. But ask any bookmaker and they'll tell you the Steelers are the most popular public team in the NFL. They get an inordinate amount of blindly passionate fan money, as well as a fair-share of wiseguy money. (Some other public NFL teams: Pats, Packers, Colts, Cowboys, Raiders and Bears—your ears don't deceive you, Richie. In baseball it's the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Braves. In college baskets, think UCLA, Louisville, UNC and Duke. Although action from Duke lovers is usually balanced by action from Duke haters.)

Every bookmaker will also tell you that homefield advantage is a huge factor in creating the point spread for any sport. In the NFL it can sometimes account for as much as a four-point swing in the line. But that formula needs to be re-jiggered when a public team hits the road. And then there are even more complicating factors.

Now, if you've read the first few BTB's (Hi ma, learning anything?) you know I'm calling in Scooch for an explanation. Here's what he has to say: "One factor when determining how much the fans travelling goes into the spread is when public teams are playing in small market venues. That's when they're more likely to fill seats, especially when those home teams are having down years."

Hmmm. Let's use the small-market, recently middling Rams as a test case for Scooch's theory.

It's not just this season that the Edward Jones Dome has been overrun by invaders. Last year, St. Louis faced similar scenarios against two of the public's favorites: The Steelers and the Pack. In both of those games the the EJD crowd was split 50-50 between homers and not so homers, and the home dog Rams didn't come close to covering in either one. Two years ago, again against Chicago, it was even worse. After St. Louis was blown out by 15 points, Steven Jackson called out Rams fans for selling their ducats to Bears fans. He had good reason to be mad. Come game time, Chicago fans cheered so loudly the Jackson gang had to go to a silent count. At home. That's not good for anyone's ego.

Looking for a game this weekend to track the public team philosophy? Check out the Colts at the Browns. The straight-up power ratings might make the Colts three to three-and-a-half-point faves. Now, factor in that the Colts are a public team whose fans travel well, and that disgusted Browns fans may be unloading their tickets. Whaddaya know? Some betting sites have shaded the built-for-a-dome Colts as four-point favorites—our own Pigskin Pick 'Em has Indy minus-4.5—even though they're playing outside. In November. In Cleveland.

Bookmakers are clearly expecting the Browns to get the chill from fans.

If Joe Thomas and Co. need a shoulder afterward, they can call Richie. The man understands.

Bet you've got a great gambling story. Email Chad