How the Patriots became Super Bowl favorites in minutes

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Bettors and oddsmakers will tell you that BetCris, an online sportsbook based in Costa Rica, has more influence on the U.S. sports betting market than any other bookmaker.

When "Cris" posts its opening point spreads and totals, sportsbooks across North America take notice. They regularly adjust their odds to get in line, sometimes simply copying the BetCris numbers.

While some sportsbooks try to avoid the smart money like the plague, BetCris is known to cater to it, offering some of the largest betting limits to some of the most successful professional sports bettors in the world. Yet even its bookmakers were caught off guard by what happened late last Sunday night, after they posted the opening line on the Super Bowl.

At 10:15 p.m. ET, just minutes after the AFC Championship Game ended, BetCris opened the Los Angeles Rams as 1.5-point favorites over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

By 10:32 p.m., the Patriots had gone from underdogs to 2.5-point favorites.

BetCris head oddsmaker James Nash thought "at worst" the Super Bowl line might move to pick 'em, "but I was wrong," he said. "Not the first time for sure."

Nash wasn't alone. Several sportsbooks, both in Las Vegas and offshore, installed the Rams as the initial favorites. Other books went with pick 'em as the Super Bowl opening line. Regardless of their opener, they all have been inundated by Patriots money.

Through Wednesday, the Mirage in Las Vegas reported that 96 percent of the money that had been wagered on the Super Bowl point spread was on New England. The nine largest bets that had been placed -- including two six-figure wagers -- were all on the Patriots.

At BetCris, Nash said the early line movement was caused by "volume on the Patriots, and one guy I really respect."

"We actually had more guys that I respect on the other side [Rams] taking +1 and +1.5," he added.

In Las Vegas, the Westgate SuperBook was the first shop up with the Super Bowl line. Five SuperBook oddsmakers -- Jay Kornegay, John Murray, Ed Salmons, Jeff Sherman and Randy Blum -- tossed around different possibilities for the opening spread throughout the second half and overtime of the AFC Championship Game.

The previous week, the SuperBook had been offering lines on potential Super Bowl matchups and had the Patriots-Rams at pick 'em. As New England drove deep into Kansas City territory on the first possession of overtime, the SuperBook debated going with Rams -1 or pick 'em.

At 10:14 p.m., just seconds ahead of BetCris, the SuperBook posted Rams -1 and immediately took a $3,500 bet on L.A. from a regular bettor. At first, Salmons thought it was an indication that the public was going to be on the Rams. He soon learned otherwise.

"I looked away from my screen for seriously 30 seconds, and when I looked back, there were six numbers guys lined up to bet Patriots +1," Salmons said, referring to arbitrage bettors who often end up with wagers on both sides of games at varying point spreads.

New England moved into the role of the favorite within 15 minutes at the Westgate, a surprising move in Salmons' eyes.

"A lot of us believe that the Rams are just a better team than the Patriots," Salmons said.

The staff at BetCris also was somewhat divided. One oddsmaker had the Rams as the favorite; the other had the Patriots. Nash, a professional oddsmaker since 1978, said he has the Rams power-rated 3.5 points higher than the Patriots but knew that was too high of a number to post, so he settled at L.A. -1.5.

"I tended to agree with the one guy who had the Rams as the favorites," Nash said. "But that was proven wrong pretty early on."

Not all line movements are equal. While it's a four-point swing, the Patriots going from 1.5-point underdogs to 2.5-point favorites isn't as dramatic as it might seem. In fact, the Patriots going from 2.5- to 3-point favorites is a much more significant move -- as evidenced by what occurred Tuesday at the sportsbook at South Point Casino in Las Vegas.

Veteran bookmaker Chris Andrews, the South Point's sportsbook director, moved New England to -3 in the middle of the afternoon Tuesday and immediately attracted a "flood" of money on the Rams. More than $100,000 in wagers came in on L.A. in 16 minutes, before the South Point moved the line back to Patriots -2.5.

"It didn't take long," Andrews told ESPN.

After the initial flurry of line movement, the Super Bowl line has settled at New England -2.5. With the vast majority of the money wagered on the Super Bowl placed in the coming week, bettors and bookmakers will be watching closely to see which way the line moves next.

"I really believe this line will come back and go more towards [Patriots] -1.5 and even 1," Salmons said. "I would be shocked if this game went to 3 and closed there."