As sports betting expands nationwide, legalized wagering continues to emerge in new jurisdictions known as traditional hotbeds for college football.
Believe it or not when some sharp bettors crunch the numbers before making a wager, the officiating crew for the game can play a significant role on the side that is taken. For years, several major sports betting syndicates have used officiating assignments as a vise in their toolbox for determining a wager, according to two industry sources. Several integrity monitoring services, meanwhile, have compiled a trove of data on sports wagering trends based on the sport’s leading officials.
Last season, for example, when four officiating crews with the highest penalty rates in FBS were assigned to a contest, the under prevailed in 33 of 44 games. In one contest featuring two Top 25 teams, a crew called nearly 20 penalties for more than 200 yards, largely hampering offenses. As expected, the combined points fell under the total. The trends show a direct correlation between an inordinate penalty total and a slow pace of play.
The game day environment will be different this season, in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the possibility of games being played with empty or near-empty stadiums. But by and large, the officiating trends explored in this article should hold up for the 2020 NCAA college football season, for which predictions are here. Or, perhaps tendencies do change before crowd-less contests, creating an entirely different handicapping opportunity.
Officiating informs college football bettors
.@NCAA working to protect the integrity of competition and the athletes in wake of sports betting laws https://t.co/Nl4gm5O4FD
— CollegeAD (@collegead) September 2, 2019
Ahead of the season, the NCAA issued a directive addressing ongoing purported concerns with sports wagering. Tasked with maintaining the integrity of collegiate athletics, the NCAA national office is focused on six critical areas related to the sports betting space, including officiating. At a gambling conference in Las Vegas in May, a panel featuring three NCAA executives indicated that the association could begin to conduct enhanced background checks on officials.
This is not to suggest that a large percentage of referees head into a game with the intention of favoring one side over the other (or a certain total). Nor does it suggest that any officials are being investigated for engaging in a sophisticated match fixing scheme. The data simply shows that certain betting trends occur when particular officiating crews are assigned to a game. In other words, indicating correlation, not causation.
“As the sports wagering landscape evolves, so must the NCAA and its members,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “We are continuing to expand our efforts across these important areas to ensure we are protecting the integrity of competition and the well-being of student-athletes.”
.@NCAA officials spoke on a panel at the International Conference on Gambling & Risk Taking at @CaesarsPalace. They laid out their concerns about sports betting and the steps the organization is doing to protect the integrity of games and athlete welfare https://t.co/b2R9w1get9
— Las Vegas RJ Sports (@RJ_Sports) May 29, 2019
While some conferences wait until minutes before a game to announce officiating assignments, others make the schedules available to the public several days in advance. One website, Behind The Stripes, publishes some assignments days before the weekend slate. Assignments for the College Football Playoff semifinals are also released weeks before the matchups.
In the SEC, officiating assignments are announced in the respective press boxes of the conference’s member schools prior to each game when game notes are distributed to the media. The conference also conducts background checks on all officials for every sport for which it assigns officials.
“These checks include background searches on criminal and financial information,” said Herb Vincent, an SEC associate commissioner.
Representatives from three other power conferences did not respond to requests for comment.
Last month, Sports Handle obtained officiating data on six college officials from the 2018 college football season. The six officials worked 73 games in total, featuring teams from all five power conferences. In order to protect the anonymity of the officials, we have chosen to omit the officials’ names and the conferences involved.
Here are some other trends that emerged from recent data on college officials:
Official A — Covering the spread with home favorites
Before officiating a bowl game last December, the official in question worked 12 on-campus, regular season games last season. In all 12 games, the home team won straight up. What’s more? The home team won with the spread in 11 of the 12 contests. During his FBS career, a team playing at home has won 76.7% of the games refereed by the official.
At the same time, another prevailing trend stands out. In games worked by the official over the course of his career, the favorite has won 81.8% of the time, including a rate of 95% over his last 20 games. Last season, the favorite covered in 10 of the official’s 12 regular season contests or 83.3% of the time. The data suggests that home favorites have an overwhelming chance to win straight up when Official A is assigned to a game.
It could be happenstance but in games worked by the official, the visiting team was whistled for 6.0 penalties per game for 49.2 yards per contest. By comparison, home teams in those contests were called for 4.9 penalties per game amounting to 44.0 yards on average. Among all officials, home teams in 2018 were whistled for 5.8 penalties per game for 52.3 yards. In one game, where the home side closed as three-touchdown favorites, the team did not receive a single penalty. The away team, which nearly beat the spread, finished the game with seven penalties for 50 yards. In loud, boisterous environments, some officials may be hesitant to call penalties on the home team.
Official B — Proclivity for calling pass interference
As any hardened bettor knows, the type and timing of penalties usually carries more weight than the overall number of infractions called per game. An offensive holding penalty is widely viewed as a “drive killer,” and can favor bettors who take the under. Pass interference calls, meanwhile, impact the line much more than an illegal procedure penalty.
One official from a power conference has drawn criticism from fans of at least three prominent schools for calling questionable pass interference penalties at key moments of a game. When a crew calls pass interference tightly, the total can be artificially inflated. In the case of Official B, in his last 20 games the total went over 55% of the time. The over has eclipsed the total at a rate around 30% for all games officiated in the conference since the referee began working on the FBS level.
Official C — High penalty rates slow pace, offense
As mentioned above, when a crew tends to call an exorbitant rate of penalties the pace of play can slow considerably. For high-octane teams in the Big 12 such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, it is not surprising to see totals for their games eclipse 80 points.
Last season, Official C worked 13 contests including one bowl game. The total landed on the under nine times, hitting at a rate around 75%. The pattern does not appear to be an anomaly. In games worked by Official C over the entirety of his career, the under has prevailed at a rate of 61.4%. The official’s tendency to blow his whistle often may explain why.
Take a look at the official’s last 20 games, where the under landed at a rate of 73.7%. One game featured 18 penalties for more than 200 total yards. In another, the away team was whistled for 11 penalties for almost 90 yards. In a third, the teams combined for 15 penalties for almost 150 yards. In all three, bettors who took the under won on their tickets. The third game fell under the total by 20 points.
Official D — Don’t sleep on the underdogs
Although underdogs usually don’t win on the moneyline straight up regardless of the official, the rates are higher for certain crews. In the case of Official D, underdogs have won straight up 31.8% of the time. If you’re able to spot a longshot at odds above +400, you could be in line for a nice payday — especially if the game is being officiated by a referee with a considerable underdog bias. Among all officials, underdogs win on average at a rate of 22.7%.
In 2018, one team entered a conference matchup as two touchdown favorites at home. They proceeded to lose by 24 points. The official also worked a bowl game where the slight favorites were crushed by more than three touchdowns. For games officiated by the referee on neutral sites, the underdog win rate jumps to 37.5%.
Last year, Nevada sportsbooks handled $1.8 billion on football wagers for college and pro contests combined. At least two Las Vegas-based sportsbooks accepted six-figure wagers on the College Football Playoff national championship, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.