Jay Christensen covered college football, among other sports, for the Los Angeles Times and produces the popular college football blog TheWizofOdds.com.
College football schedules are generally made up years in advance. But this fall, many teams could be facing an unexpected opponent.
The H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, could infect between 30 percent and up to 50 percent of the American population during the fall and winter months, with large outbreaks expected at universities, according to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
The deadly flu has already attacked some campuses.
The virus swept through the Duke Blue Devils football roster two weeks ago, with nearly half the players experiencing symptoms. Tulane canceled fan day last Saturday after 27 players came down with Type A flu, the same strain as H1N1.
Bettors be warned: Las Vegas oddsmakers will be waiting as long as possible before posting a pointspread on a game involving a team impacted by H1N1. And when a line is set, it will likely have a betting limit. In some cases, a game might be taken off the board.
“If we know there’s a team that may be exposed to a greater number of players with the swine flu, the line will move,” said Peter Korner, owner of the Sports Club oddsmaking firm. “And if we see it move during the course of a day or an afternoon, that’s a red flag. Take the game off the board.”
The aggressiveness of the H1N1 virus is problematic. A team which is relatively healthy one day may experience a widespread outbreak two days later.
Las Vegas oddsmaker Keith Glantz said the swine flu affect on college football is unique.
“I’ve been betting and making my own my own numbers since the 1970s and I can’t remember a postponement ever for health reasons,” he said.
Several teams have recognized the threat of H1N1. Wisconsin is counseling players on ways to avoid getting the virus and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino expressed concern over swine flu last week after two players missed practice because of a flu-like symptoms.
However, swine flu could create opportunities for bettors looking to “middle” a game, Glantz said, warning that “the only people who are going to find out about it in time to bet it are the professionals.”
“The typical bettor,” he said, “isn’t going to know in time to get down on a game.”
Korner said bettors would be advised to take a cautious approach.
“If you think there’s an advantage or an angle then you’ll play it,” he said. “But you don’t want to lock up a lot of money without exactly knowing who’s affected by it.”
Las Vegas sportsbooks have one advantage, according to Korner.
“If a game line moves two or three points at one place, especially the big houses offshore — that’s where they can get the big money down fast — it’s going to hit offshore first before it hits Nevada because they have larger limits. We can save a little bit of play and just take the game off,” he said.
David Malinsky, a professional sports bettor and sportsbook consultant based in Las Vegas, said teams like Duke and Tulane could be impacted later in the season even though they have already weathered the virus.
Both have a significant number of young players on their two-deep rosters and with many of those players missing time in fall camp, the lack of preparation time could become a factor.
“August is so important because you have a couple of weeks to try to prep for almost everything you’ll see between now and December,” he said. “So many times you’ll see something happen in October and think, ‘Gee, why weren’t they prepared for that?’. It’s because something happened in August that kept it from happening.
“I think for these teams, that can really cause an impact. You might not see it in the first week or the second week, but at some point you might see that come into play.”
Malinsky noted that many oddsmakers have already put a betting limit on Tulane’s opening game against Tulsa.
“Part of the problem with a team like Tulane is how do you measure a negative impact because they’re not going to be very good anyway? We might say this will impact Tulane, but they might come out and get slaughtered by Tulsa anyway.”