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Canadian Football League Handicapping

It’s that time of the year again—Americans are getting ready for football. NFL teams are opening training camp, college football teams are starting practice, and tout services are hiring telemarketers. Up north, however, the footballs are already flying. Since those of us in South Carolina consider anywhere above Raleigh as “up north”, that statement needs some qualification: pro football is in full swing up in Canada with the Canadian Football League (CFL).
 
Most Americans don’t realize that the CFL has a lengthy and storied history. The league itself has been around since 1930, and the Canadian Football championship—known as the Grey Cup—has been contended since 1909. More recently, American fans are aware that a number of NFL stars got their start in the CFL including Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly, and Jeff Garcia. The league at least gets passing coverage here in the Palmetto State thanks to former Clemson QB Nealon Greene, who’s had a solid career in the Canadian game and is currently the starting QB for the Saskatchewan RoughRiders.
 
I also don’t think that the average American sports bettor appreciates the excellent wagering opportunities presented by the CFL. At Net Prophet Sports, we’ve been handicapping the CFL since the late 1990’s and have done extremely well with it. In fact, last year was the only CFL season with a lower than 60% winning percentage (though we still finished in the black). The keys to success in betting any sport are hard work, good information, and an ability to find line value. The CFL is no different in this respect than American sports. Furthermore, there are a number of profitable concepts unique to the CFL game that we’ve been able to capitalize on over and over again.
 
The balls are bigger up north…
 
That’s not a normative judgment on the testicular fortitude of Canadians, that’s a statement of fact and a good place to begin the discussion on the differences between Canadian and American pro football. These are anecdotally interesting, but they don’t really impact handicapping the CFL. First of all, as I alluded to in the title of this section the CFL ball is larger than its American counterpart. If you know anything about rugby, its roughly the same as a #3 rugby ball meaning it is somewhat longer and fatter than the NFL ball. The CFL field is also longer (110 yards) and wider (65 yards vs. the NFL’s 53.5 yards), and the CFL end zones are 20 yards deep as opposed to 10 yards in the NFL. The CFL goal posts are on the goal line, while the NFL’s are on the end line at the back of the endzone. 
 
Teams have 12 players on the field at once as opposed to 11 in the NFL. On offense, the extra player is a receiver, on defense a defensive back. And unlike the American game, where teams have 4 downs to move the ball ten yards the CFL has only 3. Maybe the hardest thing to get used to when listening to CFL broadcasts is the frequently references to teams going “two and out”. There are a few other subtle differences as well—teams only have 1 time out per half, only 20 seconds between plays, and all backfield players can be in motion prior to the snap (as opposed to only one in the NFL).
 
“Single Male Canadian seeks missed kick”
 
The first time I saw a CFL score tied 1-1 at the end of the first quarter I thought I was hallucinating. Then I realized that I hadn’t taken any drugs stronger than a mixture of caffeine and Goody’s Headache Powders and figured that something was up. For the sports bettor perhaps the most significant rule difference is the fact that teams can score a single point, which those clever Canadians call a “single”. Basically, a team is awarded a single point for a missed field goal or a punt that lands in the end zone. Intuitively, you’d think that would screw with a lot of handicapping concepts—particularly “key numbers” like 3 and 7 that we American sports bettors are taught to respect. My practical experience indicates otherwise. While the “key numbers” are probably less sacrosanct in the CFL game the presence of the single doesn’t really impact things as much as you’d think. To date, I’ve never won or lost a side or total on the basis of a “single”. I’m sure I will at some point, but the fact that it hasn’t come into play in nearly a decade of CFL betting should underscore that it’s not a major concern.
 
“Locals Only”
 
Of all the rule differences between the NFL and CFL the one that has the most significance on the game isn’t enforced on the field; it’s enforced in the GM’s office.  Canadians are big on laws and rules to protect their national identity—that’s why their TV and radio stations are required to devote a certain percentage of their airplay to “Canadian content”. That has led to a number of Canadian-only media stars both good (The Tragically Hip, Sloan) and bad (Avril Lavigne, early 90’s white rapper Snow). The CFL has a similar rule which requires that 19 of the 40 players on a roster must be Canadian born. This keeps the CFL from becoming a de facto NFL developmental league, and helps maintain its unique identity. It’s also good for us handicappers, as we’ll discuss later.
 
Handicapping the CFL
 
Here’s the good news about handicapping the CFL—the lines on Canadian football games are frequently as soft as the downy fur of a baby moose. This is due to the fact that CFL isn’t a high profile betting sport, meaning linesmakers don’t work overtime to keep their Canadian football lines sharp. Furthermore, there’s such a misunderstanding about the Canadian game evidenced by casual bettors that books probably don’t need to deal a painfully sharp line.
 
Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding is that the average bettor looks at the rules of the Canadian game with more players, a wider field, and fewer downs and concludes that the game is a wide open shootout similar to Arena Football. That’s not really the case—you’ll see some offensive battles but most games end up with final score totals in the mid to high 40’s. In Arena Football, you’ll frequently see teams with potent offenses enforcing their will over and over again against teams with porous defenses. You don’t see that too often in the CFL. The rules may be different, but as is the case in American pro football you need a solid rushing game and a stout defense to win games and championships.
 
Furthermore, the parity that you see in the NFL where on “any given Sunday” any team can beat any other team is magnified in the CFL. The primary reason is the rules mandating Canadian native players. I don’t think it’ll offend any Canadians if I suggest that football is played at a higher level in American high schools and colleges. That means that at least 50% of each team is of essentially equal level of talents. Now that may be a bit of an oversimplification—certainly there are differing levels of talent among Canadian players—but the Canadian native rules do serve to further codify the inherent tendency toward parity that you see in most professional sports.
 
Considering the 21 “non- Canadians” on the team, it’s also important to remember that the CFL doesn’t get the “pick of the litter” of American football talent. Certainly those who have the ability are in the NFL, or on an NFL practice or developmental squad, or playing Arena Football, or in NFL-Europe. While some players are uniquely suited for the CFL game--the aforementioned Nealon Greene, for example—most of the Americans in the CFL are players whose ability just isn’t up to NFL levels. Think of the XFL without the strippers and pro wrestlers running around and you have a good indication of the type of American player that ends up in Canada. 
 
It’s just football even if it IS Canadian:
 
The bottom line is that despite the rule differences and personal quotas the CFL game is still football and you can handicap it the same way—keep solid power ratings and look for weaknesses in the line (and you’ll find these a lot) and you’re halfway there. Below are some concepts that can help you find winners in the CFL:
 
--Look for opportunities to play on underdogs, particularly home underdogs: Remember, this is a league of parity. Home dogs are frequently matchups where one team has overachieved while one has underachieved to date, and these things have a way of evening out. Week 5 of this season was a classic example of this, with two underachieving home dogs (Calgary and Winnipeg) beating better teams (Montreal and Saskatchewan) outright. Two other home dogs played tough and earned pointspread covers. 
 
--Be very careful about laying points in any situation: On balance, you’re better off taking rather than laying points in all sports. In the CFL, however, there’s a particularly high threshold for laying a significant number of points. I can count the number of CFL favorites I’ve played over the past three years on two hands and have fingers left over. Even if overall scoring isn’t as high as many would perceive in the CFL, points are still easy to come by and have a way of biting chalk players particularly hard.
 
--Look for opportunities to play UNDER totals in the mid to high 50’s. Sometimes you’ll see lower totals posted when the better defensive teams like Toronto are involved, but most CFL totals seem to be in this price range. A misconception of many bettors of the nature of the CFL game often yields built in value on an UNDER position. You’ll have to sweat out quite a few games, but you’ll be surprised how many times you’ll cash a ticket on an UNDER as a game ends up totaling in the high 40’s or low 50’s.
 
--Look for good scheduling situations. This is true in any sport, but is especially true in the CFL due to the dreaded “two games in 4 days” scheduling spot that teams have to endure a couple of times a year. This week, for example, the Toronto Argonauts played at Montreal on Thursday and are playing at home the following Monday. For handicappers that like to play “letdown” spots the quick turnaround between games—like the example above, where Toronto is off a tough victory against their hated rival Montreal—makes these spots even stronger. For a few years just blindly playing against the team playing two games in four nights was a ticket to easy profits. Linesmakers appear to have been better about factoring this into the line, but there are still solid wagering opportunities to be found. Playing two football games in four days is a tough thing to do at any level of the sport.
 
--Stay on top of the CFL news.  For American fans, this sounds a lot harder than it is. True, you’ll not see CFL news on ESPN, since they’re more interested in featuring spelling bees and lumberjack competitions and letting their personalities like Stuart Scott show how “clever” they are than covering sports. The good news is that the CFL receives extensive coverage in the Canadian press and all you need to do is visit a couple of websites to stay up to date. Each CFL city has their own sports media, and most have pretty good websites. The best “one stop shopping” can be found at the league’s own website (www.cfl.ca) and Slam! Sports, which is roughly the Canadian equivalent of ESPN’s website and has extensive CFL news, opinions and statistics (http://slam.canoe.ca/) . 

 

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