LAS VEGAS — Army’s football game at Ball State became a conundrum tucked inside a mystery to Matt Metcalf, the Circa Sports oddsmaker whose journeys to finished lines are laced with aha! moments and dastardly rabbit holes.
At 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 26, he sat behind his desk to apply one final polish to the numbers for the week’s 61 games. Circa prides itself in unveiling the first completely lined schedule unto the world, at 11 a.m.
At 10 a.m., Metcalf received a text message regarding Army quarterback Christian Anderson’s shoulder injury. Another text soon questioned reserve Tyhier Tyler’s health.
Army was 4-0, the Cardinals 1-3. Metcalf had planned to open it Army -8.
He reviewed figures from two co-workers. He sent a text to Ed Salmons, with whom he had worked at the Westgate
SuperBook, who’d open it Army -4.
Metcalf questioned his power ratings, why the previous week he had opened Toledo, which he deemed as good as Army, at -3 against Ball State. The mental jousts became oral deliberations, counter-arguments.
Several colleagues witnessed a magnificent 45-minute soliloquy.
“They were saying, ‘Matt, let it go!’ No,” says Metcalf. “This game . . . I had to talk it through until it made sense.”
He’d open Army -7½. Ball State money shaved the Black Knights’ edge to 4. Army cash eked it up to 6, 7, 7½, 9 and 10, where it settled that Friday.
Anderson didn’t play. Backup Jemel Jones floundered. Tyler ran it in twice. Ball State won 28-16. House wins.
Metcalf says he could have spared himself anguish by simply sticking to 8, letting some sizeable wagers pin it at 10.
“I never had to go down that rabbit hole. Was I right or wrong? Wrong because the game went to 10, right because of the result. Ball State won. We got lucky. We won. But everyone still makes fun of me.
“They’ll make fun of me forever, but they’ll make fun of me less because we won the game.”
Metcalf, 42, puts in a full Saturday at the gleaming 35-story Circa downtown. He arrives at his nearby home around 6 p.m.
Each second ticks loudly.
He works backward, from 9 a.m. Sunday, factoring in six hours to update his power ratings — from Saturday’s results — and produce the upcoming week’s sides and totals.
Decompressing from the long day requires a two-hour melt into the couch. He will rise at 8 a.m., eat, shower and scoot back to Circa.
If he can start massaging the numbers by 8 p.m., he can work for two hours, crash at 10. Needing four more work hours, he sets the alarm for 4 a.m.
He works manually, from power ratings in files, folders and notebooks that he has maintained for 15 years.
In 2018, after betting professionally for eight years, his aptitude and aggressive philosophy convinced Circa owner Derek Stevens to hire Metcalf to run his sportsbook operations.
In the summer of 2019, he and then-associate Matt Lindeman (now at WynnBET) discussed setting the first Vegas college football lines.
As they pondered the commitment in their office at The D, before Circa opened one year ago, Stevens strolled in and asked, ‘‘Can we put the first college football lines up?’’
That serendipity convinced Metcalf to go for it.
Two months ago, he questioned doing it for a third season. He had just had a summer of peaceful, regular sleep.
Stevens provided leeway. On Aug. 20 — a week before this season started — Metcalf again chose to go for it.
“Not to paint myself as a martyr, it was just more of an internal struggle. Did I want to commit to this process again? I love to do it, which, in the end, is why we decided to keep doing it.”
DraftKings sportsbook director Johnny Avello posted the city’s first college football lines at Bally’s, in 1994, and then the Wynn.
“The art is to put up a number that doesn’t move 10 points,” says Avello, 68. “You don’t mind some movement, just not too much.”
Metcalf flirted with that possibility last Saturday. He opened Pittsburgh-Virginia Tech at Pick, either side at -110 odds (wager $110 to win $100, for example).
He had forgotten about Hokies quarterback Braxton Burmeister’s shoulder tweak. Money made Pitt a 3-point favorite. Circa has a $3,000 Sunday limit, which moves to $40,000, and higher, by the weekend.
Monday, it was Pitt -4. When it hit 6½, money came in on the Hokies. Within 14 minutes, it was driven down to 5. Twenty-four hours later, it hit 4½. It settled at 6 by kickoff.
“Numbers between one and six were live,” says Metcalf. “I knew I’d be sweating that game. I was looking for Pitt to win by seven or more, or Virginia Tech to win outright.”
The Panthers won, 28-7. Again, house wins.
“I’m almost living in a vacuum,” says Metcalf. “I’m trying to put up an initial number that I would have trouble betting into, that will elicit 50-50 action. It won’t always be the closing number.”
We chat about team biases and transitive values, and dreams. Every couple of weeks, these numbers do waltz across Metcalf’s nocturnal stage.
“I’ll dream about results, how I missed on a number. Usually in nightmares, like a game has moved 10 points but was a set-up, and it’s bet all the way back down. Weird.”