After further review, the house does not always win.
Since the beginning of time, we have been led to believe that gambling is a fool’s errand and sportsbooks will inevitably wind up with your money. However, that is overstated. A successful football season with modest expectations is attainable with a firm grasp of one’s approach and discipline to abide by several guidelines.
(Part 2 of a two-part “Guide to Betting Football” series). Part 1 written by David Purdum
Start with the basics
When placing a point spread wager, your analysis often focuses on the margin of victory rather than predicting which team will win the game. Obviously, betting an underdog plus the points is much more pleasant when that ‘dog wins outright, but often it will come down to the favorite’s margin of victory, especially in college football with its predominantly double-digit spreads. Over the past five football seasons, NFL underdogs of at least seven points have covered at a 48% clip. For FBS teams, it’s 49%. From afar, it’s a coin-flip exercise.
Every sport has its particular nuances, but football is the epitome, given the diverse scoring units of a touchdown (6), field goal (3) and conversions (1 or 2). The difference in these scores is extremely critical to a point-spread outcome, and it’s often decided on third down — to either extend the drive, settle for a FG attempt, etc. Additionally, a single turnover can swing an entire outcome, and many believe turnovers often reflect luck more than skill.
A tightening market with wiser bettors
Like nearly every other industry, the betting market is evolving with rising expertise. Technology has played a large role, and many feel it is more difficult to win now than ever before. However, those advancements have also enabled bettors to put themselves in better positions.
“As the bettors get smarter, the bookmakers get smarter. The information goes both ways. The bettors get it. The bookies get it. You ask anyone who bets, they say it’s so much harder to win than it used to be, but they’re so much smarter than they used to be,” Ed Salmons, veteran oddsmaker with the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, told ESPN. “Back in the day, you had no idea who would be playing and who would be out in the NFL preseason. Now, you can get the injuries sent to your phone and have it 30 seconds before the bookmakers do.”
Betting will always be a race for information. That race has become more of a sprint, but opportunities still present themselves. However, given the rising competition, it’s mandatory to maintain discipline and avoid common pitfalls, such as taking bad numbers or chasing losses to avoid a losing day or week. Betting what you can afford to lose is much different than betting what you want to win. Plus, always remember that locks belong on doors … and Tommy Callahan already taught us about “guarantees.”
Look beyond bets on the point spread or over/under total on full game
While the competition has stiffened on both sides of the counter, I still believe that expanding legalization has provided an unprecedented opportunity for recreational bettors. Expansion has created an arms race between gaming operators to acquire customers and each is trying to outperform the competition. Part of that is offering elaborate menu options and enticing as many bettors as it can, essentially throwing the widest net possible.
Think about it this way: Oddsmakers force the bettor to lay odds (-110 in most cases and often pricier) in exchange for allowing the bettor to pick any wager on the board. In the old days, with just the side and the total offered, the house had a much larger advantage than today’s world with team totals, quarter lines, props, etc. The sheer numbers allow for more vulnerabilities; the bettor just has to find the right one(s).
“Bettors can always pick their spots. They don’t have to bet everything we put up. They can look for the weaker spots because they’ve done their handicapping and they may see a spot where they have an advantage,” DraftKings sportsbook director Johnny Avello told ESPN while chuckling about how far the industry has evolved in his 40-plus years in Las Vegas. “Sports bettors come in various shapes and sizes.”
The premise is you can now isolate your betting angle in the most specific way. If you think the Las Vegas Raiders will start strong in their first home game with fans at Allegiant Stadium, then you can wager on them to win the first quarter, to score first or even cross midfield before their opponent (Baltimore Ravens). Ten years ago, you could just bet on the Raiders to win the game or first half and hope they would hang on after the early lead you expected. In this modern-day version, you can remove more variables and wager on your exact handicap. Remember, all the props and derivative betting lines are proportionally based on the game line, so a distinct and significant piece of information can exploit those stale odds. After all, there is a reason the props and similar offerings have such low limits.
Additionally, these vast betting options also help you avoid late-game antics. Bad beats will occur with any wager but the final few minutes of every sport are played in such a different way. I cannot stress that enough. In football, the prevent defense provides wild swings in garbage time. Same goes for hockey with the goalie pulled or basketball with one team often shooting free throws while the other chucks three-pointers. Even in baseball, where we see a side and total already decided when a position player takes the mound, tight games still see strategies change in the later innings.
Don’t force bets
Furthering the previous point, don’t be sucked in by the marquee game. Yes, it’s fun to brag at Monday’s water cooler about how you stood alone on the mountaintop and bet Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh to beat Ohio State (it could happen one day…maybe), but don’t force it. Just because something could happen does not mean it will happen. Remember, you have to be confident that your rationale is worth risking your taxed income and laying odds in a betting market that has already incorporated the sharpest minds. You certainly might have an edge; just make sure that’s all you are betting.
Plus, even when you are most confident, remind yourself that there is another bettor who feels just as strongly as you – on the opposite side of the wager. Take off the blinders. Play devil’s advocate. Try to understand that perspective. While an alternative view stirs the pot on social media, it could enhance your handicapping or perhaps help tweak a bet size.
Beware the narrative
It’s extremely rare that you know something that oddsmakers and betting markets do not. If Alabama is missing two star defenders, you may want to remind yourself that the Crimson Tide will not take the field with only nine defensive players. I know it sounds silly but you’d be surprised just how extreme some “analysis” will be in such situations.
For example, in the final game of Wild Card weekend, the Cleveland Browns visited the Pittsburgh Steelers without head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bintonio and top defensive back Denzel Ward after all tested positive for Covid-19. The Steelers opened the week as 3.5-point favorites and reached as high as six points, given about three-quarters of the total money bet arrived on Pittsburgh as this news trickled out. Sure enough, Cleveland led 28-0 after the first quarter and never looked back. “That game was all wise guys on the Browns,” Salmons said.
In the Super Bowl, we all knew the Kansas City Chiefs had a hobbled offensive line against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The injuries were well-documented and discussed at great lengths. Patrick Mahomes still managed some incredible throws but ultimately he was under too much duress, in addition to battling an ankle injury.
Ultimately, any storyline or narrative is already baked into the point spread. The differences lie with whether the adjustment accurately incorporates that storyline. Most pro bettors bet the Bucs because they believed the trenches would play a larger role than the point spread reflected. A game with several moving parts is more difficult for an oddsmaker than a garden variety matchup of teams at full strength. The unknowns annoy them and thus present opportunity but just make sure you have your wits, too.
Consider in-game bets
Abstaining from forced bets also allows you to find opportunities after kickoff. For those new to the space, sportsbooks offer betting odds throughout the entire game. Now, the menu is smaller than the pre-game ones with massive options and proposition bets. However, we are assessing a scenario where nothing caught your eye initially so now you are waiting in the weeds for the right opportunity to scream your name.
The SuperBook said in-game wagers represent about 25% of the total handle on primetime NFL games. DraftKings said its handle is increasing between 5% and 10% annually and thus the menu will grow with it. “It’s more than just the side and total. We are consistently adding more to the menu. It’s the future of the business,” Avello said. “Just take golf, for instance. You can bet on whether he will hit the fairway or yes/no on scoring a birdie. We’ve done the same with baseball. Football will be similar.”
I cannot stress enough the importance of how much a pregame wager (even the smallest ones) can skew how you perceive an in-game line. It all stems from your initial thoughts and rooting interest. Consider a detective approaching a crime scene with a hunch rather than a blank slate. The hunch likely leads to confirmation bias and missed clues for another suspect. So avoid the unnecessary wagers and allow your mind to stay open for business.
Beware of recency bias
No matter how hard it seems, we must maintain neutrality and balance with what we just witnessed. Of course legitimate reasons do exist for a strong performance and often they are predictive but we also cannot ignore an entire season’s data. And it’s a great opportunity to recognize the human element. Simply put: The effort, strategizing and effort it took to perform so well may not be sustainable the following week. Additionally, elite athletes do not reach this level by being sad sacks. A dud loss often induces a week of intense practice and focus. Regression is real and can be your friend.
“If the same thing happens in consecutive weeks, it’s easy to kick yourself and say, ‘That was obvious’. But I’ve just trained myself over the years that the NFL is a contrarian league, for the most part. If you’re serious about making money long-term, you just have to understand and pound it into your head that what happened last week is not going to happen this week,” professional bettor Erin Rynning told ESPN. “Aside from the outliers like Tampa Bay and Houston, when distinguishing between the middle 25 teams, it’s razor thin and the point spread usually comes down to a couple plays. So that’s why it’s so important to be proactive and not reactive.”
For example, the NFL is not college football. Teams do not go undefeated. Only the 1972 Dolphins and 2011 Patriots made it through the regular season undefeated. In 2020, the Steelers won their first 11 games and stood atop the NFL standings. Things quickly dropped off with three consecutive losses — two of them coming to teams that finished with losing records and questionable quarterback play. Rock bottom was a double-digit Monday Night Football loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who started a QB that finished with 89 passing yards and is no longer on an NFL roster.
Look for key scheduling quirks
Old school handicappers will throw around catchy terms such as “flat spot,” “look-ahead spot” and “bounce-back spot.” They certainly exist and most naysayers will concede that. However, the difference of opinion lies in the ability to accurately predict them. Sure, hindsight allows for some clean labeling that can describe a team’s performance but sports betting is rarely that simple. Personally, I do believe it’s possible to anticipate them but I also think we get a bit too aggressive in trying to find them on the calendar.
Perhaps the most egregious “flat spot” in 2020 came in Week 12, when the Las Vegas Raiders traveled to face the Atlanta Falcons. The Raiders had just taken the Chiefs to the brink on Sunday Night Football and nearly upset the defending champs in a well-played primetime game. The entire betting community watched and many square bettors then backed a 6-4 Las Vegas team seemingly on the rise. However, one week later, the 4-6 Atlanta Falcons promptly crushed the Raiders 43-6 thanks to five Vegas turnovers and nearly 100 yards more in penalties.
Advanced bettors are already circling a “sandwich spot” this coming college season. Michigan finishes its regular season with a tricky November stretch. Over three consecutive weeks, the Wolverines travel to Maryland in between high profile showdowns against Penn State and Ohio State. You don’t even have to be able to name a single player to question Michigan’s focus and execution in College Park.
Make the impossible possible
Perhaps Howie Long articulated it best during his Hall of Fame induction speech: “Baseball is America’s pastime but football is truly America’s passion.” NFL and college football combine to represent a little more than one-third of a sportsbook’s annual handle. There is nothing like firing on some pigskin and it’s actually possible to celebrate more winners than losers. However, as Stanley Goodspeed told John Mason, “The second you don’t respect this, it kills you.” They were discussing nerve toxin but betting on football might actually require more caution and diligence.