Gambling on the NFL is big business, especially after a 2018 Supreme Court decision striking down a federal ban on sports betting. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 46.6 million people will place a bet on the NFL this year, representing nearly one out of every five Americans of legal gambling age. As a result, there's been an explosion in sports betting content, most of which promises to make you a more profitable bettor. Given that backdrop, it can be hard to know who to trust.
Fortunately, you can trust me when I promise that I'm not going to make you a more profitable sports bettor. And neither will any of those other columns. It's essentially impossible for any written column to do so, for a number of reasons I detailed here. (I'm not saying it's impossible to be profitable betting on the NFL, just that it's impossible to get there thanks to a weekly picks column.)
This column's animating philosophy is not to make betting more profitable but to make betting more entertaining. And maybe along the way, we can make it a bit less unprofitable in the process, discussing how to find bets where the house's edge is smaller, how to manage your bankroll, and how to dramatically increase your return on investment in any family or office pick pools (because Dave in HR and Sarah in accounting are much softer marks than Caesar's and MGM).
If that sounds interesting to you, feel free to join me as we discuss the weekly Odds and Ends.
I figure we'll just make it a weekly feature to track the performance of "under" bets through the season. Last week the unders went 8-8, which leaves them 45-41 since we noticed how well they were performing five weeks ago.
Let's Talk About Narratives
For most people, betting on football is an act of storytelling. We craft a narrative to explain an outcome and then bet that outcome.
I like to lampshade this every week with our Revenge Game(s) of the Week. There's nothing wrong with this; our Revenge Game picks are 13-9 on the season (12-8 if we ignore the time I picked both sides of the same game, 13-10 if we include last week's "Thanksgiving" picks). As I like to stress, because betting lines are so sharp, either side is essentially equally likely to win, so it doesn't matter what process we use. We're all but destined for a .500 record (plus or minus a few games for luck), so we might as well have some fun with it on the way.
(Profitable bettors are qualitatively different; they don't view betting as an act of storytelling but as an act of risk pricing. They don't "like the Raiders", they might "like the Raiders by 2.5" and bet either side depending on where the actual line falls. But being a profitable bettor, as I keep saying, is extraordinarily hard and not all that entertaining. Outside of the whole "making piles of money" bit, which I imagine is actually kind of fun.)
The problem is that while I'm honest with you and will tell you that all narratives are basically 50/50 bets, others aren't quite as above the board. If you read a lot of gambling columns you'll hear about things like line movement or reverse line movement ("when the line moves in the direction of one team, bet the other"). You'll hear that all of the "sharp money" (the so-called profitable bettors) are on one side of a bet and you should get on that side, too. You'll hear about Team X's record against the spread in its last eight primetime games, or Team Y's record against the spread when the temperature is below 40 degrees, or Team Z's record against the spread against teams coming off of games on Thursday Night.
These are all narratives, and they're all bunk. None of them are going to return better than a 50/50 chance to win on their own.
(For starters, the idea that the majority of the sharp money is ever on one side of a contest is just objectively wrong. The majority of the sharp money is sitting in reserve at all times waiting to punish the sportsbooks if they ever publish a bad line. If the books are getting a lot of "square money" on one side of a bet so they move the line to equalize the action, the result wouldn't be an equal amount of "sharp money" on the other side to offset, it would be a flood of "sharp money" coming in trying to make an easier buck. The lines are always good because they lines always have to be.)
Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that it's a bad thing that these are all narratives. The narratives the other guys are pushing are no better or worse than the narratives I'm pushing. If you want to bet against Team Y in cold weather or Team X in primetime, go for it. It's a 50/50 shot. If you want to bet in favor of them to be contrarian, go for that, too. It's still a 50/50 shot. The fact that these narratives are uncorrelated with reality means they won't help you, but they won't hurt you, either. For most of us, betting is just the act of searching for whichever story we find most compelling.
Carl Sagan once wrote, "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." Personally, I don't mind a bit of satisfying delusion (I operate this entire column under the premise that I'm actually being rather clever here), but I figure since it's your money at risk, you should probably know the truth.
Lines I'm Seeing
Continue reading this content with a PRO subscription.
"Footballguys is the best premium
fantasy football only site on the planet."
Matthew Berry, NBC Sports EDGE