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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'll detail shortly. (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.
Point Spreads Are Not All The Action There Is.
Most gambling content on the internet and most action taken by sportsbooks revolves around point spreads, where the books assign a handicap to a team, and if their final score (plus or minus the handicap) is higher than their opponent's, the bet pays out. For instance, if the Eagles play the Giants and the "line" is Philadelphia -5.5, then if the Eagles win by 6 or more, they "cover the spread" (because 6 points is big enough that you can subtract 5.5, the handicap, and the Eagles are still ahead), while if they win by 5 or less (or lose outright), then the handicap is greater than the margin and a bet on the Eagles against the spread will lose.
Point spreads are conceptually pretty cool. The sportsbooks are essentially telling us, "We think this team is X points better than that team (given the location of the game-- there's always a 'home field advantage' cooked into the line, too)." And that's great content; power rankings are some of the most popular articles on football, and betting lines are essentially just power rankings with millions of dollars at stake.
They're also a decent entry point into the world of sports betting because the risk and reward are fairly balanced. For the most part, if you bet $100 on a point spread, you stand to gain $100 if you win and lose $100 if you lose. (More or less, we discussed in Week 1 how the book can shade bets to slightly favor one side of the line or the other, and of course, books take a vigorish-- or percentage of everything that gets bet-- for their services.)
But point spreads are not the only way to bet on NFL outcomes. You can also bet something called the "moneyline", where you just pick which team will win the game (regardless of final score).
Moneylines have a lot of points in their favor. They're much easier to understand and explain, for one, and they greatly simplify rooting interests at the end of the game. To use an example from last week, the 49ers were favored by 7 points over the Rams. The Rams trailed by 10 with four seconds left. At that point, the game was essentially over; the Rams had no realistic path to come back. If they knelt on the ball and ended the game, everyone who bet San Francisco -7 would have won.
Instead, they opted to kick a meaningless field goal, pushing the final margin to exactly 7 points and refunding all bets without any winner. That "meaningless" kick would have cost you your potential winnings. In betting parlance, this is called a "backdoor cover"-- a situation where the losing team gets enough easy points to cover the spread simply because the winning team has guaranteed their victory and no longer cares about the remaining plays. Perhaps they've pulled their starters, perhaps they're playing in a prevent defense, or perhaps they're simply no longer contesting plays as vigorously since the win is already assured.
Spread bettors hate backdoor covers (when they've picked the favorite, at least; every winning bet that becomes a loser because of a backdoor cover corresponds to a losing bet that becomes a winner, but you don't hear much from those who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.) But there's no such thing as a "backdoor cover" when you're betting moneylines. Points only matter if they matter, and any scoring that doesn't impact the outcome of the game is superfluous.
The drawback of moneylines is that the amount you stand to lose and the amount you stand to gain are no longer in balance, and your odds of winning are no longer roughly 50/50. Moneylines work the same way that sportsbooks shade odds on point spreads: they'll list a favorite as "-XXX" and the underdog as "+XXX", where the "-" signifies that you must wager that much in order to win $100 while the "+" signifies if you wager $100, you stand to win that much. Using our hypothetical Eagles/Giants game above, a 5.5 point spread might translate to moneylines of Eagles (-260) and Giants (+200), which means if you wager $260 on the Eagles, you stand to win $100 more, and if you wager $100 on the Giants, you stand to win $200 more.
(I've always thought the way the "+" and "-" operate in betting odds was a bit confusing, perhaps intentionally so. Another way to think about it is that a $100 bet on the Giants wins you $200, while a $100 bet on the Eagles only wins you about $38.50. If you want to calculate the latter figure for yourself, it's $100 (your initial bet) times (100/XXX), where XXX is the number after the minus sign, in this case, 260.)
Each point spread and moneyline implies a certain percentage chance of winning. For instance, a spread of +5.5 and a moneyline split of +200 / -260 implies the favorite has about a 69% chance of winning while the underdog has about a 31% chance. If the sportsbooks take $100 on the Eagles and $100 on the Giants, that means there's a 69% chance that they pay out $138.50 (because the Eagles win) and a 31% chance they pay out $300 (because the Giants win-- remember, when you win you get your initial $100 back in addition to your winnings). This means the book's expected payout on that bet is about $188.56 (which is 0.69 * $138.50 + 0.31 * $300). Notice that the books take in $200 but expect to pay out $188.56, which means their expected vig in this hypothetical is around 6% of the amount bet. That's the fee they're taking for the service of providing the bet.
Now, maybe you think all of this is confusing or complicated. And you're right. That's the point. Vegas wants to make the vig invisible, so you forget you're paying it. People are more likely to pay for something when they don't understand what it really costs.
(This is why so many services create their own fake currency with weird conversion rates. Arcades and carnivals are especially notorious for this. A prize might cost 120 tickets, you might average 20 tickets per play on a game that costs 4.4 credits, and you might buy 36 credits for $20. All of the weird values and layered conversions are there to prevent you from doing the mental math and realizing that you just spent nearly $15 to "win" some novelty rubber dog poo. Sports betting is kind of like that but with fewer flashing lights and ringing bells, and also, the rubber dog poo is more metaphorical.)
The important thing to remember is that over a large enough sample, Vegas always wins, but it usually always wins about the same amount. Assume that over time, you're going to lose 5-10% of the money you wager, consider that the "price" of the entertainment you are purchasing, and then feel free to bet whichever you enjoy more between spreads or moneylines, knowing that neither is inherently superior to the other.
Lines I'm Seeing
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