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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.
The Least-Bad Bets You Can Make
I talk a lot of doom and gloom around here about how you're not going to beat Vegas at its own game, which is true and important to hear. Gambling can be a great way to increase our enjoyment of the game as long as we're honest with ourselves and realistic about the odds. But "give up all hope, there's no edge to be had" isn't a very compelling slogan for marketing, so today, I wanted to look at some ways you can stack the deck a little bit more in your favor (or, more accurately, stack it a little bit less in Vegas' favor.)
First of all, NFL spreads and over/unders are some of the sharpest, most-heavily-wagered action available at sportsbooks. If there's an edge to be had anywhere, this is the last place you'd find it. But sometimes, in the less-frequently bet wagers, the lines might be a little bit "softer" and more exploitable. For many years, one of those areas was player props, or small side bets on how well individual players will perform.
Props are in the news this week with a story that New York has banned prop-based DFS contests such as those run by Underdog and PrizePicks. While there's a lot of confusion surrounding this, New York is not banning player props, it's just getting rid of the ability to classify them as "daily fantasy sports" (which has lower legal requirements and is available to anyone who is at least 18 years old) instead of "gambling" (which requires a stricter sportsbook license and is only available if you're 21 or older).
My opinion is that this is good: player props are gambling, and the fiction that pure prop bets were somehow DFS was an end-around on the system. Gambling is good and should be allowed, but all parties that provide it should be treated the same. Also, my understanding is that because these player props were being categorized as "DFS", they had much worse payout rates than those offered by the sportsbooks (which are regulated and limited in the amount of rake they can take). As long as you're at least 21 and legal to gamble, you should probably be placing your bets at one of the licensed sportsbooks, anyway.
With the recent debate aside, should you be betting player props? Well, there have been several people on staff here at Footballguys who managed to bet their fantasy projections against Vegas player props and consistently turn a profit for years on end. If they had a back projected for 68 yards and the over/under was set at 62 yards, they'd take the over. If the over/under was set at 74 yards, they'd take the under. And since their player projections were better than Vegas', they won often enough to make money at it.
This might sound like a classic "friend-of-a-friend story". After all, there are a lot more people claiming to be profitable bettors than there are profitable bettors. In this case, though, it's true that player props are softer targets. Here's the biggest tell of whether a wager is "sharp" or "soft": how much of their own money is Las Vegas willing to risk?
On bets where it's confident it has an edge, Vegas will essentially take all the action you're willing to give it. If you want to bet $500,000 on the Eagles this weekend, there's a book out there that will be happy to do so, because they're that confident in the line they produced.
If you wanted to bet $500,000 on Jalen Hurts going over his passing yardage prop, you won't be able to do so. Sportsbooks tend to cap the amount of money you're able to wager on player props. This is a clear concession that props are softer, and Vegas knows this; capping the maximum wager limits the amount they can potentially lose if they're wrong. So while player props were profitable, it wasn't a huge profit.
The fact that prop bets are theoretically easier to beat is why at Footballguys, we have two weekly columns devoted to betting player props (both of which are all filled with serious advice) compared to one weekly column devoted to betting game outcomes (which runs entirely on memes and whimsy).
Before I give too much hope, though, I want to pour some cold water on it. First of all, Vegas learns. If you find an inefficiency in their numbers, you can exploit it for a while, but eventually, they'll figure it out and close it. For years, the fantasy football community could beat Vegas on player props, but Vegas eventually learned this and started reading the fantasy football community. Player props may be softer than spreads, but they're a heck of a lot sharper than they were fifteen years ago.
Second of all, Vegas "cheats". Remember, they're not required to take your bets. They limit the amount of money you can wager on individual bets, and if you are profitable for long enough, they'll stop taking your bets at all. You know those Footballguys staff members who turned a profit for a few years on player props? That ended when the books realized they had an edge and stopped taking their bets.
Vegas is going to stack the deck in their favor every chance they get, and there's not a whole lot we can do about it. Player props are a less-unfavorable way to get the thrill of gambling, but Vegas keeps offering them because Vegas still believes they'll eventually turn a profit, and Vegas is usually right about this sort of thing. Ultimately I think the most sustainable gambling strategy is to just write off 5% of everything you bet in advance as the cost of doing business and then wager your money where it'll give you the most entertainment per dollar.
Lines I'm Seeing
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