Year after year, NFL bettors go into the season filled with confidence and end up losing. How can this happen?
Pro football is the biggest betting sport in the United States, with total wagers now running more than $1 billion a week. According to USA Today, over half of the American adult population had a financial stake of some sort on the outcome of last year’s Super Bowl. That translates to over $5 billion wagered on that game alone.
Among the reasons pro football is the most popular betting proposition is that the NFL receives such thorough coverage on television. With nearly every big play shown in replay during the game and many times thereafter, a viewer can’t help but see who made the big runs, catches or blocks that week.
The print media also covers the NFL very closely. Box scores and colorful stories by sportswriters can give fans a strong impression of what happened in a game.
In addition, although betting on the NFL is illegal in nearly every state, the point spread on games receives extensive coverage in both the print and televised media. Late in the week, many newspapers have staff members make selections against the point spread. ESPN’s Chris Berman and Hank Goldberg, as well as many radio commentators, make weekly selections as well. All of this coverage makes the point spread enticing for viewers. The information encourages them to form their own opinions. Some bettors follow the advice of favorite writers or commentators. Others try to prove they know more than the experts. And for any fans who still feel they lack expertise, hordes of sports services or touts offer to fill the gap. Most of them promise fabulous returns of 70 or even 80 percent winners, as if the people who book NFL games were the biggest suckers in the world.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Bookies love the NFL season. It provides them with their greatest profits in sports.
The average bettor, on the other hand, despite all the touts and information, loses season after season. The late Bob Martin, manager of Las Vegas’s first casino sportsbook, once told me that the number of bettors who win betting pro football is so small that “it is virtually the same as if no one won.”
Year after year, NFL bettors go into the season filled with confidence and end up losing. How can this happen?
Big Myth #1
To Win, You Should Bet the Better Team
Statistically, the average bettor tends to bet favorites. That is a big mistake, and here’s why.
First, the average bettor tends to overstate the relative strength of the league’s better players and teams. What pro handicappers know is that there is actually tremendous parity in the league, with not that much difference between the best player at a position and the worst.
When a team of slightly worse players is more motivated than a team of slightly better players an outright upset is possible. Most certainly, it’s possible for the “inferior” team to cover the point spread.
Second, the point spread tends to nullify any obvious scrimmage edge (skill or power advantage) a team has over its opponent. In the 1999 and 2000 seasons, for example, there were 167 games in which the point spread was seven points or more (games where one team’s advantage over another was perceived to be sizable). While the underdog won just 36 of these games outright (21.6 percent), the underdog covered the point spread in 83 of the games (while tying it in six): a success rate of 51.6 percent.
Third, by betting an underdog, you have an important element of game strategy on your side. NFL teams do their best to win a game. Therefore, in the last few minutes of a game, a team that is leading seldom takes much risk to score more points. Instead, it concentrates on hanging on to its lead. The team that is losing, on the other hand, usually tries to score until the bitter end. If a bettor has taken a favorite that is ahead but not covering with five minutes or less to go, that bettor is in trouble.
In 20 years of handicapping the NFL, I have yet to come across a long-term winning bettor who does not bet mostly underdogs.
Big Myth #2
The “fix” is a widespread belief among amateur bettors. Every now and again, accusations of a fix even make it into respected books and magazines.
I don’t believe that NFL games are fixed and here’s why. First, over the past 25 years, I have known a number of handicappers, including myself, who have consistently won money betting the NFL. If the games weren’t honest, we couldn’t have won. Handicapping just couldn’t overcome players who were dumping or shaving points. Second, in order to fix a game, two events would have to occur. The fixer would have to get important players involved, and be able to bet enough to overcome the payments he has made to the crooked players.
Over the last 15 years, NFL salaries have skyrocketed. Important players, who would have to be in on the fix for it to work, make well into the millions each season. They make even more from endorsements and advertisements. It would cost a lot of money to get to such players. And you could never fix a game with one player alone; at least a few would have to bought.
The fixer would then have to bet enough on the game to turn a profit on the deal. In order to bet this big he would have to use hundreds or thousands of bookmakers.
And bookmakers would definitely notice when they saw this tidal wave of money coming in on one team. As the money came in from all over the country, bookmakers would be in a race to lay off the money with other bookmakers. When huge money comes in from seemingly nowhere it is called unnatural money, and bookmakers are always suspicious about it. With multiple millions suddenly coming in, suspicion would be rampant.
When bookmakers see unnatural money, they take games off the board until they know the reason for it. And there is always a reasonable explanation. Sometimes it’s an injury that comes to light. Sometimes a big name in betting likes the team.
Bookmakers, who themselves depend on accurate handicapping, know that the only way they can survive is for NFL games to be honest. Coups, such as the ones that have tarnished college basketball from time to time, could wipe them out. Bookmakers would be the first to turn in anyone who tried to fix a game.
Believers in fixes also point to referees as possible culprits. Since referees make far less money than players and exert great control over games, this could be feasible except for two things.
First, the NFL does a very close background check on potential referees. Before anyone is allowed to ref NFL games, a lot of solid sources have to consider him bribe-proof.
Second, sources in Las Vegas keep records on which referees work which games and correlate the data with any big money that comes in on a game. If any suspicious correlation between a particular ref and unnatural money turned up, it would be reported immediately to the NFL.
Don’t use the fix as an excuse to lose. Instead, get to work on your handicapping.
Big Myth #3
The game of football can be made to appear very complex. How many people can really define a “West Coast offense?” How many can accurately identify a “zone blitz,” or a “nickel” or “dime” defense?
NFL analysts in the media have quick answers to all these questions. They have a listing of every player and his record at their fingertips. They have staff-written copy on hand to explain all types of game strategies. They have formidable arrays of statistics to cover any situation.
Because of the media, pro football is a sport of virtually no hidden information. However, it’s one thing to describe an event that’s already over. It is something else entirely to try to predict that which has yet to occur.
When the media try to predict game results, they tend to do poorly. To give just a few examples from New York City, where I live, every Friday eleven New York Post writers make predictions on NFL games against the spread. I’ve never seen one of these handicappers consistently pick the 52.4% winners needed to beat the 11-to-10 odds sports bettors must give. In fact, virtually every year for the past 20 years the consensus in the Post has finished below 50 percent.
One of the Post handicappers often mentions trends in his handicapping analysis—how teams do on grass or turf, as favorites or underdogs, etc. But trends are mostly useless these days since teams change so quickly due to free agency. What does it matter if a team is 12-and-4 on road turf over the last five years if only three of its players have been there that long?
On the radio, WFAN commentators also make predictions every Friday. But they too have seldom picked the 52.4 percent winners needed to beat the 11-to-10. To cover this, they often talk about their records in relation to the .500 mark. The vig seems not to exist in the world of WFAN.
And on television, ESPN’s Hank Goldberg has beaten the 11-to-10 in only one of the seven years he’s been there.
From personal experience, I’ve learned that most TV producers and newspaper editors view sports handicapping as entertainment rather than serious journalism. That’s why you, as a serious handicapper, should take all media predictions with a big grain of salt.
Big Myth #4
Pie in the Sky Win Rates
As NFL betting has grown, so has the tout business. A tout is someone who gets paid to help a bettor make money betting the NFL. Some are legitimate handicappers. An overwhelming majority are not.
The first way to protect yourself from one who is not is to rule out anyone who claims to win 75 or 80 percent against the point spread. Just remember this: Anyone who reasonably expected to win 80 of his next 100 bets could turn $1,000 into $15 billion by proper proportional betting—all in one season!
A realistic long-term win percentage for a skilled handicapper will be in the 55–60 percent range. I know of no service that has done better than about 60 percent over a number of seasons. And those that consistently reach 60 percent are very few.
Another warning sign of a rip-off tout is multiple services within one service. Touts create multiple services so that they can always truthfully claim to have won. For example, a tout may operate an early-week newsletter giving selections on each game along with a weekend phone service giving selections based on the “latest inside information.” Then the tout will switch sides on a game because of “new” information. This way, the tout can always truthfully advertise that his service, meaning one of his services, had the winner of the game.
Other sports services give out selections on 900 numbers with a charge-per-call. They pad the bill by offering just one selection and telling you to call back in ten minutes for another pick—and another charge.
Other services advertise “lock games,” meaning games that can’t lose. How they can sell such games is beyond me. Anyone who has watched sports for about a month realizes that the difference between winning and losing against the spread can be infinitesimally small. In the NFL, a game will often be turned by a single play or penalty call. The best anyone can do in handicapping is come up with a side that has a slightly better than 60 percent chance of covering the spread. This still means that almost four times in ten the game will lose—which makes any talk of a lock complete nonsense.
Some of the more laughable tout ads are those that are printed a month or more ahead of time. These are often found in NFL betting schedules. The ads will claim that this service had winners in games that couldn’t have been played when the ads were written!
In summary, the only touts you should consider using are those who talk about the long haul and realistic win percentages.
Big Myth #5
The usual way to bet the NFL is to bet one game at a time and give 11-to-10 odds (risking, for example, $55 to win $50 or $110 to win $100). Usually the bet is on one team against the point spread, or the over-under on the total score of a game. However, bookies also offer other types of bets. What makes these bets alluring is that they seem to pay more. But in reality, these exotic bets usually cost you.
Parlays and Parlay Cards: Parlays are usually bet in two- or three-game groups. On a two-game parlay, a bettor gets 13-to-5 odds if he wins both games. For a small investment, the payoff seems big: on a $50 wager, a payoff of $130. On a straight bet, by contrast, a bettor must risk $143 ($130 plus the $13 vig) to win $130. And if he is going to bet two games at $50 each, he must risk $110 to win only $100. So why not bet parlays?
The problem is that the odds of winning two of two bets is 3-to-1 against. That means the fair payout odds should also be 3-to-1 (or 15-to-5). But they aren’t. Instead, they are only 13-to-5.
A three-team parlay usually pays off at odds of 6-to-1. Here a $50 bettor receives $300 on a $50 investment. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
However, the odds of cashing that three-team parlay ticket are only 1 in 8.
Another form of parlay is the parlay card, or “sheet.” On these, the payoff odds are even worse—often only 5-to-1 for picking three games. That gives the house an edge of 25 percent. Four-teamers usually pay 10-to-1, which gives the house a 31.25 percent edge. A ten-teamer might pay 500-to-1, which sounds good until you realize that the odds against going 10 for 10 are 1,023-to-1, which gives the house over 50 percent edge on that proposition.
Teaser Bets: Every year the number of bettors who wager on teasers grows. Why? The games they remember losing by “just a point or two.”
The most common type of teaser bet is the two-team teaser where a bettor gets six points on each of two games. The price of these extra points is giving 6-to-5 (or 12-to-10) odds on the bet. In all teasers, all games must win for the bettor to get paid. Also, in most teasers, if any game ends in a tie, the teaser is considered no bet. (On a ten-point teaser, a tie makes the teaser a loss.)
In any given season, a game has a little over a two-thirds chance of falling within 5 points of the closing line (the rate was 68.8 percent for 1990–1999). These games would all be wins on six-point individual-game teaser bets regardless of which side you bet. However, you must win two games to win a six-point teaser.
By squaring the 68.8 percent win rate for 1990–1999, we find that you would have won just over 47 percent of six-point two-game teasers. However, laying 6-to-5 odds means you must win 54.545 percent of two-team teasers just to break even. That means the house had an edge of over 12 percent.
On the other teaser bets, the picture is just as bleak.
The best bet in the NFL is betting the point spread or over/under on individual games. Giving 11-to-10 odds is generally the cheapest price you can give.
Big Myth #6
Something for Nothing
There are those who believe that sports betting is the ultimate something-for-nothing activity. But in reality, betting pro football to win is a business and must be treated like one to be successful.
The basics of making money at this business are that the lines put out by the oddsmakers are made not to predict the actual outcomes of games, nor to educate the public about the relative strengths of teams, but to try to split the betting public by making one team as attractive as the other. Since the public’s view of a match-up is occasionally incorrect, lines are sometimes incorrect in terms of the real differences between two teams.
A professional bettor looks for these incorrect lines. When he finds such lines he wagers on them—and that is the only time he wagers.
And how does a winning handicapper find those inaccurate lines?
By dispassionately viewing as many games as possible, as well as post-game coverage of match-ups you couldn’t tune in to. By keeping records of scores, lines, injuries and game statistics for later research. By analysis of game stats and the tracking of motivational factors. By educating yourself on how oddsmakers set lines so you are able to detect real value. And most important, by shopping aggressively for the best possible lines on games you’ve decided to bet.
Virtually all of the successful sports bettors I know work hard at handicapping. We don’t just roll out of bed and make bets. We don’t go by “inside information.” The information I use is available to anyone who makes the effort to get it. To profit from handicapping the NFL, you should expect to make a similar effort.
Dan Gordon is the author of a new book, Beat the Sports Books: An Insider’s Guide to Handicapping the NFL. He has a winning record as a professional sports bettor for over two decades. His sports betting columns have appeared in the New York Daily News, San Francisco Examiner, Boston Herald, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and a number of other magazines and newspapers. From 1984 to 1991 he served as handicapping consultant to Pete Axthelm of NBC, ESPN, and Inside Sports magazine, and more recently as an oddsmaking consultant for sportsbooks worldwide.