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.