Basketball Is Back

The NBA has started another season, and thanks to Kobe and LeBron, the league is getting more attention than normal at this time of year. Over 90% of our clients bet on football, but only 60-70% bet on basketball, and that number surprises me. I personally feel that basketball may be easier to bet on for a few reasons, and that is what I want to talk about in this issue. I say this every year, but only because I believe it!

First, let me state that football and basketball are the two most important sports in this industry in North America. The two main reasons for this are college programs and easy-to-understand lines.

Both football and basketball have college programs that provide almost all the players for the professional leagues, while college baseball and college hockey programs only get the players that aren’t drafted directly out of high school or are seeking the guarantee of a college education before taking the gamble of trying to play professional sports. These college programs for football and basketball are highly competitive, widely televised and thus popular for wagering.

College football and basketball are also popular in wagering terms for the same reasons the professional versions are popular: easy-to-understand lines. Football and basketball are both bet primarily using pointspreads, which are easy to understand for most bettors, even novices. Baseball, hockey and other sports rely on moneylines, runlines, pucklines, etc. which some bettors find a little confusing.

Now, I want to talk a little more about the differences between them and the advantages of betting basketball. First, lets talk about the lines themselves. In previous issues, I’ve discussed key numbers in football so I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that there are no key numbers in basketball (more on this below). This means that when a book is offside on a basketball spread or total, they simply move the number a half point and see what happens, with little risk of a side or a middle. If the exposure continues to build, the line can be moved again, and so on. With football and its key pointspread numbers of 3, 4, 6, 7 and 10, this isn’t as simple for the house, and they must balance the action in other ways so you get strange lines like +3 (-120). Basketball lines are easier for the house to manage (which is good because there are so many games) and as such, they are easier for the bettors.

There are lots of other more obvious differences between the sports and in my humble opinion, many of the differences make basketball easier to predict than football. Here is a partial list:

  • The shape of the ball is a simple difference. The odd shape of a football makes for some funny bounces and adds an element of luck to things like kickoffs and fumbles. It’s not very often that you see a basketball do something unexpected on its own accord.
  • Weather can also have a big impact on football games, especially late in the season. No weather worries for hoops bettors.
  • Team size is a factor. In football you have over 50 players on a team and at least 30 of those will see significant playing time. In basketball, only 7 of the 15 players will usually have an impact on the game. Fewer impact players to keep track of makes handicapping easier.
  • Basketball referees are full-time employees while football refs only work weekends and usually work another job during the week. I’m not saying football refs are worse (just ask Mark Cuban about basketball officiating) and in fact the smaller group of refs for basketball could impact a game more if one official has a bad game.
  • Another factor is the amount of scoring in each game. A typical NFL game has around 8 scoring plays but a typical NBA game has around 100 so the impact of one fluke play is far more dramatic in football than it is in basketball.
  • Injuries are also far more common in football. How many times have you bet a team and watched a key player go down in the first quarter? It can sure be frustrating.

You get the idea. So why is football still bet more than basketball? The main reason is probably the number of games played and schedule format. Football teams play just once a week so bettors have lots of time to do research and make their plays. Many sports fans are introduced to betting through football pools and parlay cards, which work so well in football because of the one game per week nature of the sport. Basketball teams play 2-4 times per week and less experienced bettors may feel that the pace is too fast if they try to spend the same amount of time handicapping every basketball game as they do for every football game. This may be the main reason why so many more bettors bet football than bet basketball.

Now, to really let you see behind the scenes, let me add that basketball generally produces a lower win percentage for books. There are a few reasons for this.

First, players play fewer teasers in basketball than in football. Teasers retain a higher percentage for the house than do straights, so fewer teasers means a slightly lower hold percentage. The theory is that there is more teaser action in football because of key numbers. Teasing the NY Giants from -8 to -2 crosses the key numbers of 7, 6, 4 and 3 and should greatly increase the chance of winning that bet. On the other hand, the impact of teasing the NY Knicks from -7 to -3 is more difficult to measure, as there are no key numbers crossed in that play.

Second, there are more games so any one upset is less likely to impact the bottom line as much as any one football game. Imagine what a Monday Night Football game upset would do for the numbers. It would take 10-12 basketball upsets during the week to have the same positive effect on the bottom line.

Key numbers are also a factor in this split. Moving the line from -2.5 to -3 to -3.5 to -4 would never be done in football, but isn’t uncommon in basketball. If the favorite wins by 3, the book can be middled. If the favorite wins by 4, the book can be sided. As a result of the more frequent line moves, sides and middles are slightly more common, and the House holds a slightly lower percentage. (Some people do think that 4 and 5 can be considered key numbers in basketball but I will reserve this argument for another column).

A final reason is that all the sharpest bettors play football AND basketball but not all recreational gamblers play basketball, so there is a higher percentage of Wiseguy dollars in hoops than there is in football. Don’t get me wrong, books still do well at basketball (or they wouldn’t offer it); its just not quite as profitable per dollar wagered than football.

In summary, football and basketball offer almost identical betting options, but basketball offers more opportunities and should be easier to handicap. There are games every day and if experienced, bettors don’t worry if they don’t get a play in every day. If you find handicapping basketball intimidating, try following just a handful of teams. This should give you 10-15 games to look at a week and as you get more confident, you can expand from there. Expanding your gambling horizons from the gridiron to the hardwood will increase your opportunities to bump up your bankroll.

Now for a quick look back at the weekend. Saturday saw some very heavy action thanks to the media’s attention on Survival Saturday. The Miami-Virginia Tech game was the most heavily bet and produced a big win for the House (and a headache for the BCS!). Michigan and Penn State were also good games for the book while Pitt, Florida State and USC were good for bettors. The Kansas/Texas A&M game produced a big line move from -9 to -14 and landed 12 so it serves as a good reminder to bet favorites early and shop for lines!

Sunday was a strange day, with the House winning overall despite losing some very big decisions. The early games went the book’s way with Detroit over Oakland and dogs Houston and New Orleans winning outright and busting up teasers. The Giants were the lone bright spot to bettors who got in early. The 4pm games had some huge decisions and the House was lucky to get a split. Players won big with Philadelphia and Dallas but the book got revenge with San Francisco and to a lesser extent Arizona.

The Sunday night game saw a lot of Vikings action because the media made a big deal out of Favre’s past performances in the Metrodome, so the Packers win was good for the House. Monday night’s handle was dampened a little by the QB situation in Denver; it obviously made a lot of bettors nervous. The action leaned a little to the Pats and the Over, so the game was a good one for the majority of clients who did bet.

I want to make one quick comment on a couple of the big games that went against players this weekend. I often see a lot of bettors pile their bets up on NFL road favorites. It has been a better year than most for road faves, but if you are going to bet one try this exercise first. Add 6 points to the spread and ask yourself if you would make that bet if the game was in the other team’s city (which is roughly what the spread would be when you give the 3-point home field edge to the other side). Would bettors have played Oakland -10 at home against the Lions, Cincinnati -9 at home against Arizona or St. Louis -11 at home to the 49ers? Probably not! Would bettors have played Philly -11 over Atlanta or Carolina -13 over Houston? Maybe! There are a 5 road favorites next week so just think about this one.

I’ll be back next week with a look at football moneylines.

The enjoyment of your wagering experience with us is my number one priority. Should you have any questions, concerns, or comments, I will personally ensure you are satisfied with your Bodog experience.

Good luck with your wagers!

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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino