From the Gridiron to the Hardwood

It’s a Sunday afternoon and your favorite NFL team is playing. Your bets are in, your beer is cold, your friends are on their way over and your big-screen TV is good to go. Next week? Same time, same place. Different matchups perhaps, but you’ve pretty much got your Sundays booked from now until the Super Bowl.

There’s no disputing the tremendous appeal of football, but with a new NBA season stretched out in front of you, your entire week just got that much more interesting.

From a betting perspective, football and basketball are very similar. Both are bet primarily using pointspreads. But with more games played over the course of a season, basketball gives you more betting opportunities.

Let’s say you’re primarily a trend bettor, someone who likes to bet home dogs. Well, you’re going to get five times the number of home dogs to bet on in the NBA. Whatever your style of betting, you’re going to get more of those sorts of opportunities betting on basketball.

It’s a Lot Like Comparing Pumpkins to Watermelons

The differences and similarities between betting on basketball and football aren’t many, but it’s definitely worth further exploration. First, let’s talk about the lines themselves.

In previous issues, I’ve discussed key numbers in football so I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice to say 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.

Also with football, the weekly schedule is less intimidating for a lot of people. You only have to spend one day a week handicapping your picks, whereas with basketball it’s a little more involved because there are more games being played. There are lots of other more obvious differences between the two 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.

A Look Behind the Scenes

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).

Betting on Basketball: Is There a Strategy?

Football is an easy sport to start betting on because you can do all your handicapping in just one day a week. The NBA plays almost every day so getting started can be intimidating.

What you need is to keep your focus narrow until you’re an expert at that and then go from there. Start with one team or one division until you get used to the daily routine and eventually it will be pretty easy and only take a few minutes each day.

Expanding your gambling horizons from the gridiron to the hardwood will increase your opportunities to bump up your bankroll.

Notes on the 2004-05 NBA Season

What’s really interesting about the 2004-05 NBA season is that there are no runaway favorites. The fact that the Los Angeles Lakers were the favorites last year but didn’t win was ultimately good for the books. This year your two biggest superstars have been split up. Kobe’s back in L.A. and Shaq’s creating a buzz in Miami. That has brought some strength and respect to the Eastern Conference and that should help us to get more balanced action.

Moreover, the style of game that the Detroit Pistons used to win the NBA Championship last year – a more team-focused and defense style of play – that’s the sort of thing that’s going to make the NBA a little more interesting to watch this year. More bettors may learn to appreciate other teams that play a more lower-scoring, defensive game, and that may bring more people to the unders, helping us to balance our totals. It should also help to make the game better in the long run. Instead of teams paying millions and millions of dollars to get one or two superstars, owners will realize that to win a championship it takes the efforts of an entire team. In time, this should help to bring the NBA closer to a parity level that compares more closely to the NFL.

With teams like the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz seeing some early success, it’s made for an unpredictable season so far, and that’s going to pave the way for an exciting year ahead – for both bettors and books.

Good luck with your wagers!

I always welcome comments, questions and suggestions via email at
Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino