Betting on Basketball

Now that the football season has been put to bed and the swelling in our thumbs from overuse of the remote control has diminished, we can turn our attention to basketball. College hoops will dominate the headlines for the month of March as the Championship Tournament runs it course and then the NBA Playoffs will be upon us. So there is no better time to discuss the advantages of betting on basketball than right now.

Over 90% of our clientele 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 for a few reasons, and that is what I want to talk about in this issue. I’ve asked one of the top football/basketball handicapper for his opinion on the subject as well.

First, lets look at what these two sports have in common. From the House’s point-of-view, football and basketball are the bread-and-butter sports. These two sports alone account for approximately two-thirds of annual betting handle with baseball, hockey, golf, boxing, NASCAR, etc. making up the other 33%. There are two main reasons for this: 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 popular for wagering. For these reasons they allow us to watch future professional superstars develop. Players like Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning had outstanding college careers before their success in the pros. Betting on college games accounts for roughly half of the total wagering on basketball and a little less than that for football. Make no mistake, on a per-game basis the wagering on the pros is much, much heavier, but the sheer volume of college games (with as many as 80 boarded college football games/week vs. 15 in the NFL and 250+ boarded college basketball games/week vs. 50 or so in the NBA) makes up the difference.

Other than having the best players, college football and college 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 and totals with a built in vig of 10% – easy for bettors and easy for bookmakers. Baseball, hockey and other sports rely on moneylines, runlines, pucklines, etc. which confuse many bettors (especially novices) and this confusion reduces the total handle on these sports. I’ve been asked many times by neophyte gamblers as to why other sports don’t adopt similar betting styles, and the answer is that the scores don’t allow it. The average NFL game has about 40 points scored and the average NBA game has a little over 190, while baseball averages somewhere around 10, and hockey comes in a little under 6. The margin of victory in a football or basketball game can easily range as high as 20 points for either team with many games coming well over this number. Once or twice a year a baseball game will end with a team up 20 runs, but the majority of games are decided by less than 4 runs. A 5-goal victory in hockey is considered a pounding and I don’t think we’ll see a 20-goal victory in the NHL anytime soon. These wider scoring ranges also show up in totals. A typical NFL game will have 10-60 points scored, an NBA game 160-220 where baseball is typically confined to 2-15 and hockey 2-8. The smaller ranges for these other sports make the likelihood off the final score landing on a line much more probable and would dramatically increase the chances of bookmakers getting sided or middled if pointspreads and totals were used in the same way they are in football and basketball. The wide range of potential margins of victory and totals in football and basketball is large enough to allow spreads and totals to be offered in the simple way that they are, which most bettors understand and are willing to bet on.

Now that we know what makes these two sports especially popular for bettors, 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. 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.

The sports themselves lead to some advantages for basketball. 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. 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 turnover is far more dramatic in football than it is in basketball. The first score of this year’s Super Bowl is a good example. 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. In my humble opinion, all these factors make basketball easier to predict than football. As a result many books pay lower odds on basketball teasers than they do for football.

There is one major difference between the sports that probably explains why fewer players bet basketball and that is the number of games played. Football teams play just once a week so novice 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.

I asked Big Al McMordie of for his opinion on basketball vs. football and he sees the extra games as an advantage. In his own words: “I think the key difference between basketball and football is that there are so many more games. Because the season is much longer, each individual game takes on less importance than a single football game, which could be the difference between making the playoffs or not. With basketball, the season really is a grind, and teams go through many up and down periods. As a handicapper, I look for situations which might be ideal for a team to have a letdown or, conversely, rebound off a poor performance.” He is having another winning year in hoops (only 1 losing season in 10 years!) and is ranked in the Top 5 for hoops this year so he must be on to something. Being a professional, he may have more time to handicap all the games than you or I do, but it’s all just a matter of not trying to do to much and seeing the large number of games as an opportunity.

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.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a look ahead to March Madness. Bodog’s top bookmaker will be back from holidays so I’ll get his read on the basketball season so far as well.

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