Lessons Learned in Sports Betting

I've been giving out my betting picks for years on this column, but this is the first year I'm taking it seriously.

Or at least, more serious than before. I'm not building any analytics models — I'm too right-brained for that — and 1 unit for me is $5, but I am consuming a lot of sports betting media and subscribing to the more modestly-priced resources out there — not 3- and 4-figure pick services, but more mainstream, $20-at-most-a-month stuff like Action Network, which is basically like The Athletic, but for sports betting.

Since then, I've learned a couple of interesting things. It's common knowledge that the public (recreational bettors who put next to no thought into their picks) love favorites, even against the pointspread. Any day underdogs do particularly well — like they did last week in the NFL — the sportsbooks make big bank. Some report having their biggest profit day in years.

But as dumb as you think the public might be, you are still probably overestimating them. When Iowa legalized sportsbetting, one of their sportsbooks was absolutely inundated with bets for Nebraska to win the national championship at 66-1.

I'm talkin' Nebraska. 4-8 last year Nebraska. But, there are a lot of Husker fans within a day's drive of Iowa, and they believe in their team like any other rose-colored fan.

Looks at this from the sportsbook perspective. If you're a sportsbook, and furthermore, you're sane and know that in no universe is it possible that Nebraska wins a national title in 2019, this means scores of people coming up to you and giving you free money. These guys are making bets that the books are never ever ever ever ever going to need to pay out, and they know it.

What does this mean? It means I was operating under a misconception before I started inundating myself in sports betting culture. I used to think that the sportsbook tried to place and move the odds and pointspreads to the point where they are taking on equal money from both sides.

That's probably true for third division Bolivian Lacrosse, but for the NFL and other popular sports, they oftentimes want to get the majority of the money on a certain side: a side they think is the wrong side.

The Nebraska odds, at 66-1, are a good example of this. If this season ran 66 times, do you think Nebraska wins the national championship even once? This would mean not only getting through a regular season that includes Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa with, at most, one loss, but winning the Big Ten championship, and beating two of the likes of Clemson/Alabama/Oklahoma/Georgia in the playoffs.

I think they would not win even once. Given they play all of their toughest opponents at home, I'd say (just spitballing here) they would win the NC once every ... 500 times.

But the sportsbooks know that that Nebraska money is coming in no matter what, so why not hedge against the one-on-a-million (or in this case, 1 in 500) shot that would put you out of business if you offered true odds and it hit?

They do the same thing with Tiger Woods. The public will bet Tiger Woods pretty much no matter what, so the books can give lousy odds on him and it won't matter (I wish I hadn't gone out of my way to hammer that point home heading into the 2019 Masters).

This makes "contrarian betting" viable for big events. Simply look the way the public is betting, and bet the other way.

Also, please take the Patriots -15 against the Redskins this week. Surely, the public is right about that one.

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