How much money finds its way into the sports betting industry each year? I don’t know, and neither do you, but I think we can both agree that it’s a lot. The folks at the American Gaming Association tell us that thirty-three million Americans will have placed at least one bet on NFL football this season and, since their guess is based on at least some form of research, I say let’s go with it.
I’m going to take a swim in this pool but, before I get started, I suggest that, unless you’re already a derelict, it might be best to move on. Hopefully I’ll have an original take on things, but I’m not going to dumb it down.
Still here? Okay. For starters, to help us understand what’s going on, let’s divide the sports betting world into their logical groups. There happens to be two of them- the first I call the blackjack model, and the second the poker model.
The blackjack model conjures the image of a gambler sitting at a table, betting as he pleases, but against the house, which must follow rigid, well understood, agreed upon protocols designed, by them, for their advantage.
Examples of this kind of wagering are football, baseball, basketball, tennis, the Academy Awards, election results, golf, hockey, soccer, MMA, and your friendly state lottery.
The poker model is the idea of a bunch of guys at a table, playing cards against each other. At the conclusion of each hand, someone gets to rake the pot. The house, well it has no skin in the game. It just runs things, while taking a fee for providing that service.
Examples are horse racing, daily fantasy sports, pool-room hustling, rotisserie sports leagues, options trading and, of course, on-line poker.
About blackjack: yes, it’s fun to play, but no one wins at it anymore. A winning hand: sure. A winning session: it happens. A string of wins over a significant time? Not possible. The house advantage relentlessly, inexorably, and inevitably prevails and please do not argue to the contrary. But we’re not here to talk about actual blackjack; we’re talking sports betting, and maybe we should start by agreeing to the simple truth that we live in a world where the overnight line is set by mortal men, and those men can theoretically (actually?) be outsmarted. The problem is that those guys bring some big guns to the fight, things we don’t have, like large bankrolls, lack of emotion, proprietary analytics, access to sharps’ actions, the wisdom of crowds and their friend, the dread Mr. Vig. Of course, you bring weapons too- while the house must set lines on every game you can choose not to bet, and… well… that’s kind of it.
For those reasons, and more, you cannot expect to out-handicap the house. Well, maybe you could if you dedicated yourself full-time, attended daily practices, reviewed films, examined medical reports, tracked sleep patterns, studied contract incentives, and familiarized yourself with player’s (and coaches’) domestic situations, legal troubles, and performance enhancing drug habits. Do you do those things?
No matter how many games you watch on television, or newspaper accounts you read, or statistics you review on the Internet, do not deceive yourself into thinking that you are doing actual research or that these outlets could possibly give you the tools to spot a weak line on this weekend’s big game. They are derivative and there is nothing you can find in the newspaper or on-line or on ESPN that has not been already considered. What about expert opinions? Oh, Please! There are no experts, and opinions are just that. After thirteen weeks, CBS Sports college football “experts” were 197-207 against the spread, and their NFL people, who did better, but not good, were 700-716. Guys, never forget that Pete Rose lost $400,000 while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds. Handicapping is hard.
Please indulge me while I contradict myself, because you can beat the game, just not by handicapping teams. Let’s be clear, fundamental analysis doesn’t work- the system is too efficient. But, technical analysis does. Correlated parlays, cross-platform arbitrage, time-series leveraging, circadian causalities and micro-market expertise all have their place, if you are willing to do the work. Personally, I see no reason why a modified Black-Scholes couldn’t be applied to sports betting.
(In case you forgot, here’s the formula.)
On the other hand, being the bookie is hard, too. Sure, he’s happy to take the occasional hundred bucks from the weekend sports fan who likes the Cowboys no matter what, or two hundred from the guy who thinks he knows more than he really does, or four-hundred thousand from someone who has lost all self-control, and his mind, but sometimes, well, sometimes the headline in the newspaper tells us “Man bites dog.” Bookies are as vulnerable as anyone else to bad guesses or balls that bounce in an unexpected way, and sometimes it happens at a big event, like the Super Bowl, and involves a lot of money. It can happen, it does happen, and that happens to make them nervous.
So, when choosing professions, think how much more relaxing it is to be the casino than the bookie, and think about the poker dealer- cracking jokes with the players, chatting up the cocktail waitresses, spreading the cards and, automaton-like, pulling five dollars out of every pot while not really caring who wins or loses. If the table is full, and there’s a waiting list, the house simply cannot lose. And if you’re the guy in seat three, well there is some actual hope for you, too. In daily fantasy sports (small buy-in, only, please) or in your old college buddy’s rotisserie league you will not find yourself sitting at the table with eight legitimate contenders for the World Series of Poker’s Diamond Ring. No, the people at your table are not better than you. If they work harder, or get luckier, they will win. If you do, you will. And that’s why this is the model that stands to gain the most from the legislative deregulation of sports wagering.
But let’s not get carried away: there is some trouble in paradise. Sure, you can win at poker and you cannot win at blackjack, but blackjack is easier to play. And daily fantasy sports take time, and they require actual thought to construct a competitive roster. Then there’s the scoring, which can get weird. And the websites: needlessly complicated, too often overwhelming. Points for the old guys and points for the new guys, which is why we’ve been seeing the corporate mergers, bringing together the two ways of play.
Bringing it home, I believe there is a ceiling to fantasy sports’ growth, and we’re getting close to that place. The market is large, but pretty much everyone who wants to play is already playing. That means the battle of the titans must needs to move on to market share. Good for us consumers. As for in-game betting, well I’m not sold, but the strength of my conviction is weak, so I’m on the sidelines for now. To me the point spread, over/under model is still where the money is. It’s easy to play, easy to understand, and accommodates the casual fan- which is, let’s face it, all of us. For those reasons the customer base figures to grow in-step as increased legalization and accessibility allow. The innovation I’m waiting for is when on-line bookies morph into stockbrokers- not taking sides, just facilitating, and guaranteeing payment. If you like the Bears this weekend you can bid a hundred dollars “at market” (let’s say it’s -3), or offer odds at -2 and wait for the broker to find someone to take the other side. When they do, they get a commission and assume no risk. It’s a win-win for everyone, except maybe the guy who took the points.
Wren is a contributing editor to HeadMagazine.com. He writes about sports, card games, literature, and music.