How "Football Experts" Gamble on Sports

by Ian Wharton

Legalized sports gambling may be coming to a state near you if it hasn’t already. With the American Gaming Association estimating that illegal sports betting has become a $150-billion-a-year-market, there’s too much incentive for states and franchises to start getting a cut of the money. It’s just a matter of time before it’s fully embraced.

This isn’t a new momentum, either. When I worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012-2013 and owner Dan Gilbert was preparing to open his second Horseshoe Casino (in Cincinnati), there was already internal talk of how they’d integrate betting into the arena experience in the future. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been an outspoken proponent of it since 2014, only furthering the progress on legalizing it.

A whopping $4.8 billion was the estimated betting total on just Super Bowl LII, with only three percent of that being taken in Nevada, per David Purdum of ESPN. Football is a huge part of that, with 78 percent of fans that were polled by Statista via Toptal saying that they bet the sport, with the next highest being professional basketball at 43 percent. This doesn’t even include daily fantasy, by the way.

In an effort to understand the processes that drive this economic engine, we took to asking football media members to see their betting habits. We’d like to thank each of our contributors for peeling back the curtain. Here’s our panel of media members who participated:

Cian Fahey, Pre Snap Reads

Eliot Crist, The Quant Edge

Ian Kenyon, Bleacher Report

Tyler Morales, Optimum Scouting

Josh Hermsmeyer, 4for4

Thor Nystrom, Rotoworld

Arif Hasan, The Athletic

How do you gamble? 

Fahey: Since I live in Ireland and gambling is legal here I use Paddypower, which is a bookie. 

Kenyon: I typically gamble through Bovada. It’s the site I’ve used for years and I am comfortable with its navigation and easy payout process.

Crist: I am now 28 years old and started gambling when I was 18 and got to college. I have placed bets in Vegas, online books, with bookies and made bets with friends. Now that I live in New Jersey and can legally gamble, I can use multiple sportsbooks legally. The ability to go line shopping is a key to potential success. You want to always make sure you have the best possible number.

Morales: I use multiple bookies, will never use a website if I do not have to. 

Hermsmeyer: Usually just in Vegas. I’ve used some online sites, but most are flaming garbage.

Nystrom: I bet through a bookie and also on Bovada. I always like to have a minimum of two options for sports betting, so I can shop for lines.

Hasan: I use a website.

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What’s your process for finding value?

Fahey: Value bets to me are generally prop bets. That’s because I’ve reached a point with football where it’s easier to anticipate individuals than teams. I was a much better team gambler in previous years when I knew less than I do now. It’s harder to see the forest when you’ve moved to be amongst the trees. Football is unique that way because of how many tiny parts are unpredictable.

Kenyon: My process for finding value is typically going against the grain of public opinion and betting underdogs. If 90% of the money is on Team A, but the line on a game is pretty small, I’ll usually always bet Team B because I trust the oddsmakers know more than I do and that they feel strongly on a line.

Crist: I think both analytics and eye tests both play a role in betting. When you use the eye test you want to be really careful not to have recency bias. One of the worst things you can do as a gambler is bet on games based on what happened the week before, you will be chasing results and be behind the 8 ball. A few of the team analytics that matter most to me are run and pass success rates both offensive and defensively, explosive plays, turnover and sack percentage, and efficiency stats like pass yards per attempt. I like to always keep in mind the emotional aspects of the game as well such as letdown spots, look ahead spots, adjusting to injuries are all very key aspects to making your own good line as well. The new tool at  which allows you to adjust to injuries I think will be incredibly helpful.

Morales: I mainly go off my eye test. I’ll look at recent trends and how the two teams have been playing of late. I’d rather lose my money off my own judgment than someone else’s. I watch way too many sports so I see most of these teams enough to know what could happen. 

Hermsmeyer: Analytics every time. I also bet rarely, but when I do I bet a large portion of my bankroll.

Nystrom: On Sundays, I’ll sit down with some coffee and go over the opening lines. I’ll circle whichever sides interest me at first glance. There is no magical formula here, and I don’t care if I end up with 30 circles. I’m merely trying to isolate my focus, as nobody has the time to individually handicap 60 games. 

My research begins on Monday. Here, again, I’m looking to axe games. I’m skimming surface-level matchups —  looking into how S&P+ sees the run offense against the run defense, for instance — and checking in on injuries. By Monday, typically enough injury information is out there for you to start baking that into the equation (even if you need to read in between the lines a bit in college since coaches aren’t obligated to share injury information). Basically, Mondays are for trying to see if I can or cannot find evidence to support my gut instinct. If I find evidence that contradicts it, or if I see things that give me weird vibes about a given side, that game hits the cutting room floor.

For my weekly Rotoworld ATS column, I provide my 12 best bets of the week. By the end of Monday, I want my list of games cut to between 15-20. On Tuesday, I’ll dive deeper into those games, reading stories from beat writers, looking deeper into stats and trends, and write up the ones I know I’ll play. On Wednesday, I make my final cuts, write the rest of the column, and place my bets.

Hasan: A lot of it is analytics, but it's impossible not to judge some of the processes yourself; if I think a big matchup is meaningful (shutdown corners vs. mediocre receivers or a powerful defensive line against a recently injured OL) it can swing my decisions.

Related: On Khalil Mack, Realistic Trade Suitors and Prop Odds

What sports do you bet on and what do you find the most success betting on?

Fahey: I mostly bet on basketball. Gambling is more fun than a serious thing for me nowadays. Betting small money in quarters of basketball games adds to the enjoyment.

Kenyon: I only bet college football and NFL. I’ve tried to mess with NBA/MLB but I’ve had zero success. I have the most success betting futures and props. Too much can go wrong on a game-to-game basis, but you can legitimately “invest” in a player or team and find much more success in the long term.

Crist: I bet on football and basketball, both college and pro. I find that college lines are softest the first month of the season. Basketball is one of the best sports to bet live as it is a game of runs and you an get a lot of points on a line in just a few minutes of action. NFL has the sharpest lines week in and week out. Being a DFS guy, I have found a lot of success in prop bets. Prop bet lines are often soft and if you do the research for DFS it can translate into a lot of prop bet success.

Morales: I bet on everything that doesn’t involve a hockey puck. I’ve bet on football, baseball, basketball, presidential races, prop bets, national anthem length, everything you can think of I sadly have most likely wagered on. I like to think I bet on baseball and college basketball the best. Baseball is kind of (extremely) flukish but if you find a hot team or pitcher you really can do some damage. Betting baseball unders is my favorite bet in sports. I’d say my least successful is the NBA, DO NOT BET THE NBA EVER!!!

Hermsmeyer: Almost exclusively football. I do not understand how you can believe you have an edge in a sport if you don’t give it your complete attention.

Nystrom: College football. I can mostly get myself to stick to only that. I have an information edge in CFB because of my job. I’ve finished over 50% ATS in all four years we’ve ran the column. I’ve won money all four years. But I’m not some sort of genius. In the other sports, I get smoked. My NFL track record is atrocious. I simply don’t have the same sort of information edge. I’m out of my depths.

Hasan: Almost exclusively the NFL, though I will occasionally bet on college football. No other sports. Naturally, I find the most success with the NFL.

Related: Using 2018 Fantasy Projections to Create On-Field Quarterback Tiers

What’s your best win or worst loss?

Fahey: I won huge money off of Percy Harvin in that Super Bowl. Worst loss...I’ve had many. I remember losing on a fumble that Justin Houston ran into the endzone when the Chiefs were already winning the game and the offense was driving even though the game was already out of reach. There was no time on the clock. Of course.

Kenyon: In college, I lost a $500 payout parlay on the last game, on a missed extra point with three minutes left in the game (back when XP’s were 20-yard kicks.) My best win was the 2015-16 Super Bowl. I bet on the Carolina Panthers at 45-1 entering the season and when we got to the game itself, Denver was +200 to win, so I hedged it for quite a bit of money to guarantee a payout. Denver won.

Crist: Snatching victory from the arms of defeat is an exhilarating feeling. You learn if you bet enough that bad beats and lucky wins will even themselves out, but it doesn’t make them any less painful or exciting. I think my most exciting win was 500 dollars on Seahawks moneyline against the 49ers in the NFC championship and Sherman knocked the pass down against Crabtree. Not only did I have a lot of money on the Seahawks to win, I had a preseason bet of 12-1 on the Seahawks to win the NFC, a 40-1 bet on them to play the Broncos, and a 20-1 bet on them to win the Super Bowl. That was an exciting moment for me, but one of my crazier wins was Stanford -3 versus UCLA two years ago. Stanford was up three, on the final play of the game Josh Rosen drops back and Soloman Thomas gets the strip sack, takes the ball and runs it in for a touchdown. It happened so fast, I didn’t even realize I went from a push to a win. My worst loss may be Ohio State vs Northwestern when Northwestern fumbled the ball on the last play and it was returned for a touchdown. 

Morales: I’m not even sure where I should begin. I lose heartbreakers nearly every week but I have one that was easily the worst. I once took New Mexico over Nevada in a college basketball game. Nevada was up 25 with 10 minutes to go and up 14 with 1:10 to go. I usually wait till my games are over before I sleep but this one was so out of reach I just passed out. Woke up and found out Nevada went bananas in the last 45 seconds and won the game in OT. I get sick of thinking about it every time. Most money? Probably on the Falcons vs. Patriots Super Bowl. I had everything towards Atlanta and lost it all. 

Hermsmeyer: Best win was last season when T.J. Yeldon, who I have comped Joe Mixon to, won me a 6-pack of Pliny the Elder when he outscored all other JAX RBs.

Nystrom: My best story from last season was having Marshall +5.5 at FAU last year. It was a Friday night in early November, and I was driving from Minneapolis to Iowa City for the Iowa-Ohio State game. I had a substantial bet (for me) on Marshall. It obviously wasn't on the radio, so I was monitoring the game on the ESPN app and calling my buddy, who was watching, for frequent updates. Marshall was down seven and had a chance to tie the game late, so I called my buddy and he was giving me the play-by-play. Chase Litton ended up throwing his fourth interception of the game, and that was that. I swore, got off the phone, and turned on the music, knowing I had just lost this big bet. I get a call a few minutes later, from my buddy. He says: “You’re not going to believe this — Lane Kiffin took a safety on a punt with 8 seconds left!”  Marshall +5.5 was a winner. Lane Kiffin later made an ATS joke on Twitter, which made my year. And the next day, I watched my Iowa Hawkeyes annihilate Ohio State. What a weekend.

Hasan: Best win was pretty easy. There were even odds on whether or not Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers would appear shirtless *at any time* during the Super Bowl halftime show. I put down as much as possible down on the bet and it took no time at all for it to actualize -- he never had a shirt at all.

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What’s your advice for beginners or anyone looking for improvement?

Fahey: Don’t chase your losses. Obvious but it leads to bad decisions.

Kenyon: Don’t bet money you can’t afford to lose. The lesson I learned the hard way in college. If you’re going to be cringing every moment of the game thinking you won’t be able to take your significant other out, or you won’t be able to make a car payment, etc. over it, just don’t do it. If you’re going to look at it as an investment and try to build a bankroll with strategy, that’s the way it has to be approached.

Crist: The best advice is to start small. Create a process and test it out. Learn from your mistakes, don’t get too cocky and overbet when you win. Bankroll management is key, and you will go on hot and cold streaks. While the results are the most important thing to your pockets, the process is the most important thing to your long-term success.

Morales: Believe it or not I’m asked all the time by new gamblers if I have some advice. Do not bet parlays with three or more teams. Do three-team parlays every now and then but don’t let that be your money maker, you will lose every time. Also, start small betting, don’t go crazy and bet a lot of money early on. Feel out sports gambling, it’s a roller coaster if you took the points and your team is down early just relax it’s a long game. Once you get comfortable and have an idea of what is happening then increase the bets. My one last final piece of advice, if someone says they have a “lock” before the game then they are a liar, no game is a lock when you sports gamble.

Hermsmeyer: Not every edge should be bet if you value your sanity. Play when you’re sure it’s solid and large, and bet large relative to your bankroll in those situations. Lots of small plays every week just to be in the game is for the excitement of the thing, not to be profitable. Shout into your pillow if you disagree with me.

Nystrom: Do not bet what you can’t afford to lose. Do your homework. Experiment. Be willing to improve — in other words, have the courage to acknowledge you’re wrong and the wisdom to know how to fix it. Do not make sucker bets like parlays or teasers. Be as disciplined with your money as you are with your handicap — do not put your troops at risk unless you feel you have an advantage. And lastly: Never make a bet unless you can make a compelling argument for the other side. I see this all the time. The public flocks to one side of a game because it looks like easy money. Listen: If the public is on one side, then the sharps are on the other — that’s how the line has settled where it has. There is no easy money in sports gambling, no freebies. If you're seeing something that’s too good to be true — it is.

Hasan: a) focus on what you know, b) keep a good chunk in reserve c) diversify your bets; not just one game but several games. If you only feel comfortable with very few games, buffer some of it with reasonable player props, where some big advantages can be found.