Right around the start of December, my kids start singing the classic song, "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." But for dear old Dad, the humming of this classic holiday tune begins right around Labor Day. Because like most sports gamblers, to me football season is indeed the most wonderful and exciting time of the year.
There's just something about football that makes it so much more compelling to wager on than any of the other sports. Maybe it's the limited amount of games the teams play. Maybe it's because there are the consecutive days off in between the games that make Game Day extra special. Or maybe it's simply because football is a made-for-TV sport and the networks have taken notice, televising hundreds of games each weekend at all hours of the day and night. (East Coast fans like myself love nothing better than that Pac-10 Game of the Week on the tube each Saturday night that usually doesn't end until well after midnight).
Whatever the case, football is the undisputed king of the hill when it comes to betting on sports. So before you head out to the sportsbook this season, here are 10 things to keep in mind if you're going to be placing some of your hard-earned cash on the gridiron. While following these rules won't guarantee you riches, it may help you avoid running through your entire bankroll before Halloween.
10. Avoid betting bad teams
This may seem elementary, but it's something to keep in mind when making your selections each week. While I'm not suggesting you should load up on the power teams every week and lay double-digits, I am simply pointing out that betting on bad teams on a regular basis will eventually come back to haunt you.
Take the NFL, for example. If you go back and look at the teams that have the best won/loss records against the spread each year, you'll see that the majority of them are winning teams. In fact, of the 40 teams that have ranked in the Top-10 of the NFL Pointspread League during the last four years, only three of them had losing records straight up. And 30 of them won 10 or more games. It's even more pronounced in the colleges. So, the moral of the story here is that bad teams are bad teams, both with and without the pointspread factored in.
9. Trend is not always your friend
I admit it. I love trends. They fascinate me and the wackier they are the better. (Did you know that going into this season the Oregon Ducks were 14-6 against the spread when playing on artificial turf and 12-5 ATS as a road underdog of three or less?) But one thing I've learned is that you can never overreact to a trend because usually there's a trend for the other team that's just as strong. Basically if you want to find a reason to bet any team this week, you can probably find a trend to support your bet. So take that overwhelming trend that your barber tells you about with a grain of salt. There's probably another one just as convincing for the other team. By the way, Oregon was a 3-point underdog playing on the artificial turf of Boise State on Thursday night in its season-opener and lost the game 19-8. So much for those two trends that had a combined success rate of 75% against the spread going into Thursday night.
8. Let-downs and look-aheads are for real
Unlike any other sport, football teams get an entire week – sometimes more – to rest, heal and prepare for their next game. The result is that it's only natural for a team to let down a bit the week after a big game or look past an opponent if they have a big game on deck two weeks later. Be sure you factor this into your handicapping. Football is an emotional sport so beware of teams in spots where you may not see their best effort.
7. Play parlays sparingly
Sure, parlays are fun and the payoffs are tempting, but if you're solely playing parlays – or other dangerous forms of them like "round robins" and "action reverses" – each week, you are destined for disaster. Think about it. If you all you play every Sunday this NFL season is a single three-team parlay, you could hit 67% percent of your selections (2-out-of-3 every week) for the entire season and not win one penny. That's simply not acceptable since most sports bettors strive to hit just a shade above the magic 53% mark in order to make some sort of profit. My advice? If you like parlays, play them sporadically and play them for half the amount you play your straight up games.
6. Don't be afraid to hedge your bets
Now, when you do bet parlays, it's always a good strategy to try and stagger your games so they kick off at different times. That way, you can hedge your bets and lower the risk/reward. For instance, if you're going to play a two-team parlay on Sunday, try and use one early game and one late game.
So let's say you bet a $100 two-team parlay to win $230 on the Dolphins +3 over the Browns in a early game and the Giants -7 over the Redskins in a late game. If the Dolphins cover, you should then go ahead and bet the Redskins +7 for $100 in the late games. That way the worst you are going to do at the end of the day is break even and the best you will do is win $130. I'll take those odds any day.
5. Have fun with prop bets, but don't get carried away
The proliferation of proposition bets over the last 10 years has been enormous. It used to just be that the Super Bowl was the only game where you could bet on the player to score the first TD of the game or the total number of first downs. But nowadays, most sportsbooks offer prop bets on numerous games every week, or at least the high-profile ones. I'll be the first to admit it that these bets are a lot of fun. And if you do your homework you can actually find some value and make money with them.
But prop bets are also very easy to get carried away with. If you're going to be watching a game and you want to bet it, but don't have a strong opinion on the side or total, go ahead and have some fun with a few prop bets. But don't go crazy. The losses can add up in a hurry.
4. Take bad beats in stride
Poker players and sports bettors are a lot alike in that they always seem to remember (and talk about) their bad beats, but never mention when they get lucky. Look, bad beats are part of the game when it comes to gambling. How you respond to them will decide whether you're a winner or loser in the long run. So make a promise to yourself that when your field goal kicker slices a 31-yarder to the left or your QB throws a tipped-ball interception that costs you money, don't kick the dog or fire your remote control off the wall. Swallow it like a man (or woman) and don't chase your loss with an ill-advised "get-back" bet on the next game that kicks off. And while you're at it, make a mental note of all the times you are on the "right" side of those types of games. My bet is that it all evens out by the end of the season.
3. Less is more
This is the basic rule in all forms of gambling. The longer you sit at that blackjack table, the more likely you are to lose. The more numbers you play on that Keno ticket, the more likely you are to lose. And the more games you bet per week or per day, the more likely you are to lose. Sometimes it's difficult to limit yourself to betting just two or three games on a Saturday when there are 70 or 80 matchups staring back down on you from the big wall at the sportsbook. But do your best to limit the amount of games you play and never – ever – make a significant wager on a game just because it's on TV or because it involves your alma mater or hometown team. Bet with your head, not your heart. It's a cliché but it's the God's honest truth.
2. Don't be afraid to play the contrarian role
There's a reason why the house usually wins. It's because the majority of people lose when they gamble. So, if there's a team that everyone from your brother-in-law, to the guy in the next cubicle at work to the talking head on ESPN thinks is going to absolutely roll this weekend, do yourself a favor and think long and hard about going the other way. You've heard that line, "if it looks too good to be true, it usually is." That's never more true in sports betting. Don't be afraid to go against the grain this season.
1. Do your homework
Most people do not have the time or desire to spend hours and hours "handicapping" football games and – to be honest – in the end it may not even matter how much you study a game's stats and match-ups. There's a human element in sports betting that simply can not be predicted.
With that said, if you're going to be investing more than just "play money" on your picks this season, do yourself a favor and give it a little effort. Go that extra mile and check the weather and injury report. Log onto the hometown newspapers of the teams involved in the games and read up on what the coaches and players are saying. Buy and read a creditable tout sheet.
In the end, you're still taking a gamble and making a guess as to how a team is going to perform. But at least it will be a semi-educated guess. And that, more often than not, will save you from causing serious damage to your bankroll.