While sports betting generally isn't pari-mutuel (like betting at the racetrack), it boils down to the same concept: if everyone is betting the same team, the payout on that team is going to go down. If the Giants open +450 and every Joe Q Public starts betting them, pretty soon they will only be paying +400, and then +350 as long as the money keeps coming in. This dynamic nature of betting lines can result in significant opportunities for bettors who are paying attention to line movement and are able to buy high and sell low on their bets.
Most handicappers will agree that betting lines for the major sports, particularly the closing lines, are pretty close to approximating the true odds. The more correct the lines are, the harder it is to beat them. This means that in many situations good "betting skills" (getting the best line) often trumps good handicapping ("picking winners"). Getting the best available lines on your bets is often the sole difference between a long term loser and someone who grinds out a profit week-in and week-out.
Finding the best line is usually not a problem given the number of free online odds sites. But getting the best line not only involves locating the best odds available, but also requires being able to get a bet down at that price. A few years ago, having some cash in your Neteller account was all you needed to make a quick transfer into any sportsbook. Today, with unending money transfer hassles, having instant access to the best lines requires a bit of planning. That means having accounts funded at a selection of sportsbooks that will encompass the most line variation. A few "sharp books", a few "square" books, and an exchange is a good mix You should also take advantage of any promotional specials offered at your sportsbooks, with reduced juice and free half points the most valuable in that category.
In timing bets, you should generally look to act quickly on information, but slowly on perception. Consider this the sports betting equivalent of the stock market mantra, "buy the rumor, sell the news". If your reason for betting is that some breaking news has changed the underlying odds on the game, then get down as quickly as possible. You want to lock in your bet before everyone else digests the news. It's especially important to lock in your bet early around key numbers, like 3 and 7 in the NFL.
By contrast, line movement driven by public bettors tends to be slow and gradual. If you are looking to buck public opinion, you want the public (mis)perceptions to influence the line as much as possible, so betting closer to kickoff is usually ideal. An hour or so before is best- significant volatility can be seen in the lines right before the games go off the board, and you can lose that good price if your side is hit by some late steam going the other way.
You can anticipate public favorites by getting estimates of betting action from online "consensus" websites, or by keeping your eye on the online sportsbetting forums and ESPN as a gauge of public opinion. Backing huge public darlings is rarely, if ever, a smart play - even if you end up winning, you almost certainly paid too much (or got paid too little). Does Monday Night Football feature a public darling, especially on the road? Buy the favorite early in the week to anticipate line movement, and hit a square shop on the underdog for a nice middle 30 minutes before the game, after the public has made their bailout bets for the week. Is Hawaii a big favorite in the midnight football game? Better bet them early before the tidal wave of bettors chasing a bad day comes crashing down.
Public moves are generally easy to anticipate, but will rarely have the momentum to set up profitable middles alone. The juiciest line movements require some help from sharp bettors, usually resulting in very rapid line movement (steam). Instead of the creeping line inflation lazily induced by the slow pace of recreational betting, steam comes fast and furious, changing the lines across all sportsbooks within minutes. Steam can be caused by a number of factors:
*The opening of betting lines
*The time when sportsbooks raise their betting limits from the smaller opening or overnight limits to their full limits
*Significant injury, weather, or other news
*Release of plays by noted public handicappers
Some of these, such as breaking news and releases from sports services, can cause sudden action to come in from recreational bettors as well. These situations often result in extreme line movements, as sharps, squares, and steam-chasers are all piling onto one side simultaneously. Big line moves will often sway too far, as those looking to chase the steam will take worse and worse numbers as the lines move against them. If you fail to beat the initial move, these situations often provide good value in buying back the other side of the "steamed" line. Buy in quick when a popular handicapper releases his picks, or buy back on the public bounce. Fading these big moves is often a good strategy, especially on, for instance, a major handicapper's Super Lock of the Year Special on a fall Saturday afternoon. Hot touts often get a rep, and the corresponding publicity (along with reversion to the mean on their plays) makes fading those line moves even better.
Of course, watching a live lines feed and catching slow lines managers asleep at the wheel is always a profitable strategy, though much harder than it used to be. But even if you don't have access to the weakest sportsbooks, you can still take advantage of steam moves without chasing the same stale numbers everyone else is. Did the favorite just get bet up? While the lines are bouncing around, take a stab at first quarter or first half lines, which may not have adjusted as quickly. Game got steamed to the under? Take a look at team totals or scoring props instead.
The bottom line is that handicapping alone is not the sole way to turn a profit through your sports betting hobby. Paying close attention to line moves can uncover numerous good wagering opportunities every week, and improving your ability to predict line movement can add substantially to your bottom line.
"The Complete Square's Guide to Sports Wagering" is a recurring series aimed at educating novice sports bettors. The next article will take a look at teasers.
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