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Sports betting 101: A basic intro for newcomers

The NFL is back just as sports betting is heating up around the country. If you’re new or still a beginner, here are some basics to help you take that next step.

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Atmosphere at the Grand Opening of DraftKings Sportsbook at Resorts November 20, 2018 at Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Photo by Bill McCay/Getty Images for Draft Kings

Baseball might be America’s Pastime, but football is America’s Passion.

The NFL has such a stranglehold on the culture you won’t find a bar anywhere that won’t have the games playing on Sunday. The Super Bowl is so popular there are movements to make the day after a national holiday. The boom in fantasy football has led to the creation of a TV channel dedicated exclusively to watching every single score without a single commercial break.

Meanwhile, entire cities across the country shut down on Saturdays for college games played in front of over 100,000 people, with travel plans made years in advance. College football remains flawless in all its imperfection. It inspires a level of passion and fanaticism like no other competitive enterprise on planet earth. It makes upstanding citizens cheat in the most brazen way, grown men admit to a felonies live on sports talk radio, and to students to dance like nobody’s watching even when they’re alone and down five touchdowns.

Those of us indoctrinated on the college side unapologetically call it “The Best Sport” because of things like this and this and this and this. The NFL has more talent, better players, and the precision of the game executed by the best athletes in the world.

You’ll likely never see a 41-point upset in the NFL, but you also won’t see a 3-2 final score that is painful to watch.

And because weekends in the fall are dedicated to the sport from Thursday night until Monday night, there are plenty of chances to invest a few bucks on the outcome of the games you’re watching or attending. Sports betting is growing as more states legalize it, with 20 states offering some form of legalized sports betting. And DraftKings Sportsbook is now live in some form in 10 states.

But don’t let your love of the game, enthusiasm for your team, or the perfect insanity of the sport overwhelm your bankroll when wagering. The passion the game inspires also makes people often make bad decisions when taking a financial interest in the game.

Here are some tips for betting on football this fall. We can’t guarantee you winning wagers, but we can help you approach betting responsibly.

You don’t have to bet on every game

The beauty of football is that it’s plenty entertaining if you don’t have action on a game. You certainly don’t have to wager on every game, and you shouldn’t! Only post up your cash on games where you’ve done your research, and have a reason to have an opinion about the outcome.

And if you’re sitting on your couch two minutes before kickoff, realize at that point the market for the game has been pretty set. You’re almost never finding an edge at that point.

Stay within your bankroll

Because of the high limits offered and amount of action available, the smartest bettors in the world wager millions and millions on the NFL each weekend. The NFL provides a game played by professionals paid to be out there and focus exclusively on it. Of course, you’re still dealing with human beings and the uncertainty that comes with a single small sample size event.

On the other hand with college football, no matter how good you are at handicapping how a 4-2-5 defense of Team A will matchup against the RPO pin-pull of Team B, these are still 18-to-23-year-old kids that aren’t getting paid to play. They’re having the personal problems any college-age kid goes through. They worry about the term paper they’re behind on. They dislike their coach sometimes. The consistency you’ll find in the NFL just doesn’t exist in the college game.

And because of this, things being unpredictable is the only thing that is predictable about college football. It means you should stay within your bankroll limits. Betting a maximum of 2-3% on any game of what you can afford to lose on a single season is a reasonable number. If you lose all of that… maybe take up hockey wagering??

There’s good bets and bad bets

First, avoid parlays. A three-team parlay can offer a little extra excitement, but generally speaking, you’re better placing individual bets than parlaying multiple lines together.

Teasers have less value in college football because of the higher-scoring nature of the sport, the added misses on extra points because of #CollegeKickers, and the higher frequency of two-point conversions being attempted. So teasers aren’t always a great idea, but it’s critical making sure you’re getting across as many key numbers as possible. As an example, 8.5 points spreads are good for this: You could push an underdog from +8.5 to +14.5 (moving across the key numbers of +10 and +14 and having them in your favor), or a favorite from -8.5 down to -2.5 (getting -7 and -3 on your side).

The most common final scores have a difference of 3, 6, 7, and 10, so getting as many of those as possible on your side is a good thing.

That also means teasing a game with a 27-point spread, whether you like the favorite or the underdog, is likely a terrible idea.

Do your homework

There’s lots of resources available to find out about your team, and you should take a skeptical eye when picking a winner. Especially if a team you have an emotional attachment to is involved.

For college football, ESPN’s SP+ developed by Bill Connelly is a great baseline to compare two teams and their relative strengths on offense, defense, and special teams. And it’s free! Additionally, the Five Factors: Explosiveness, Efficiency, Field Position, Finishing Drives, Turnovers (which are actually a lot of luck!). Know them well.

For the NFL, advanced stats is a booming business. On the one hand, there is no shortage of sites to consider, whether it be Football Outsiders, Sharp Football Stats, Pro Football Focus, or ESPN’s ever-growing stats analysis. The problem is deciphering everything you find out there. This raises the potential for paralysis by analysis, so take a look and find what best suits you and makes you most comfortable.

Finding the beat writers for a team on Twitter can be incredibly valuable. They’ll often let you know if there’s an injury, or a key player misses practice, or can even give you a general sense of what they’re hearing around the program during game week.

Injury reports are critical to your decision-making. If it looks like a key offensive tackle or the No. 2 wide receiver or the starting nickel back is going to miss the game or be limited by injury, you need to know this information. Some injuries are more relevant based on the matchup that week, but all injuries to starters and key reserves are worth having on your radar.

Game notes and depth charts: Find them, use them. For college football, the media relations staff for all teams should have them on school websites by Tuesday of game week at latest. NFL teams will provide their info usually by Wednesday. Remember the information in them is designed to present a team in the best light for public relations purposes, but you can still glean plenty from them.

Finally, don’t sleep on weather reports. More often than not weather won’t impact games too much, but wind in particular can slow down passing games.

Bet early

There are times where you might know more about a game than the people making the line. If that’s the case, it’s a race between you and all the people that know as much as you do to get to it

Got a bet down on Team A at +7.5 for a game where the line is down to +3? It might not be the worst idea to catch a “middle.” You can now bet the opponent of Team A, aka Team B, at -3. With a bet on Team A at +7.5 and Team B at -3, if the game finishes with Team B winning by 4, 5, 6, or 7, you’ll win both bets! If Team B wins by 3, you’ll win one bet and be refunded the other. And if anything else happens, you’ll merely owe the “juice” or “vig” (aka the house cut) on one of your bets. The beauty is you can’t lose both, because you’ve got both sides of the number!

And since the game is projected to finish within that window of scores... you’ll be in great shape!

The vig matters

If you can get your bets down at -105, you’ll only need to win 51.2% of the time to break even. At the more common amount of -110? 52.3%. -115? 53.4%.

That doesn’t seem like much, but over the course of a season, it can add up fast. Keep an eye for the right prices and find some value by line-shopping whenever you can.

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, crisis counseling and referral services can be accessed by calling 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537) (IL).

Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER (NJ/WV/PA), 1-800-9-WITH-IT (IN), 1-800-522-4700 (NH/CO) or 1-800-BETS OFF (IA). 21+ (18+ NH). NJ/PA/WV/IN/NH/IA/CO/IL only. Eligibility restrictions apply. See for full terms and conditions.