EDGE-UCATION: How to bet better in the futures market

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) reacts after a Texans touchdown during the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium.

Futures are the lifeblood of the gambling markets. It’s how bettors can take the pulse of the sportsbooks. From birth when the market is first released, to death just before the championship game gets underway, and everywhere in between.

“Futures markets are just that, a market that gives you insight into what to expect for the upcoming season,” said Yahoo Sportsbook Betting Analyst Pamela Maldonado.

Throughout my time as a handicapper, I’ve used futures more as a tool than a weapon. Sure, there are moments when I’ve capitalized financially on large payouts — a recent 250/1 PGA outright comes immediately to mind — but most of the time, I’m looking to hedge in some way and take small bites out of the market, as I see it as a better strategy for long-term growth of my bankroll. The beauty of futures is that every situation is unique, and presents a new challenge or opportunity to handicap the market effectively. Yes, handicapping an entire season might feel daunting, but here are some things to consider when diving headfirst into the futures market.

Gauging public perception

This is perhaps the most important factor when trying to beat the futures market. Since the prices are naturally inflated to reflect the sheer volume of outcomes and longer time horizon needed before expiration, if you can identify the teams or players that everyone else will be betting on, you can create even more bang for your buck.

“A lot of times the public darling will be the favorite to win a division or a conference and that team or those teams are talked about in the media more often than others,” said professional bettor James Alberino. “That leaves room for other teams to be mispriced and undervalued. The handicap has so much to do with people falling in love with the wrong teams early on.”

In my opinion, the most value you will ever find on an odds board is the mispriced longshot that vastly overachieves their number.

Know what you don’t know

This might shock you to hear, but oddsmakers are people too. In the age of information, bettors have leveled the playing field a bit because they have access to more data than ever before. The sportsbooks have leveled up in kind with the amount of data they purchase directly from the leagues in order to calculate the most accurate lines possible. But the lesser, more obscure sports and leagues literally keep the bookmakers up at night.

“For me, it was soccer and tennis,” said former oddsmaker Dave Sharapan. “I don’t know enough about it, don’t have the time to do it, and never did enough business to do it. It’s important to know what you don’t know in this business.”

That bit of insight gives you a vital glimpse behind the curtain. If you pick a niche and do your homework, there are significant edges available. Don’t be afraid to fire away on a sport nobody bets on and a team that nobody has heard of, because it’s quite possible the sportsbook hasn’t done enough research to properly sharpen the lines.

Leeds United's Patrick Bamford celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game with team-mates during the Premier League match at Elland Road, Leeds.


Understanding both ends of the market

Think of it like a giant game of tug-of-war, getting pulled in 32 different directions, all inter-connected in the middle. The Chiefs currently have the most “pull” in the market as the preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl, but if they start slow or suffer a significant injury, the move back towards the middle must be spread proportionally amongst the other 31 teams or else the market becomes unbalanced. Special attention is paid to teams near the bottom of the board that get off to better starts than expected.

“The numbers used for the longer shots is directly related to how bad we interpret them to be compared to the good teams,” said Westgate Superbook Risk Manager Rex Beyers.

As if the NFL markets weren’t difficult enough with 32 teams and a wealth of information, it gets even tougher for the sportsbooks to balance action at the collegiate level. For example, there are 129 Division 1 FBS football programs and 350 Division 1 men’s basketball programs that are constantly in flux.

“Markets where the volatility is higher and the number is weaker are where I and many other bookmakers struggle to find the right number without a couple of sharp bets on the same side to steer you in the right direction,” said Beyers.

It’s interesting to note that sharp bettors tend to be the guiding light in the otherwise murky markets. So the next time you see a small-market college team rocket up the odds board before the season even starts, there is likely a sharp bettor (or group of them) driving the movement. So monitor the futures market closely, as it can provide us with a guide to the daily tests of sports betting.

Sometimes the best bets are on the worst teams

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) looks up after a play during the fourth quarter against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium.

CREDIT – Troy Taormina (USA Today)

It can be quite daunting to try and isolate teams that will have success, so finding failure is also a sound strategy when playing the futures market. The 2021 Houston Texans are a perfect example of that. The Texans are widely regarded as the worst team in the NFL, booked as an underdog in all 17 of their regular-season games and going off at 250/1 or longer at some sportsbooks to win the Super Bowl. Many bettors have flocked to Houston as a solid choice for the team that will have the worst record in the NFL this season, a dubious distinction that is backed up by their minuscule win total of four, the lowest in the league by a wide margin.

However, the uncertainty surrounding Deshaun Watson’s playing status put the sportsbooks in a bit of a precarious situation this summer. Do they post odds assuming Watson misses the entire season? Or is this a half-baked situation where the Watson news is not fully priced in? The Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas took a very aggressive approach, and so far it’s paid off.

“We put up prices on every regular-season game back in May and at that point, we all basically agreed that Watson probably wasn’t going to play at all and almost certainly not going to take snaps for the Texans,” said Beyers. “It was fairly consensus that Houston was the worst team. I had them a full 1.5 points worse than Detroit then and I’ve not really changed much now. So as things stand, we seem to have gotten them right.”

In this situation, and with others like it, the sportsbooks are gambling too. How aggressive or conservative they are with how they project the season to play out has a ripple effect if they are wrong. For example, if Watson’s legal troubles magically disappeared and he somehow found himself on the field in Houston for a majority of the season, the books would be vulnerable and would likely take the Texans’ odds down completely or over-adjust accordingly. Entail, that would open up value on the other side of the market. Moves and countermoves, like a game of chess.

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