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Here’s the mayhem you’ll have to accept if you decide to bet on college sports

A quick field guide to risking your money on the athletic performance of teenagers.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Betting on college sports is risky, because a) it’s betting on sports, and b) college sports are a mess. The people who play the games are between 18 and 23 years old.

Let me tell you something about people in that age group, as someone with a few months left of being in that age group: You can’t trust us to do anything but make avocado toast. We will let you down time and time again.

Soon, some number of states will allow sports betting, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal law that effectively banned it in most of the country. If you’re looking to get in on the action, be aware of a couple of potential pitfalls.

These are the most basic arguments against betting on college sports:


And this:

And even this, though Alabama wasn’t covering a 10.5-point spread anyway:

Betting on college sports is hard. It’s tough to pick winners against the spread, and you have to be comfortable with some eye-popping lines.

Take six popular North American betting sports/leagues: the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, college football, and college basketball. Using data on each’s most recent season from Odds Shark (which has a smaller sample size for the current baseball season), we can see how teams in each sport have performed against point spreads. If you’re betting against a point spread, it’s hard to figure out college sports and the NBA:

Winning percentages against the spread in different sports

Sport Favorites ATS Underdogs ATS Difference
Sport Favorites ATS Underdogs ATS Difference
CFB 48.25% 51.75% 3.50%
CBB 51.20% 48.80% 2.40%
NHL 33.99% 66.01% 32.02%
MLB 42.33% 57.67% 15.34%
NFL 54.55% 45.45% 9.10%
NBA 49.12% 50.88% 1.76%
Odds Shark

Spread betting isn’t the norm across all sports, obviously.

College oddsmakers will force you to test just how much you believe in one team being amazing and one team being a doormat. Be prepared to deal with huge numbers. In 2017, Alabama’s football team was a 36.5-point favorite against Tennessee. The Tide won by 38. That was a reasonable line, obviously, but it was jarring to see. It might be a little lighter on your brain to decide whether the Jets can cover a 13.5-point line against the Patriots.

College teams are more reliable bets head-to-head, with the spread not considered. But it can be hard to find chances to take advantage of that.

College football and basketball favorites both win straight up about 75 percent of the time, compared to rates in the high 50s or high 60s in those professional leagues.

That makes sense; the difference between Alabama and San Jose State is a lot bigger than the one between the Eagles and the Browns.

Maybe you can find a betting opportunity where you can risk several hundred dollars to win $100 if an elite college team beats a terrible one straight-up, but a lot of sportsbooks don’t even offer bets like that. You’re not going to find a -1500 moneyline bet for Clemson to beat Furman, and most experienced bettors wouldn’t make that bet even if they could.

If betting score totals is more your speed, maybe college football wagering is more your speed. In 2017, 53.3 percent of the games tracked here finished under the total.

But again, you’ll have to be cool thinking about some large numbers, like whether Cal and Oregon are going to combine for 90 points or fewer. Have fun trying to figure out anything about a football game in the Pac-12, a league whose games are so out-there that they’ve spawned a semi-erotic Twitter hashtag, #Pac12AfterDark.

Also, godspeed betting on the Heisman.

Some experienced bettors dig college football. You can do it well. But you must embrace the weirdness of a massive sport, and that’s not for everyone.

“There is certainly a hesitation among bettors when it comes to gambling on the kids,” says Scott Cooley, an odds consultant at offshore book BetDSI.

“Young athletes these days are more mentally focused because they’ve been trained to be from such a young age, but we can all think back to when we were 18 and recall what was going through our immature heads then.”

There are 130 FBS teams. Almost nobody actually knows anything about all of them. If you’re one of the few who does, you might be able to find great value where oddsmakers are missing something. If you’re not, you’re looking at a wild west. Which can be fun!

College sports are super weird.

If you’re comfortable putting your money on weird games played by people just coming out of adolescence, that’s cool. Sometimes, it works. I am not that brave, but I’m just one guy.

And a note: I initially published this story with the headline, “Why betting on college sports is a terrible idea, even if it’s about to be legal.” A few people have correctly pointed out flaws with that as a blanket proclamation. They’re right; I wasn’t. I’ve reframed this post a bit to make what I hope is a narrower, more correct point: College sports pose some unique risks to bettors, but that’s cool. People bet for different reasons and with different levels of expertise. Thanks for reading, and if you were among those to offer feedback, thanks for that, too.