Drew Brees was on TV last night encouraging gambling. Not just on TV, on NFL Network, the platform owned by the league, during the game between Washington and the New York Giants.
If you blinked, you may have missed a rather startling sea change. Sports leagues have pivoted from staunch public opposition to gambling on their games to actively recruiting sponsors and partners from the gambling industry. Are you sick of Jamie Foxx or that woman from DraftKings yet? Or was it FanDuel? I get them mixed up.
Brees, the clean-cut star quarterback of the New Orleans Saints until he retired after last season, morphed right along with his sport. Thursday night he was hawking a platform called PointsBet.
Colorado voters narrowly approved legal sports betting in the fall of 2019. The launch came May 1, 2020. A pandemic was sweeping the state at the time, a lot of sporting events were postponed or canceled, so you might not have noticed.
There were 25 licensed sports books and operators in the state at last count. Betting is now about as easy as having a meal delivered. All it requires is a phone. If you download one of the apps from an ad on social media, as I did, you will soon be served with ads for many of the others. Telling Apple to ask apps not to track you doesn’t seem to help.
Betting on sports is a lot like speculating in financial markets. If you live in Colorado, chances are you know more about the Broncos than you do most small-cap companies, or any cryptocurrency.
There are people in both fields who will drown you in statistics if you let them. Sports betting gurus will offer quantitative measurements of increasing sophistication and inscrutability in the same way stock analysts will cite adjusted metrics that go way beyond the simple measures your uncle the stock picker used.
These numbers can be helpful, in both pursuits, but not as helpful as they appear. When the field of behavioral economics exploded on the scene some years back, venerable skeptic Charlie Munger inquired what sort of economics were not behavioral.
As in finance, outcomes in sports are determined by human behavior, which is more apt to be inexplicable and random than rational and predictable.
So if I can dabble in the stock market or in crypto, I can mine for more traditional coin, and keep my weekends interesting, with speculation informed by 30 years or so as a sportswriter. This is the first of what I hope will be weekly missives during the NFL season after I’ve placed my bets.
If I’m terrible at it and lose the small pot of money I have allocated, these offerings will be short-lived. Thankfully, owing to their fierce competition for customers, most of the online sports books offer a variety of incentives, including “risk-free” initial bets that promise to compensate you for your loss with free additional bets worth the same amount. So you can find a first bet you really like, bet big, lose, and still have chits to play with for a while. Just as alcoholics should stay out of bars, gambling addicts should stay away from these apps.
I’m betting only on the NFL at present. Baseball and basketball play way too many games for the outcome of any single one to be more predictable than a coin flip. When the baseball playoffs arrive, I’ll take another look.
They say college football is a prime target because talent is not as evenly allocated as it is in the pros. That’s true, but odds and point spreads nullify obvious talent disparities, and college point spreads are often astronomical, making final scores dependent on factors other than trying to win the game.
So, anyway, the NFL it is. Here are my bets this week:
Arizona (-3.5) vs. Minnesota. At 24, Kyler Murray may be ready to demonstrate why he was the first overall pick in the 2019 draft. He was spectacular in a Week 1 blowout of what was thought to be a good Tennessee team, and he was spectacular mostly with his arm rather than his legs. The Vikings, meanwhile, were outlasted in Week 1 by the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, suggesting their defensive issues a year ago remain unresolved.
L.A. Rams (-3.5) at Indianapolis. It has been my contention for a long time that Matthew Stafford, the first overall draft pick a decade before Murray, could graduate to the ranks of championship contenders if he only had a decent team around him. Finally, after 12 years making the Lions look better than they were, he has that chance. In his first game with the Rams, on his first possession, he engineered a three-play, 80-yard drive against the Bears, culminating in a 67-yard touchdown pass. He and Sean McVay just might get along. Meanwhile, Carson Wentz had a pretty nice debut in Indy, but the Colts were dismantled by the Seahawks, who are comparable to the Stafford-led Rams offensively, but inferior defensively.
Buffalo (-3) at Miami. The Bills were oddly lethargic in their opener against Pittsburgh, with Josh Allen revisiting the accuracy issues he battled his first two years in the league. Still, this is a team that went 13-3 last year and played for the AFC championship, so I’m betting on a bounce-back. Meanwhile, the Dolphins edged the Patriots, but Tua Tagovailoa was uninspiring and won’t be facing a rookie counterpart in Week 2.
Seattle (-6) vs. Tennessee. I expect a bounce-back from the Titans, who can’t be as bad as they looked in Week 1, but the Seahawks are very good at home (7-1 last year) and Russell Wilson had an exquisite opener, suggesting the combination of rumors he might want out of Seattle and the hiring of two former McVay deputies to coordinate the offense might be just what Pete Carroll needed to ease up on the reins a bit.
Green Bay (-11 in one bet, -11.5 in another) vs. Detroit. As big as this spread is, it doesn’t seem nearly big enough considering the circumstances. The Packers were embarrassed in their opener. Aaron Rodgers, who spent most of the offseason complaining about his situation, was horrendous. Returning to the friendly confines of Lambeau Field, where he was 7-1 last season, should get him back on track. The Lions are a last-place team from a year ago who lost their best player in Stafford. If this isn’t a blowout, it will only be because Rodgers is pissed he didn’t get the Jeopardy! gig.
Las Vegas (+6.5) at Pittsburgh. This is my weakest conviction pick, and I made only one small bet on it, but I was surprised by how tough the Raiders played the Ravens in Week 1. They still have some defensive issues to be sure (30th in points allowed a year ago), but were surprisingly resilient against the most explosive offensive player in the game. They will suffer from the loss of Marcus Mariota (again) to injury. In his lone play of Week 1, he demonstrated the difficult adjustment he presents to defenses who have prepared for Derek Carr. Still, Carr has an impressive roster of offensive weapons. As for the Steelers, I suspect the size of this spread is partly based on their win over Buffalo, which had at least as much to do with the Bills’ no-show.
Lock of the week:
Denver (-6) at Jacksonville. A homer pick, I guess, but I had to look twice to make sure I wasn’t missing a digit in the spread. A few weeks into the season, this number would be bigger. The Jaguars are coming off a 1-15 season, starting over with rookies at coach and quarterback, and just gave up 37 points to the Texans, a team many analysts expected to be the worst in the league this year. The Broncos went into New York and did what they were supposed to do, beating the Giants convincingly. Their biggest question mark, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, was cool, resourceful and accurate. Yes, No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence will probably be a stud one day, and Urban Meyer might ultimately figure out the NFL, but both will take longer than a week. The Broncos should cover. Easily.
Oh, yes, just for fun, I placed a small wager on an AFC West parlay that pays 700% if the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers all win. That’s a lottery ticket. I’m not expecting it to hit and don’t recommend it.
Feel free to comment below if you’d like. Pretend your mother is listening. These missives come with an intemperance filter.