A single hand of blackjack can take less than a minute. A bet on a football game can make for an exciting three hours. But an NFL futures bet is a four-to-five month thrill ride, anticipating that sweet payout and hoping you don’t misplace your ticket.
Different futures bets appeal to different people. Bettors can also employ different strategies depending on the size of their budget and the level of risk they’re willing to take on. To illustrate this point, I’ll tell you about two imaginary friends who accompanied me on my recent trip to Vegas.
Meet Safe Rafe and Chancy Nancy.
Safe Rafe is on a tighter budget. He’s got monthly student loan payments to make, but he’d like to place some NFL bets, even if it means skipping the guac at Chipotle until Week 10.
Chancy Nancy has deeper pockets and a higher comfort level for risk. She won a few hundred bucks at the blackjack table on her first night in town and she’s looking to parlay it into a big payday. Plus, her frequent flyer miles covered her flight, so she’s playing with house money already.
Let’s craft a betting portfolio for each of my friends. The goal for both is the same—to identify value and make money—but Safe Rafe will try to hit on a few modest risks, while Chancy Nancy will shoot for bigger payoffs.
Even though these are two different strategies for going about things, every bet below is one that I actually like heading into this season, using odds that were available the weekend of August 29th in Vegas at either the Westgate SuperBook or Caesars Palace.
The key thing to remember is that we’re looking for value. The plan isn’t just to pick what we think is most likely to occur, but to hunt for good bargains where the expected payout makes up for the risk.
Let’s start with Super Bowl 50. Seattle and Green Bay are the two favorites, and for good reason. The NFC isn’t as wide open as the AFC, and I’d be surprised if one of these two teams doesn’t march into Santa Clara.
Safe Rafe will put down $10 bets on both.
Different books can set different lines for each team, which enables gamblers to comparison shop for the best payouts. If you’re risking the same amount, you might as well maximize your potential profits. A more serious gambler might shop the lines all over town but our more casual gamblers will just use the lines at the Westgate and Caesars, the two books we checked out.
Safe Rafe got Green Bay at 6/1 at the Westgate, which would return his $10 stake plus a $60 profit, and Seattle at 5/1 at Caesars, which would return his $10 plus $50 more. We can evaluate these odds by calculating break-even points. If Green Bay is 6/1, the bet is profitable if you expect them to win more than 14.3% of the time. For a bet at 5/1, the break-even point is 16.7%. Safe Rafe likes the value for both of those lines.
It may sound strange to bet on two teams from the same conference both to win the Super Bowl, but we can think of these two bets together as one item: Safe Rafe is in for $20 and if either team wins the Super Bowl he’ll turn a $30-40 profit.
Chancy Nancy is looking for longer odds that will return a bigger payout. Indy (7/1), New England (8/1) and Denver (8/1) are the betting favorites coming out of the AFC.
But there’s some value in the AFC North if you like Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Cincinnati. For Chancy Nancy, I suggest Pittsburgh at 22/1 (Westgate) and Cincinnati at 55/1 (Caesars), which would return $220 or $550 in profit, respectively.
I’m not saying I think the Bengals are frontrunners to win the Super Bowl, but I think they have a better chance than the line indicates. The break-even point on a 55/1 bet is just 1.79%, so as long as we think the Bengals have a better chance than that of winning the Super Bowl, the bet has value.
Another division offering some tempting longer odds is the NFC South. We could bet on Atlanta, Carolina or New Orleans in the 30/1-to-60/1 range, but we’ll let those slide because I have a harder time picturing one of those three going through Seattle and Green Bay than I do of seeing Pittsburgh or Cincinnati make a playoff run.
I generally don’t like to bet on teams winning the conference.
The odds to win the Super Bowl will only go down as teams get eliminated, and I’d rather lock in a price now. If Cincinnati actually makes it to the Super Bowl, Chancy Nancy could let it ride for the full $550, or she could bet $200 on the NFC team to hedge and guarantee a profit. Let’s give ourselves the chance to make that decision in February instead of betting Cincinnati to win the AFC at 18/1.
You can bet on any of the 32 teams to win their own division, and again we’re looking not just for what is most likely to happen but what bets offer the best expected value.
Let’s use Indianapolis as an example to show why. The Colts are the team the board considers most likely to win their division, listed at -520 to win the AFC South at Caesars. That means you would have to bet $520 to make a $100 profit. The break-even point is 83.9%, and our standard $10 bet would return just $1.92. The Colts may cruise through the AFC South, but it’s not worth it for either of my friends to risk $10 to chase such a small profit.
There is value, though, in picking Pittsburgh to win the AFC North, at +210 at the Westgate. The +210 means a bet of $100 would return $210 in profit (+210 is equivalent to 21/10). The AFC North is considered a bit of a tossup between the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers, but that means if you have a team you like, you can win more than you can betting on, say, the Seahawks. This year I personally like the Steelers a lot. And for that price, I think a $10 bet on the Steelers (to win $21 profit) makes sense for Safe Rafe and Chancy Nancy. (A $10 bet on the Ravens at the Westgate would return a $12 profit and $10 on the Bengals would be good for $24.)
Chancy Nancy is still going bargain hunting, and there’s a decent one in San Diego at +400 (the same price in both books). She can bet $10 for a chance to win $40 profit. To me, the Broncos are the shakiest of the big division favorites, and it could be worth betting $10 on another horse in the AFC West.
The nice thing about a futures bet is you give yourself an opportunity to hedge later if you have a chance to lock in a profit and choose to take advantage. We can circle the Week 17 game that sends San Diego to Denver as a possible hedging opportunity. If the game happens to be winner-take-all for the AFC West, we could bet a little on Denver and then our preseason lottery ticket on the Chargers could pay off without them even winning the division.
Speaking of Chargers hedging opportunities … maybe once we’ve bet them to win the AFC West, we should consider betting them to win the Super Bowl at 40/1.
If they do manage to win the division, we’d be pretty happy entering the playoffs with a 40/1 ticket. And in the playoffs, couldn’t you see a situation where the Chargers win a home Wild Card game, and then you can bet $100 on New England hosting San Diego in bad weather coming off of a playoff bye? Well, Chancy Nancy could. Of course hedging does minimize your profit ceiling, so she could still choose to let the bet ride. If the Chargers make it to the divisional round, we’ll consider that a nice dilemma to have.
For one last longshot: Chancy Nancy can also take Arizona +550 (at the Westgate) to win the NFC West, which pays $55. I think the Cardinals have a better shot of unseating the Seahawks than the Rams or 49ers, and a +550 bet has just a 15.4% break-even point. Arizona also hosts Seattle in Week 17, so we have another potential hedging opportunity if the Cardinals are within a game of the Seahawks going into the final week.
Team win totals
We can also bet if each team will finish the regular season with over or under their posted win total. It’s important here to consider not just the posted total, but the odds offered.
I’ll use the Steelers as an example because you already know I like them. Their line is set at 8.5 wins, and you’d think I’d be first in line to bet the over. But the line is -150 to bet over 8.5 wins at Caesars and +120 to bet the under. So betting the same $10 would return a $12 profit if you hit the under, but just $6.67 if you hit the over. The -150 line on the over has that 60% break-even point, which does sound tempting, but we’ll leave this one alone—largely because I’d rather diversify my bets than put too many eggs in the Steelers’ basket.
There are some options up Safe Rafe’s alley. Put him down for $10 on the Dolphins to win under 9 (+115 at the Westgate), which pays $11.50. He has a couple of choices for the Giants. He could bet them under 8.5 wins at Caesars at -140 or under 8 wins at -130 at Westgate. (Note that betting over or under 8 results in a push if the team finishes 8-8.) That extra half win is huge, so he’ll bet $14 on under 8.5 games (at Caesars) to win an even $10.
Chancy Nancy can put $10 on the Vikings under 7.5 (+185 at Westgate), which happens to have the highest payout on the board for any win total bet, and a nice 35.1% break-even point.
You’ll notice my friends have three under bets and no overs. Adding up the posted win totals for all 32 teams comes to more than 256 (the number of games there are in the season). I have no aversion to betting overs if I see a line I like, but we know the league itself will come in under the total on the board.
The final tallies are pretty fun. We have a vested interest in 10 out of 32 teams, with a mix of some teams we can spend the whole year rooting for and others to spend the whole year rooting against. (The gamblers, of course, not SI. SI loves all your teams.)
Here are the totals. You can see how much each gambler bet and what their payouts would look like. Keep in mind, you can’t just add up the payout column for a total winnable amount, as several bets are in direct conflict.
Under 8.5 wins
Under 9 wins
Under 7.5 wins
So those are the basics to get you ready for the season. Enjoy it, and feel free to make some wagers, just remember not to bet more than you can afford to lose.