Basketball Gamblers Profit on WNBA Games Las Vegas Bookmakers Try to Avoid

Tim York’s attraction to the Women’s National Basketball Association makes his wife jealous.

“She sometimes asks me, ‘What do you see in women playing basketball?’” said the 31-year-old from Houston. “Sure, some of the girls are nice to look at while they’re playing. But that’s not why I do it.”

York said his interest is purely financial.

“I tell her all the time, ‘There’s money to be made in this sport,’” he said.

A professional gambler and owner of the Las Vegas-based handicapping company Sharp Group, York is at the forefront of the women’s sports-betting movement, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its April 11 issue.

As the WNBA prepares for training camp this month, York is in the middle of his annual analysis of all the teams and players.

In the three years he’s been betting on the WNBA, his preparation has paid off: York said he has made a considerable portion of his estimated $100,000 annual earnings from the league.

It’s quite a feat, given that the WNBA comprises only 12 teams that play a 34-game schedule over a four-month season.

“I consider myself to be one of the best in the business” of analyzing women’s basketball, York said. There isn’t a lot of competition.

Little Competition

While $2.76 billion was legally wagered in Nevada’s sports books during 2010, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, there’s no record of how much was bet on the WNBA.

Scott Ghertner, director of sports and promotions for MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, figures it was “perhaps a couple of percentage points at the most.” That’s exactly how professional gamblers like it.

“It leaves an opportunity for guys that do this for a living to step in and see things that the oddsmakers sometimes don’t,” York said.

Jay Rood, the sports book director for MGM Mirage, said bookmakers “probably don’t pay as close attention to the WNBA as we do with other things.” That’s because most casual gamblers aren’t interested in women’s sports.

Betting on women’s sports is the domain of what Rood calls “the sharpest players.” If you’re betting on the WNBA, you probably mean business, he said.

Little Data

“It’s one of the hardest sports to profit at,” he said. Comprehensive WNBA statistics aren’t as readily available as in other leagues.

“If the third-leading scorer for the New York Liberty is out, not many people are going to be able to estimate her value,” said Edward Golden, a handicapper for the Internet betting service Right Angle Sports.

He said he has had a 59 percent winning ratio on more than 300 WNBA bets during the past three years. To maintain this success for his seven-plus weekly WNBA plays, Golden tries to “gain as much intimate knowledge as possible on every WNBA team, player and coach in the league.”

He compiles the data by himself, a trademark of WNBA bettors. Anthony Nassor, founder of Las Vegas-based Blueprint Sports Monitor, a handicapping and wagering management service, said more than 30 percent of his business comes from the league.

Variables Examined

Nassor evaluates variables such as how many of each team’s players competed professionally overseas during the off-season, each team’s recent travel schedule, and how much energy -- based on the opponents’ style -- the players exerted in previous games.

He also bases his wagers on defensive numbers rather than just offensive output. He computes a “cumulative defensive” statistic that he converts into a “hypothetical total” -- and then keeps the information to himself.

He also has a habit of betting against deceptively hot teams until they start losing and wagering on home teams returning from winless road trips.

If that doesn’t work, he monitors players’ Twitter feeds, looking for even the slightest hints about injuries, emotions, or other factors. Wagering on WNBA games, he said, is just like playing the stock market.

“You do your indexing and research and analyze your budget, and try to buy in when a good stock is low,” he said.

This philosophy has helped Nassor expand his business through satellite offices in Bakersfield, California, and Hanover, Germany.

Developing Market

The women’s sports-betting movement has come a long way.

Back in the 1990s, bookmaker Robert Walker had a vision. While running sport books from the MGM Mirage to the Stardust, Walker was one of the first oddsmakers to treat women’s sports betting equally.

Although friends and colleagues told him he was crazy, he booked everything from the National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s basketball tournament to the WNBA Finals. Walker quickly learned the hard way that such betting was for professionals only.

“It got kind of personal,” he said. “I would have guys come in and want to bet $5,000 on a game. If you take $5,000 on a women’s basketball game, (the sports book is) against that guy. We didn’t have people betting $50 on the other side of it. We didn’t have enough money to offset it.”

Big Loss

It became a contest between Walker and the finest minds in the sports book trade. And when he lost, he lost big.

“We definitely struggled in the beginning,” he said. “It eventually got better, but it was always a crapshoot.”

Without much data or Internet research to base his odds on, he said he sometimes felt like “we were throwing darts and hoping for the best” -- a strategy that didn’t play all that well with his bosses.

These days, Walker lives in a small town on the Washington- Idaho border, his departure from the sports-book business hastened, in part, by his youthful fervor for women’s sports.

“In 1996, I predicted that in 10 or 15 years, women’s basketball would be as popular with gamblers as the men’s,” he said. “I also said that sports gambling would be legal in every state except Utah. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Still, Walker maintains a passion for the women’s game and is looking forward to watching the Seattle Storm and its star player, Lauren Jackson.

Money Talks

“If you watch Jackson play and you don’t come away as a fan, you’re insane,” he said, acknowledging that “it’s not the same when you don’t have money on it.”

York would agree. Last June, as the 2-8 Minnesota Lynx prepared to play the 2-7 Los Angeles Sparks, he got a lucky feeling.

With both teams slumping, oddsmakers placed the line for total points scored -- known as an over/under -- at 161.5.

“Everyone was running from the ‘over,’” said York. “Except me.”

Nine months later, he still remembers the thrill he felt as the final whistle blew on the Sparks’ 88-84 win -- and York pocketed a payoff in the “high” hundreds.

It’s a reminder, he said, of how the WNBA can lead to some sweet, fast money.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Spitznagelt .

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net.

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