Why Some Professional Gamblers Love the WNBA
Tim York's WNBA fetish makes his wife jealous. "She sometimes asks me, 'What do you see in women playing basketball?'" says the 31-year-old Houstonian. "Sure, some of the girls are nice to look at while they're playing. But that's not why I do it." Unlike creepy voyeurs, or purists who like watching a below-the-rim game played at a reduced tempo, York's interest in women's basketball is purely financial. "I tell her all the time, 'There's money to be made in this sport.'"
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. As Women's National Basketball Assn. franchises prepare to start training camp this month, York's in the middle of his annual analysis of all the league's teams and players. In the three years that he's been betting on the WNBA, his preparation has paid off: York says 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 regular season. When it comes to women's basketball, York says, "I consider myself to be one of the best in the business."
There isn't a whole lot of 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 (MGM) in Las Vegas, figures it was "perhaps a couple of percentage points at the most." And that's exactly how professional gamblers like it. "It leaves an opportunity," says York, "for guys that do this for a living to step in and see things that the oddsmakers sometimes don't."
Jay Rood, the sports book director for MGM Mirage, concedes that bookmakers have created an opening for WNBA gambling pioneers to exploit. Bookmakers "probably don't pay as close attention to the WNBA as we do with other things," he says. That's because most casual gamblers aren't interested in women's sports—even the ones where the players are almost naked and tackling each other. "We booked the Lingerie Bowl this year," Rood says, referring to the Amazonian pay-per-view football contest that aired during halftime of Super Bowl XLV. "But it was very, very lightly wagered into." In Rood's experience, women's sports is the domain of professionals or, as he calls them, "the sharpest players." If you're betting on the WNBA, you probably mean business, Rood says. "It's one of the hardest sports to profit at."
That's because comprehensive WNBA statistics aren't as readily available as in other pro sports 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," says Edward Golden, a handicapper for the Internet betting service Right Angle Sports. He says 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 exhaustively compiles the data all by himself.
Such devotion is a trademark of WNBA bettors. Anthony Nassor, founder of Las Vegas-based Blueprint Sports Monitor, a handicapping and wagering management service, says more than 30 percent of his business comes from the league. In preparation for each WNBA game, Nassor evaluates dozens of variables, including 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. Nassor 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 that might help him decide which side of the spread he wants to bet on. Wagering on WNBA games, he says, is just like playing the stock market. "You do your indexing and research and analyze your budget," he says, "and try to buy in when a good stock is low."
This philosophy has helped Nassor expand his business through satellite offices in Bakersfield, Calif., and Hanover, Germany. Despite the skepticism of his peers, he remains a proud trailblazer. "Most of the big betting guys that I know, their main worry is that it's easier for a woman to get bribed and throw a game," Nassor says. "That's part of the underworld's problem with betting on it. But I think the WNBA plays a pretty straight-up game."
Regardless of any potential loss of revenue from organized crime or other wary gamblers, the women's sports-betting movement has come a long way. Back in the 1990s, a bookmaker named Robert Walker, the Betty Friedan of gambling odds, 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 his friends and colleagues told him he was crazy, he booked everything from the NCAA 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 remembers. "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."
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 says. "It eventually got better, but it was always a crapshoot." Without much data or Internet research to base his odds on, he says 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-booking business having been 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 says. "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 2011 Seattle Storm and its star player, Lauren Jackson. "If you watch Jackson play and you don't come away as a fan," he says, "you're insane!" He admits, though, 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, the Houston gambler got a lucky feeling. With both teams slumping, oddsmakers placed the line for total points scored—known as an "over/under" line—at 161.5. "Everyone was running from the 'over,'" says York. "Except me." Nine months later, he still remembers the thrill he felt as the final whistle blew on the Sparks's 88-84 win—and York pocketed a figure in the "high" hundreds. The game received almost zero media attention, but it lives on in his memory as a reminder of how the WNBA can lead to some sweet, fast money.