Scrolling through an online list of college bowl games, Greg Durham stops on one of them.
“Whoa – The point spread here is 22. Akron against Florida Atlantic,” he chuckles. “Who watches these really obscure bowl games? One possible answer is gamblers.”
There is money to be made by sportsbooks – and perhaps by gamblers, as well – from even the more obscure, less popular games. ESPN reports this year’s meetup of Akron and Florida Atlantic involves the “biggest bowl underdog in the past 40 seasons.” The American Gaming Association estimated in 2016 that fans would bet $90 billion dollars (in both legal and illegal bets) on both NFL and college football games.
“With point spread betting specifically, this turns a game with an otherwise obvious outcome into a more intriguing, essentially 50-50 proposition,” said Durham, a clinical associate professor of finance at the IU Kelley School of Business in Indianapolis. “Consider this game. While expectations are apparent that Florida Atlantic will win the game, the proposition of whether FAU will win by more than 22 is much more uncertain.”
Durham has studied legal point spread betting for years. As a finance professor, he looks at the numbers and thinks about bettors’ behaviors – considering what might cause the numbers to move up and down as they do.
“The point spread betting market is very similar to the traditional finance market,” he explains. “Stock markets have a market-maker, who adjusts the price up and down, depending on buying and selling. Likewise in betting, you’ve got a bookmaker, who is adjusting the spread to balance the betting on two teams in a contest.”
Much of Durham’s research examines behavior patterns of sports betting, considering how emotions, behavioral biases or sentiment toward a team can cause a point spread to change. He points out that because point spread betting markets are similar to the stock market, Durham uses that knowledge to conduct multiple studies. In both markets, he explains, people can be impaired by behavioral biases, such as perceiving a trend in a pattern that’s actually random.
“Ideally, you shouldn’t let sentiment impair your betting decisions or your investing decisions. You should make decisions based on a fundamental analysis of the stocks or bets.”
Durham says you should come into a betting wager armed with analysis and information – rather than following your emotions. He adds, bettors often believe they can come up with a winning strategy, but his research has shown that’s not usually the case.
Durham’s research points to the point spread as a good predictor of how the game will end.
In a study published in the Journal of Prediction Markets using eight years of data, Durham and Tod Perry, also a professor of finance at the Kelley School, consider the impact of sentiment on point spreads in the college football wagering market. Focusing on investor sentiment for things like experts’ predictions or momentum in performance, they found that sentiment doesn’t distort spreads enough to allow for the existence of profitable winning strategies.
“Many people believe the outcome is going to be different from the spread, or they have sentimental reasons for betting the way they do,” he says. “However, my research shows that spreads are unbelievably good predictors of game outcomes.
“On average, every wager is a 50-50 proposition. In fact, commissions that bookmakers charge are so large that, even when a strategy’s winning percentage deviates from 50 percent, they eat away any profits.”
Durham’s research interests include behavioral finance, asset pricing and sports wagering markets. His research has been published in The Journal of Finance, Journal of Sports Economics, and
Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance. He also wrote a chapter on behavioral finance and point spread wagering markets for the Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Gambling.