Hold your bets (until WNBA season)
Brittney Griner can dunk. You may have seen it on your Internet machine. One dribble, two steps, two hands, giving the rim a full body wiggle to prove it wasn't by accident. And Baylor can play. The Lady Bears have the chance to go 40-0, more wins in a college basketball season than any team, men or women, have ever tallied. That is Woodenesque, a transcendent sporting accomplishment.
But in Vegas, the collective response is, "When does the WNBA start?"
It's true. Women's college basketball is as good as it has ever been, increasing market share, developing new fans, shedding the last remnants of prejudice. You are reading this on a website dedicated to the idea of women's sports. That doesn't happen if not for Brittney, Skylar, etc. … It's just hoops, played more beautifully, with more precision and at sharper angles, than nearly anyone else is playing it.
Again, in Vegas, the wiseguys wonder, "Are the Lynx deep enough to repeat?"
The folks who run this Title IX microsite asked me, as a gambling insider who moonlights as editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine, to write a column about all the action taking in place in Nevada on the women's NCAA tourney. After all, nearly $100 million will be gambled statewide on the men's Madness (and 10 times that amount illegally around the country). The tournament has become a national gambling holiday, turning presidents into prognosticators, employers into office-pool enablers and Nebraska fifth-graders into bracket know-it-alls. Surely, with women's hoops consistently and, thanks to Griner, literally reaching new heights, some of that action must trickle down into their tourney. "Not really," Jay Kornegay, the boss bookmaker at the Las Vegas Hilton, told me. "There's not much interest."
Hmm ... great idea, editors.
And yet I can't say I'm surprised by what Kornegay said. The sports betting industry in Vegas is, above all else, an attitude-driven economy. It thrives on suckers and experts alike, as long as both sides are convinced they know better than the bookmakers posting point spreads. For bettors to feel empowered, though, they need information that provides an edge, something no one else knows, a belief either real or imagined. "But in women's college hoops, the disparity between the three or four great teams and everyone else is too big," Kornegay says. "No one wants to bet those games unless it is a marquee matchup. There is no edge."
Vegas bookmakers break gamblers down into two categories: those who know, and those who think they know. The latter, known as squares, suckers, the public and valued customers, like to bet their beloved teams, no matter what the point spread. The former, known as wiseguys, sharps, professionals and respected competition, treat the betting markets the same way Wall Street traders treat the stock market. They are forever in search of undervalued teams that bookmakers misread.
And this is the Vegas catch-22 for women's college hoops: With only a handful of clearly dominant teams, and little info about the remaining squads, the market for wiseguy action is limited. Professionals won't find any value in betting on Baylor; that would be like buying Apple stock. The interest is so low, in fact, that bookmakers don't bother posting point spreads on regular-season games. "It is just not worth our time," Kornegay says. Instead, they wait until the tournament starts, hoping to pick up a couple of bets from the squares invading The Strip for the men's brackets. There will always be that superconfident, 40-something marketing exec on a weekend hall pass with his college buddies. He might see Baylor favored by 210 points over Georgia Tech and think: I have seen that girl Brittney Griner on "SportsCenter." Baylor must be great. I am going to bet my 7-year-old daughter's college tuition on the Bears!
But the WNBA provides the perfect betting opportunity. There are only 12 teams to track and the league plays during the summer, a gambling dead zone where bettors are searching for any action beyond baseball. (Last year, the Women's World Cup took advantage of that timing to great effect, with group-stage matches getting the same action as regular-season NBA games and the knockout round matching NBA playoff contests.) The women's tournament, on the other hand, is up against the men's version, plus the NBA and NHL.
So, for the past several years, while women's college hoops has become more popular, pockets of betting professionals have been scoring on the WNBA. "It is a good fit for us," says Edward Golden, one of the country's most influential college basketball bettors, who also runs a handicapping service called Right Angle Sports. "When the starting small forward is out for the Lakers, it is easy for oddsmakers and bettors to gauge the impact; not so much when the same happens for the Sparks. These games don't get as much attention from either the media, betting public or the oddsmakers themselves."
That leaves sharps rubbing their hands, because they've found their perceived edge.
It is a better fit for bookmakers, too. "Pros assume they are betting something off the beaten path, but we pay attention to it," Kornegay says. "It is just another gambling event we can offer. One in which we all think there is an opportunity."
And, to gamblers, missing out on an opportunity is the true Madness, no matter what month it is.