LAS VEGAS (CNN/Money) - This will be blasphemy to hardcore followers of Wall Street, those who think of the market as a rational way to try and accumulate wealth. But after spending most of Thursday watching college basketball at the Paris Casino's sports book in Las Vegas, I can safely say that betting on the NCAA Tournament has a lot in common with investing in stocks.
Betting on sports is legal in Nevada and most of the casinos in Vegas have a section called the sports book where people place their bets and watch the games. A sports book during the height of March Madness is a wild, profane, testosterone-charged pit fueled by greed and fear. Sounds exactly like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Like investing, gambling has a lingo that you need to learn in order to be successful. Instead of P/E ratios and mutual funds, you have "point spreads" and "parlays". (The spread is the number of points that the favored team is expected to win by while parlays are wagers that allow you to bet on several games in order to increase your payout.) And just as a market neophyte would be confused by a streaming quote feed, the rows of neon numbers on a sports book's massive board is certainly overwhelming for the uninitiated.
There's also the emotion factor. I occasionally get angry emails from readers who disapprove of negative comments I make about stocks they own. I maintain that getting too emotional about a stock is not a good thing. But I, hate to admit, am a bit of a hypocrite in this regard.
I reacted quite angrily any time one of the CBS announcers said a bad thing about a team I bet on. It was totally irrational. When the color commentator pointed out that Tulsa is a small team, I probably did not need to act as if he was insulting my mother.
With that in mind, I have no idea what to do when my beloved alma mater Penn plays California on Friday. (Go Quakers!) Part of me wants to bet big on Penn (they were four and a half point underdogs as I wrote this) so I can reap the financial rewards when they win. But another part of me is slightly worried. What if I bet on Penn with the spread and they don't win but lose by only three? Would it make me happy to profit from a Penn defeat? This is too disturbing a thought to consider any further.
(Disgruntled writer's note: As it turned out, my fears were for naught. Penn didn't cover, losing by 7 after this story was published. Grrr)
Why betting is better than investing
Hoops junkies pore through the stats published in the USA Today college basketball special pullout section (an essential purchase for any NCAA fan) with the same amount of rigor that accountants use to audit financial statements.
Speaking of auditing, the fact that stats in college basketball cannot be manipulated is actually a reason why betting on a college basketball game might be a wiser move than buying a stock. OK, there certainly has been some point shaving in the past - - the City College of New York scandal of the 1950s comes to mind - - but that doesn't even come close to the scam that was Enron.
|Kansas has a clean balance sheet in Big 12 scoring
When it comes to sports, the numbers for the most part don't lie. You don't have to worry about whether or not Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski set up special purpose entities in order to keep some of star player Jason Williams' turnovers off the stat sheet. Kansas (boy did Holy Cross give the Jayhawks a scare!) isn't going to announce that the NCAA is investigating it for improperly recognizing hundreds of points scored in Big 12 games from 1999.
Betting on basketball isn't even as risky as you might think. There are even ways to hedge and minimize your losses if you really know what you're doing. Example. A friend of mine and I placed the same $20 bet on a 3-team parlay: Kent State, Missouri and Pepperdine. All three teams had to cover in order to win the bet, which paid off at odds of 6 to 1. Kent State and Missouri both covered. Pepperdine, a 4-point underdog, played after these two games were finished. If Pepperdine covered, we'd both win $120.
My friend, being a prudent lawyer, decided to bet $22 dollars on Pepperdine's opponent, Wake Forest. If Wake Forest won by more than 4 points he would lose his parlay bet but win $20 on the Wake bet. So it would essentially be a wash. It's kind of like making a covered call on an option, selling the right to buy shares at a certain price while also having a long position on the stock.
I, however, was not so wise. I was convinced that Pepperdine would cover. Hey, I actually thought the Waves would win the game outright (similar to how many investors were convinced back in early 2000 that tech stocks could only go higher and higher) and even have a chance of upsetting Oregon in the second round. So I did not hedge. Pepperdine was competitive for the entire game but missed some crucial shots in the last few minutes (the bitter loser in me would say that they choked) and lost by eight.
|Unfortunately for my parlay, too many Wake Forest shots dropped and Pepperdine failed to cover the 4 point spread.
Most of my friends and fellow gamblers that I talked to would stick to betting on games with the spread but I foolishly followed the venture capital style of investing in college basketball. Kind of like the way VCs invest in many risky companies with the hopes of having one big initial public offering make up for all the flops, I made several "money line" bets on huge underdogs. Betting the money line means you think a team will win the game outright, regardless of the spread.
All in all, I made six bets on Thursday and won none, for a total loss of $100. Fortunately, a $100 windfall at a blackjack table that day kept me even for the day. Just goes to show that you can't discount the importance of luck any time you put your money to work.
Odds for the Oscars
In addition to the NCAA action, you can also get odds for the Oscars. You can't actually make bets - - they're only for "entertainment purposes" - - but many of us were left scratching our heads about the favorites for the major awards.
Moulin Rouge was listed at 3-1 to win Best Picture: the second favorite behind A Beautiful Mind. Huh? Ewan McGregor singing Elton John (quite badly I might add) is more worthy of the cinema's highest honor than The Lord of the Rings, Gosford Park or In the Bedroom? Whatever.
It would have been nice to be able to make real bets on the Oscars though. Some of the odds did seem pretty good. "Best bet on the board?" observed my friend Jamey Tesler, "Ian McKellen for Best Supporting Actor at 6-1. Gandalf, baby!"
That's what sleep deprivation does to you folks.