On the latest Motley Fool Money radio show, our guest was Chad Millman, senior deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine and author of several books. Chad blogs daily at ESPN.com about the culture of sports gambling. What follows is a transcript of part of our conversation (to hear the whole interview go to www.motleyfoolmoney.com) during which he shares some tips the Vegas "wise guys" use when picking winners in college basketball.
Chris Hill: From a sports gambling perspective, how much money is bet on March Madness and how does that compare to other sporting events?
Chad Millman: Well, it compares favorably to every sporting event, except for the Super Bowl. March Madness, by far, the handle in Nevada. "Handle" is the total amount bet, and in Nevada, which is the only place where you can actually legally make bets on this event in the United States, so that is the only real way to gauge its popularity. But in Nevada, the total handle on March Madness usually is in the $70 million to $80 million range, so that is over the course of the three full weekends and then, or actually the four full weekends. It is a huge, massive event.
The only thing that comes close to that, or actually exceeds that, is the Super Bowl, which is usually in the $80 million to $90 million range.
Hill: You recently blogged at ESPN.com with the headline, "Why George Mason is a Dangerous Team." Please explain.
Millman: I was quickly proven wrong, but George Mason is one of those teams that is what's called the Wise Guy Favorite. "Wise guys" -- that's the term of art for professional sports betters, and that's what they have long been known as in Las Vegas. And so the wise guys loved George Mason throughout this year because they were constantly beating the spread. You looked at George Mason and at the end of the year, they were on a 15-game win streak and they were one of the hottest teams in college basketball, but against the spread, they were 21-7, which was by far outpacing any other team in college basketball. So wise guys were making money with George Mason.
The reason they liked them was because they were doing so well defensively, and so it is just much easier for teams to cover the spread if you keep teams from scoring points. So the reasons why wise guys end up liking teams are often far different than the reasons why fans like teams, and the stats that people who are not professional gamblers pay attention to are much different than the stats that professional gamblers are paying attention to.
Hill: So, not that we are looking to give specific betting advice for the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but if you're looking for teams to cover the spread, you are going to be looking for some defensive-minded teams.
Millman: You want teams that, the stat they look at is defensive field goal percentage allowed. Obviously because the teams that can't score, can't cover. You want teams that actually had strong road records. The reason that you are looking at those records specifically is because every game in the NCAA tournament is on the road. So teams that have proven they can play strong away from home are the ones that are less likely to be spooked when they are playing in the NCAA Tournament.
So UNLV is a team that will probably make the tournament. They had a very strong road record. And Richmond is a team that will probably make the tournament. They had a very strong road record, so you are looking at -- those are teams that they are not the Dukes, they are not the Pitts, they are not the Ohio States where everybody is going to be betting on those teams. When you are a professional gambler, you are looking for opportunities, and so there is usually value to be had in point spreads, meaning mistakes, that bookmakers are making on teams that aren't as high profile.