Beating Closing Lines

In the last issue, I talked about the importance of line shopping – the practice of fi nding the best available price on the market for placing a bet. Line shopping is one of the most powerful tools available to a sports bettor. But while line shopping is both simple and powerful, it’s only a small piece of a larger puzzle: the concept of beating closing lines.

A closing line is the fi nal line; the last widely-available betting line before betting closes and the event you are wagering on begins. Beating a closing line means getting a bet down at a line that is better than the closing line.

Beating a closing line is a simple concept to understand, but a diffi cult concept to master, let alone to accomplish repeatedly with a high degree of success. But before we get there, let’s talk about the process: the concept of an opening line, and how and why lines move from open to close.

An opening line is set when sportsbooks fi rst release the betting line; this is called “hanging” the line. Opening lines may be set by outside consultants – a lines service that provides advice to the books – or may be set by an internal team at the sports book. For several years, the Stardust in Vegas was the book that fi rst set the opening NFL lines. The Stardust would hang its initial lines for NFL games at 5:30pm on Sunday the week prior to the game. And once the Stardust set its lines, everyone else in the industry would follow.

Unfortunately, no one sportsbook can be counted on to set initial lines for betting on mixed martial arts, as the Stardust did for the NFL in days past. But as in the old days, once someone takes an initial stand and hangs an opening line, everyone else generally follows. Once opening lines have been set, lines sometimes move due to market forces. Primarily, lines move when more money is being wagered on one side than the other.

For example, if sportbooks were to hang an initial line of Anderson Silva -125 against Dan Henderson for UFC 82, you can imagine that money would come in fast on Silva, given his dominant string of performances as the UFC’s middleweight champion. If the sportsbook were taking ten bets on the champ for every one on Henderson, before very long the book is going to move their line, to encourage bets on Henderson in order to “balance their books.” In this hypothetical, the line would likely move to Silva -130, then -135, maybe even jump right to -140, depending on the volume and quantity of bets being placed on Silva’s side. Of course, the books likely won’t make this mistake. I’d expect to see Silva much closer to a 2-to-1 favorite at open.

Sometimes, lines are moved due to new information. In team sports, an event like a mid-week injury suffered in practice to a star football player can move a line.

Lines don’t always move. Sometimes they are well set, and the books are happy with the action they get on each side. In the world of mixed martial arts wagering, a lower-volume sport for wagering, lines generally move faster than in larger sports such as the NFL or MLB. This means more volatility in the lines, which of course means more potential value for those who can regularly beat the closing lines.

In the modern world of sports books, information fl ows much more freely and much more quickly than it did in the old Vegas days. When market forces move a line at one book, generally the other sportsbooks take notice and move their own lines. But even in the information age, sometimes books are slow to move their lines, which is where the importance of line shopping comes in to play. Instead of merely attempting to maximize our expected value by placing a bet at the best available line, the truly advanced handicapper can attempt to predict the line’s position at close, and can gain a more signifi cant edge by placing bets in anticipation of line movements – attempting to beat a closing line through predictive analysis.

Predicting a line movement looks easy at fi rst glance – just pick the line you expect will be hit by the masses and bet that side early, before the line gets moved. Or if you want the other side, let the market forces move the line in your direction and then place your bet. The hard part is putting this into practice. Accurately predicting line movements is hard work, and getting a line movement wrong can have a signifi cantly negative effect on your bottom line.

To begin predicting line movement, you must fi rst try to anticipate which side will be bet more heavily. In mixed martial arts, this usually means identifying which fi ghter is more popular, which fi ghter is generally overrated by the public, or which fi ghter is getting the most press.

In most sports, the betting public usually prefers favorites to underdogs, and “over” bets compared to “under” bets in sports which offer that option. So generally, you would want to bet on favorites (and overs) early, and bet on underdogs (and unders) late. However, this is only a general principle and not a hard and fast rule; sports betting isn’t that easy.

When you are just getting started trying to beat closing lines, you can gain a good deal of insight into line movements simply by watching the line open and waiting for initial movement. For example, if you see Jon Fitch open as a -200 favorite and you see the line quickly move to -210, you can generally expect that the line will continue to move in that direction. If you wanted to bet on Fitch, you’d want to get on it as soon as possible, as it had already moved against you. But if you wanted to bet on Fitch’s opponent and the line had started to move the other way, you would want to try to let the line move further in your direction before placing your bet.

You can start practicing predicting line movements, even if you’re not betting, by watching for lines to open and immediately picking a side. Then, track the movement over the course of the days or weeks between open and close. If you’ve done this for several fi ghts, and you’re generally seeing movements in the directions of all your picks (say 70% of the time) then you might want to consider betting earlier than later. If you’re seeing lines move away from your picks with the same frequency (so benefi ting your side), then you should bet later.

Just to confi rm the importance of beating closing lines, here are results of a study on one player’s bets for 2007 (as shared on the sports betting forum of twoplustwo. com). This bettor – a known winner – made over 400 bets in 2007, and took the time to break those bets down in comparison to the closing line. Nearly 13% of the time his bets were worse than the closing line, and for those bets his ROI was almost -30%. And this is a known winning bettor! 46% of the time, his bets were better than the closing line. His ROI for those bets where he beat the closing line: +26%.

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