Bankroll management isn’t the sexiest sports betting topic, but it’s one of the most important for successful sports bettors.
The margins in sports betting are extremely thin. The break-even point is 52.38% after accounting for the standard -110 vig, and winning more than 60% of your sports bets is pretty much unheard of. That means the difference between winning and losing is just a few percentage points in each direction.
With that in mind, properly managing your bankroll is arguably the most important skill outside of actually handicapping games.
What is bankroll management?
Your bankroll in sports betting is different from your bankroll in the real world. In real life, money is typically your reward for performing your job. You use that money to pay for goods and services, and then at the end of your pay period, you’re rewarded with more money. It’s a cyclical process.
In sports betting, your ability to generate more money is only made possible by using your current money. If you’re too aggressive and your bankroll dwindles, you’re not going to be able to generate any additional income without reloading your account. Therefore, it’s on you to protect your bankroll and look to grow it in a responsible manner. That’s bankroll management in a nutshell.
You need to look at beating the sportsbooks as a long-term process. Given the slim margins, short term variance can put a dent in your bankroll if you’re too aggressive. It is only over a long period of time that the cream is certain to rise to the top.
How much should you wager on each game?
In a perfect world, we would all have monster bankrolls enabling us to comfortably wager around 1% on each bet.
But of course, this approach isn’t the most practical for bettors who are just starting out.
If you start with a bankroll of $1,000 — which is not an insignificant amount of money — 1% works out to just $10 per wager. That’s not exactly the most enticing way to start a hobby.
Being more aggressive with a smaller bankroll is fine, but I wouldn’t recommend moving your wager size above 5% of your total bankroll. Anything more than that is simply too risky.
A good medium is probably around 2.5%.
Whether you decide to go with 1%, 5%, or somewhere in between, that amount would be considered your standard “unit” size.
Units are used in the sports betting world because it makes it easier to compare your results to other bettors. After all, if one player has a $10,000 bankroll and another player has a $500 bankroll, it wouldn’t be fair to compare which bettor has made more money wagering on the NFL. The player with the larger bankroll could have a far worse record but still be up more money through sheer volume.
Setting a unit size allows you to determine how much you are up relative to your standard wager. If you’re someone with a unit size of $100 and you’re up $500, that would mean that you’re up five units. It also allows you to extrapolate how much money you could potentially make as your unit size increases. Unit size is often displayed as 1u.
Bankroll management strategies
It should go without saying that you don’t necessarily have to bet the same amount on each game. There are a variety of different strategies that can be incorporated into your sports betting profile.
Flat betting model
This is the simplest bankroll management strategy and the safest over the long run. The only thing it entails is setting your unit size and then betting exactly one unit for each and every wager. Your recent betting form, your confidence level, and the odds do not matter.
The only thing you’ll need to consider is if you want to go with the “to win” method or “risk” method. If you’re going with the “to win” method, you’ll need to take the juice into account in order to win one unit. That means on a wager with standard -110 odds, you’ll need to risk 1.1 units to try to win 1.0.
If you’re going with the “risk” method, you don’t wager the additional units necessary to cover the vig. That means on a -110 bet, you would be risking 1.0 units to potentially return 0.91.
The same goes for betting on moneyline underdogs. You can either risk a flat 1.0 unit or just enough to win 1.0 unit. For example, if you’re looking to bet on a +250 underdog, you can either risk 1.0 unit to try and win 2.5 units or .4 units to try and win 1.0.
I personally like to go with the “to win” method on spread bets and the “risk” method on moneyline underdogs, but ultimately it comes down to whatever makes you most comfortable.
The biggest upside to this method is that it will preserve your bankroll while still ensuring profitability if you’re picking winners at a greater rate than the break-even point.
One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll need to periodically review your bankroll using this method. If you are up or down a solid handful of units, you should consider increasing or decreasing your unit size to reflect your updated bankroll.
The percentage model is similar to the flat betting model. The only real difference is that instead of setting a unit size in advance, your unit size is going to be determined by your bankroll. The numbers should be very similar in the beginning, but your unit size is going to move a lot faster than in the flat model.
For example, Let’s look at a hypothetical $1,000 starting bankroll. If you want your standard unit to be 2.5%, your first wager is going to be $25 in both the flat bet and percentage models. After that is where things start to change. If you win your first bet, your bankroll will increase to $1,025. That means 2.5% will now be $25.63 for your next wager.
The big pro to this sports betting strategy is that it allows you to take advantage of your winning streaks. You’re increasing your bet in a responsible manner after each successful wager, which allows you to post a greater return on investment during your upswings.
The downside is that it can be harder to dig yourself out of a hole. If your bankroll dips below your initial starting point, your wager size is going to decrease. Overall, this makes the timing of your win streaks more important than in the fixed-unit model. That extra variance makes this a slightly higher risk strategy overall.
The confidence model allows for you to increase your bet size in games where you feel more confident. Your standard wager should still be 1.0 unit, but you can increase your bet size to two or three units on occasion. Increasing your unit size any higher than that is not recommended until you have demonstrated an ability to win your most confident bets consistently.
It’s best to take this model for a test drive before you fully commit to it. Luckily, that’s pretty easy to accomplish. When you’re tracking your bets in a spreadsheet — which is something you should be doing regardless of your betting model — start tracking how confident you feel on each wager using a scale of 1-3. Even if you are betting the same unit size for each wager to begin with, you can see your record for each wager size. If your most confident plays have a significantly better record than your less confident plays, increasing your wager size in those situations makes a lot of sense.
The confidence model also allows you to sprinkle a half-unit on certain bets from time to time. This is best used on higher upside wagers like parlays and moneyline underdogs.
Kelly criterion model
The Kelly criterion model takes the confidence model and puts it on steroids. Instead of assigning a confidence level to each pick, you try to determine your exact winning percentage for each wager. You would then plug that number into the following formula to determine exactly what percentage of your bankroll you should put in play:
(Decimal odds of your wager * win probability – loss probability) / decimal odds of your wager = suggested wager percentage
This formula looks a little daunting on the surface, but it’s not as tough as it seems.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example. If you feel that you have a 55% chance of winning a standard -110 wager, the formula would look something like this:
That means the Kelly criterion model is suggesting a wager of 5.5% of your bankroll.
Any time your confidence increases or the moneyline odds of your bet increase, the amount suggested by the model will also increase.
These numbers can often be really aggressive. Let’s say you feel like a +200 underdog has a 50% chance of winning. The resulting formula would look like this:
That’s right, the Kelly criterion model is suggesting a ridiculous 25% of your bankroll is the optimal wager in that scenario.
With that in mind, it’s very important that you are super precise with your expected winning percentages. Any errors in that department will result in a large amount of your bankroll going down the tubes.
This method is not to be attempted until you’ve done extensive research on your ability to correctly gauge winning percentages and, even then, you might be better off using a modified version of the formula. Many professional sports bettors use a half or quarter Kelly criterion model, where you would use half or a quarter of the suggested bankroll wager. That is still going to give you more upside than the traditional flat betting or percentage betting models, but it mitigates some of the downside.
Tracking your results
Tracking your results is extremely important regardless of which bankroll management system you ultimately decide to employ. Knowledge is power, and tracking your results is going to give you the knowledge you need to audit your performance.
Are there certain sports you’re crushing and others that are killing your bankroll? Are your confidence levels in line with your results? Are you better at spread bets, moneyline bets, or over/unders? All of this data can be easily ascertained by tracking your results.
You can easily create a spreadsheet to track this data or use an app!
Importance of bankroll management
So why go through all this trouble? In addition to the obvious reason that you can’t bet on sports if you lose all your money, there are some important psychological factors to consider.
Dealing with streaks
Dealing with losing streaks is extremely tough for even the most seasoned sports bettor. Even if you’ve found success in the past, it’s difficult to stay disciplined when the losses start to pile up. It’s human nature to try to “chase your losses”, which is why the betting handle for Sunday and Monday night football is often significantly higher than the betting handles for the Sunday afternoon games. If people have lost during the day, they want to get out of that hole as quickly as possible.
This is the definition of a bad process and is a good way to blow through your entire bankroll. Employing sound bankroll management is the easiest way to ensure you aren’t chasing your losses and you can live to fight another day.
The same is true when you’re on a winning streak. You can feel invincible in those situations, which can lead to poor decision making. You are certainly allowed to increase your bet amount when you’re on a roll, just make sure you’re doing it in a responsible manner.
This is a very serious topic that deserves your full attention. If you feel that you have a gambling problem, there are plenty of resources to consult.
If you’re just dipping your toe into the sports betting waters, proper bankroll management can help to ensure that it stays a hobby. You can get into a lot of trouble if your sports betting gets out of hand so, if you are unable to stick to your set limits, you’re better off quitting before you get in too deep.
Bankroll management is one of the most important aspects of being a successful sports bettor. It ensures that you are protecting your bankroll over the long term, which is where winning sports bettors will ultimately see profits. Setting a proper unit size is the first step toward good bankroll management, but there are certain betting methods that will allow you to increase your wager size depending on your confidence level. Finally, make sure to track your results so that you can identify which areas you excel at and where you need to improve.
If you can do all of that successfully — as well as accurately handicap games — your bankroll should steadily increase over time.