When it comes to betting variables, this is the strangest season in WNBA history. An early wave of injuries, as well as international commitments like the 3×3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, have forced every team to deal with an extended absence from a key player or two. The inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season tournament with a $500,000 prize pool, has made it hard for teams to take nights off in what is already a hypercompetitive league. And while we’re more than a quarter of the way through the regular season, 10 out of the league’s 12 teams are still within four games of first place.
One more big wrinkle: The WNBA is taking a full pause from July 12 to Aug. 11 for the Tokyo Olympics. For role players and teams without extended Olympic commitments, it’s a welcome time off to heal and practice. But for contenders with multiple stars like the Seattle Storm or Las Vegas Aces, it’s another month of the wear and tear of intense basketball.
Stateside, the U.S. National Team didn’t announce its final roster before the start of the WNBA season for the first time since 2008. Cut down decisions for the 12-player active roster aren’t due until June 23. Will injured stars like Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi or Washington’s Elena Delle Donne be able to play in Tokyo, or will a younger crop of players take those minutes?
Add on to this: Briann January (ankle), Jocelyn Willoughby (torn Achilles) and now Jasmine Walker (ACL) https://t.co/tFrP1X70Ok
— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) May 26, 2021
All of these individual factors make for roster chaos and abnormalities in scores, points and totals. Some nights this season, Vegas casinos and national sportsbooks have been slow to adjust to these variables. For WNBA fans hoping to get into sports betting, or fans of betting hoping to get into the WNBA, that means opportunities — if you know where to look.
Spreads vs. moneyline
The most classic bet in sports is the moneyline. You’re just here to pick a winner. If you think the Seattle Storm are going to walk over the stumbling Atlanta Dream, you can take them to do so. The more off-balanced a matchup is, though, the more expensive it is to take the favorite. In this case, the Storm were a hefty -375 favorite to beat the Dream on BetMGM, meaning you’d need to bet $375 to win $100. In practice, that’s an almost prohibitive favorite, as a $20 bet lands a payout of just $5.33. So a moneyline bet makes more sense in even matchups.
One way to bet on a predicted outcome without placing high wagers for low payouts is by taking the spread. Depending on who is favored and by how much, sportsbooks either add or subtract points from a team’s final total to make the matchup more even. For this game, the Storm were a substantial favorite at -8.5, meaning they would need to win by 9 or more points to cover the spread. If that was too hefty, the Dream getting +8.5 points could have been appealing. A wager on the Dream with the points meant Atlanta could cover even if they lost, just so long as it was not by nine or more points. They ended up losing by a lot more than that, the Storm won 95-71, so Seattle covered.
As new Athletic contributor James Holzhauer writes in his debut column, casinos are trying to keep the spread close to where they think the “correct” number is going to land. Public sentiment is not always enough to shift the lines one way or another. This is not a huge concern for WNBA betters anyway, as regular season odds are often not released until the morning of the game. This means lines generally don’t shift more than a point from posting until tip. In sports with fewer games and higher wagering volume, spreads can shit dramatically, but they stay relatively consistent here.
To me, the only time a moneyline bet make sense in the WNBA is when they’re used in a parlay. In the WNBA, the parlay allows you to bundle two bets from two separate games for better odds. You could also theoretically parlay player props, which are wagers on individual performances, but major casinos don’t yet offer those for the W. This is the kind of bet that makes sense if you like the Storm to win, but don’t want to risk the points.
On a night with four or five W games going, combining a couple favorites in the -200 or -300 region to place a parlay at near-even odds is not a bad play. Particularly if you can get any contending team playing against the last-place Indiana Fever (1-10), as that one leg of the parlay will win frequently.
However — parlays can also be an easy trap. Sports are weird and sure things are not always sure things. Don’t assume enticing odds means a guaranteed parlay and be prepared to lose it all if one favorite doesn’t play well.
If you’re not sold on what the outcome will be, but have some insight into a team’s style of play, wagering on point totals is a fun way to watch a game. The oddsmakers set a line for the total number of points both teams will score, letting you root for either buckets or bricks on both sides.
These totals have been all over the place in the WNBA this season. Most nights, the total line is in the 160s, and in powerhouse games that will climb into the low 180s, but there seems to be little rhyme or reason for the totals in the middle of that range. That means a little research on team totals can go a long way. Start with an easy indicator of fatigue, like the schedule. Teams with busy schedules tend to fade at the end of a long road trip, especially when injuries and the short benches of WNBA teams are involved.
Then look at injury and absence reports. While the 3-point revolution definitely hit a few years ago, you still need a dominant big to hold down a defense in the WNBA. If a veteran center misses a few games and a young backup is suddenly anchoring a unit, that is a good time to take the over. The Liberty, who traded a haul for former DPOY Natasha Howard in the offseason, know this all too well. Howard has played in just two games this season and New York, starting 23-year-old center Kylee Shook, has not held a team under 80 points since mid-May. Related: the Liberty have been playing in a lot of games where the over hits.
Individual team totals
The last area of opportunity for WNBA betting is to take game totals out of the equation and just bet on how many points one team will score. So far in this wacky season, individual team totals have been the biggest wild card. There have been several stretches this year where nightly team totals haven’t seemed to factor in missing players. Notably, this happened when the Chicago Sky lost both Candace Parker (injury) and center Stefanie Dolson (3×3 qualifying tournament) yet were still getting totals set in the high 80s. The instinct can be to bet more frequently on overs, as points are fun, but there have been a lot of opportunities with unders this season.
So far, Connecticut has been a goldmine for under bets. Walking double-double Jonquel Jones and the rest of the Sun are tied with the Storm for the best record in the league. The team is downright scary defensively, as the Sun have held opponents under 70 points in more than half of their games this season. But Connecticut is now going to be without Jones for the rest of June as she competes for Bosnia and Herzegovina at the FIBA European women’s basketball championship. Might the Sun’s defense suffer a bit in her absence? It could be a good time to take the over on Connecticut’s opponents before Vegas has to adjust.
One more oddity of this COVID-affected season that could affect team totals is the rise of doubleheaders against repeat opponents. The Fever played in a combined four doubleheaders from 2016-2020. This year? They’re playing eight. Not great news for a team with the worst defensive rating in the league that permits a league-high 90 points per game. As the season goes along, taking the over on the second night of a doubleheader against whoever is playing the Fever could be a wise course of action.
How to be a winning WNBA bettor
There is a reason it’s not called sports investing — sports betting is hard. Sometimes every trend and stat in the world can point to a certain outcome, only for that prediction to whiff miserably. The Sky have been favored in every game they’ve played against the Los Angeles Sparks this season, but have lost all three of those games, the last two by a combined eight points.
Sometimes individual teams are hard to predict, throwing the whole operation out of whack. The Washington Mystics and MVP candidate Tina Charles have been a huge surprise this season, but are in the middle of the pack offensively, making their point totals almost impossible to predict correctly on a nightly basis.
But that is also the fun of betting on the WNBA. There isn’t one variable to figure out, one code to crack. It’s a season full of oddities, or for gamblers, a season full of opportunities.