Sports Betting Bankroll Management

bankroll

Here’s a hard truth about sports betting – you’re going to lose.

A lot.

Bets at standard -110 odds mean you need to win 52.39% of games in order to make money (52.38% is break even). If you’re winning 55% of the time, you’re pretty much a sharp – win 60% or more of your bets, and you’ll probably get scouted by Warren Buffet.

Even if you’re winning enough to make money, you’ll still encounter losing streaks. Remember, it’s not always “you win one you lose one” – sometimes you win one, and you lose ten.

Bankroll management might be the most important thing you learn in sports betting. If you want to be a serious sports bettor, you need to manage your bankroll properly – there are no two ways about it.

Think about it like this: even if you had an 80% win rate, if you bet your whole bankroll every time, you’ll lose all your money in approximately 5 games. Everyone needs bankroll management: we’re going to show you how to do it.

One last thing before we get started: bankroll management is as important for beginners as it is for seasoned pros. If you want to make the most out of your sports betting, even on a casual basis, study this article:

How to start managing your bankroll

Your bankroll is the total sum of money that you’ve dedicated to sports betting. Your bankroll should be separate from your regular earnings from, say, your 9 to 5 job. You should also keep your sports betting bankroll separate from other gambling bankrolls you have – at least in the beginning. This will allow you to better track your win rates in each type of betting you engage in.

Determining the size of your bankroll

We can’t tell you exactly what to do here – no two people have the same financial situation, tolerance of risk, or knowledge of sports betting. The real question you should ask yourself is this:

How much am I willing to lose?

It’s that simple. When you create your bankroll, you have to be okay with losing literally all of it. Assume you will lose every single bet you place, and that your bankroll is already gone. Assume that you will not make a profit, you will not make your money back, that what you set as your bankroll is lost money.

Why? Because it might be. We are gambling, and bad breaks happen. Even the sharpest bettors hit losing streaks and lose huge chunks of money.

If you’re gambling with money that you can’t afford to lose, you’re making a mistake.

Be mentally prepared to lose everything in your bankroll. Doing so will allow you to play with your head instead of your heart. That’s the smart way to play.

Use data tracking software

You’re going to need to track a lot of data to properly manage your bankroll. You’ll need to be able to know, at a glance, what games you bet on, what dates you bet on them, the lines that you took (including the odds), what type of bet it was (Totals? Point Spread?), what league the game was in, what you estimated your edge was, whether or not it was raining, and a whole lot more.

That might seem like a lot to just track your bankroll. It is, and casual bettors can do without all that data. People who are trying to earn income off of betting, however, need all of the data they can get. Eventually, your win rate on different types of bets is going to play into your betting strategy – and your betting strategy will be a reflection of your bankroll.

All of the data ties in together to tell you exactly how much of your bankroll you should place on any given bet.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Let’s take a look at the basics:

The basics

At the very least, you’re going to want a spreadsheet that tracks:

  • The date of the game
  • Who you bet for and against (or who was playing)
  • The line (odds, type of bet)
  • How much you wagered (in cash or units – we’ll discuss those in the next section)
  • How much you won (in cash or units)

A lot of bettors find it useful to keep several spreadsheets in one “Sports Betting” meta spreadsheet – one sheet for each different league. They can be further sorted into years, regular season or postseason, and other categories.

Pre-mades 

If this all seems kind of intimidating to you, don’t worry – there are pre-made bankroll management spreadsheets you can use or model yours after. We’ve linked a handy one from Australia Sports Betting to get you started. 

Apps

While there are 3rd party apps that can help you manage your bankroll, we’d generally recommend sticking with spreadsheets. They’re infinitely customizable, and there’s no risk of the app being pulled and you losing all of your hard work. Even if you don’t have Excel, you can use Google Sheets for free – they’re not liable to go under any time soon.

Bankroll management basics

Bankroll management systems are incredibly varied, and we’ll touch on a few of them in the next section. To understand those, however, you need to understand a term that’s at the core of any bankroll management system: the unit.

Understanding units

Some people have a $100 bankroll – others have $100,000. To simply compare winnings isn’t reasonable, and comparing to other bettors is essential if you want to know if you have a good win rate.

To that end, bettors, almost universally, use what are known as “units”. A unit is, quite simply, some percentage of your bankroll.

Generally, units fall somewhere between 1%-5% of a player’s bankroll, with 1% being the more conservative play and 5% being the riskier play. Betting any more than that per unit is liable to bankrupt your bankroll in short order.

What you choose as your unit has a lot to do with risk tolerance, and some bettors prefer to simply use cash amounts. Generally, a unit is described as “xu” – so 1 unit is 1u, while 5 is 5u.

Keeping your winnings

There are many different ways to determine when you should cash out. Some people cash out a portion of every successful bet – say, putting 20% of their profit in their pocket and putting 80% back into their bankroll. (A 50/50 split is more common among casual bettors).

Other people cash out their profits at the end of each year to keep a consistent bankroll. Some people account for inflation. There are almost infinite ways to determine how much of your profit you want to pocket.

As a rule of thumb, the more serious you are about betting, the less you want to pocket. The bigger your bankroll is, the more options you have when it comes to betting and bankroll management, and in gambling, every edge you can take is worth it. 

Guess your edge on every line

You want to know how much to bet on any given line, and you want to know how accurate you are at assigning confidence to a particular team. That means that before you bet, you should guess your edge.

In plain English, let’s say you’re betting on the NBA – Pelicans vs. Bulls. The total is 230 – you feel there’s about a 60% chance of the game going over the total. Mark down that level of confidence before you place your bet. 

If, at the end of the year (or some other arbitrary period of time) you find that you were right ~60% of the time on your 60% bets, you’ll know you’re pretty accurate. If you’re only right ~30% of the time, on the other hand, you’ll realize you might not be as accurate as you though. (It’s okay – we’ve got expert picks for you). 

By recording what you think your chances are on every bet you make, you’ll gather a lot of data you’ll later be able to use to influence how much you will bet in the future.

Using a handicapping service? Track their win rate on your spreadsheet, too – that will help you determine whether or not the service is worth the money.

Track everything you can

Sports betting is a game that’s perhaps best-suited to sports fanatics who love number crunching. The more data you collect, the more you’ll be able to adjust your strategy. You might, for example, find that you have about a 60% win rate on most of your 60% confidence MLB lines –  but that the number drops when inclement weather hits. You’d then be able to adjust your confidence for rainy games, knowing that those games tend to be harder to guess.

You can get really granular with your data if you track a lot and have it properly sorted. Obviously not everyone has a degree in data management, so track everything you can without it becoming tedious for you.

Bankroll management strategies

There are several different ways to manage your bankroll, but they all, more or less, try to answer one question: how much of your bankroll should you bet on any given game?

Let’s go over 5 of the most popular bankroll management strategies:

Flat betting

The joy of flat betting is its simplicity. You simply determine your unit (as discussed above) and bet one unit on any line you pick.

This is an incredibly simple system that’s highly recommended for beginners. It’s conservative (if your unit is), it’s easy to track, and it can grow your bankroll.

The disadvantage is that it’s actually less effective at growing your bankroll than the more complicated systems we’re going to go over. Those systems, however, are better for when you’ve got a lot of data accumulated.

Percentage

At first, the percentage model seems like it makes a lot of sense. Instead of your unit being a fixed number determined by your starting bankroll, it changes as your bankroll does.

In other words, in this system your unit is a percentage of your total (not your starting) bankroll.

That means that when you’re on a winning streak, you can start to snowball. If your unit is 1%, and your bankroll is $1000, you’d start by placing $10 wagers. Once you’re up $100, you’re placing $11 wagers, which bring in more money than the $10 wagers, and soon you’re up $500. Now you’re placing $15 bets – you get the idea.

Of course, the positive feedback loop of the percentage model turns sour when you start losing – when you’re down to $500, you’re only betting $5, and it’s going to take you awhile to get back up to your initial $1000. This model introduces some variance and complexity without really boosting your edge, so we’d generally recommend sticking with flat betting if you’re deciding between the two.

Expected returns

This model is similar to the flat betting model, except that instead of betting one unit each time, you bet to win one unit each time. In other words, if your unit is $10, and you’re betting at -110, you’d bet $11, so that you win $10 (1u) on a successful bet. Conversely, if you bet on a +200 line, you’d wager $5, so that you win $10 (1u) on a successful bet.

This strategy, when compared to flat betting, increases your winnings on favorites, and decreases your winnings on underdogs. Not our favorite – if you’re betting on an underdog, it should be because you’re quite confident they’ll win, and hedging your bet like this adds unnecessary work without really improving your odds.

Confidence model

Now we’re getting into some of the more sophisticated models – using these can really improve your payouts, but they do require a lot more work.

The confidence model enables you to risk more money when you’re very confident you’ve made the right bet. Before getting into this model, start recording your confidence on a scale of 1-3, where 1 is fairly confident, 2 is quite confident, and 3 is extremely confident. If you find that your degree of confidence is pretty accurate (for example, you’re winning 80% of your games with 3 confidence), you can start adjusting your bets based on your confidence.

This model is user-friendly, but honestly? It’s nowhere near as accurate as the next model, which may be the gold standard of sports betting.

Kelly criterion

All of those estimated win rates we discussed at the very start of this article in “Data Tracking”? They’re about to come in handy:

The Kelly criterion is the best betting strategy if and only if your estimated win rates are highly accurate. The lower your accuracy, the less effective this method is – if you’re really inaccurate at guessing win rates, you should abandon this strategy altogether.

This thing is so good it’s sometimes called the “Scientific gambling method”. Mathematically, it’s about as close to “strictly better” than any other betting strategy as you can get – as long as your win rates are accurate.

Okay, you get it, we like the Kelly criterion, but what is it? Well, it’s a formula.

The formula

Taken straight from Wikipedia, the most accurate representation of the Kelly criterion is:

In plain English, please?

What we’re trying to figure out is f* – how much of your bankroll you should wager on a given line. To do this, we have to figure out b – fractional (not American) odds. For +100, it’s easy – the fractional odds are 1, because you stand to win as much as you bet. At -110 odds, the fractional odds are 10/11, or 0.90 repeating.

P is simple – it’s how likely you think you are to win. Q is simple to – it’s how likely you think you are to lose (1 – p = q).

So your Kelly criterion is equal to your probability of winning minus your probability of losing divided by the bet’s fractional odds.

Imagine you’re placing a bet at -110. You think you have a 55% chance of winning. Your Kelly criterion is then:

f* = .55 – .45/.9090(repeating). This gives us approximately 0.055. We multiply that number by 100 to get the percentage of our bankroll we should wager – 5.5%.

That’s a lot of our bankroll to put up, so conservative players will sometimes use what’s called a Kelly multiplier – a decimal number like .5 that allows them to reduce how much they bet. This actually makes the Kelly less effective, but it’s a good way to place more bets and still use math to better manage your bankroll.

We might have to do a whole piece on the Kelly, since we could keep on going forever. For now, know that you don’t have to do all this math yourself – you can just use a Kelly calculator to do it for you. 

Adjusting your bankroll management strategy

Now, we don’t recommend starting with the Kelly criterion – you don’t know enough about your win rate accuracy to use it. We also don’t suggest that you use the same bankroll strategy for your entire betting career. 

Start with flat betting 

Start off easy with flat betting – you can simulate what your payouts would be with Kelly or confidence, and you can track your expected win rates and confidence without actually betting on them. If you’re flat betting and you’re making the right picks, you can still make money.

Once you’ve got the data that you need, move to the Kelly criterion if your expected win rate and actual win rates are pretty similar.

Look at your bankroll periodically

When flat betting, look at your bankroll when a certain threshold has been met, or a period of time has passed. You might re-evaluate:

  • Weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.
  • After X number of bets
  • After X number of bets at a given win $
  • Once your bankroll has hit $X

Once you’ve hit one of these targets, you can consider readjusting your unit. This combines the adjustability of the percentage method with the simplicity of the flat betting method. Obviously, it’s not applicable when you’re Kelly betting, because the Kelly is always a percentage of your bankroll.

Looking at your bankroll periodically can also help you determine whether or not you should be pocketing more (or less) money as a percentage of your winnings.

Bankroll management and handicapping

If you find your win rate isn’t stellar, and your expected win rate and actual win rates are quite far from one another, you should definitely consider handicapping – getting someone with an established high/accurate win rate to make picks for you can seriously improve your odds.

And even if you plan on going it alone someday, Kyle Covers can help you by adding extraordinarily valuable data to your data sets. You can compare the picks Kyle makes to the picks you would make, and figure out the expected/actual win rate for each. Even experienced bettors who have a good win rate can benefit from seeing another sharp’s picks. So check out our Premium Picks – they’re useful for all types of bettors.

Bankroll management can seem like a chore to some, but honestly, it’s one of the most interesting and useful parts of sports betting. Master this, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a sharp. The best part? Even if you’re making small wagers, you can still gather big data and avoid busting out. 

And that’s what’s going to give you the edge.

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