March Madness is nearly upon us, and for the second year, the “March Madness” brand includes the women’s championship alongside the men’s. Women’s college basketball has grown massively in popularity over the past few years, with last year’s NCAA Women’s Tournament seeing an 81% increase in viewership from 2021.
With conference tournaments in full swing and parity at an all-time high, women’s college basketball fans are ready for the drama. Can South Carolina snag a repeat? How far can Caitlin Clark and her Iowa Hawkeyes go? Will we get any Cinderella stories this year?
But as fans look forward to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, many have also noticed something else: It’s harder to bet on these games than you’d expect. Odds for women’s college basketball are sparse.
“A lot of people think that since sports betting is legal, whatever you put up is going to garner a lot of action,” said Adam Pullen, assistant director of trading at Caesars. “It just doesn’t work that way. It takes time to build markets up. It can take years.”
We wanted to get a better understanding of why that market lag happens. What affects coverage of women’s college hoops, what are the next steps for sportsbooks to grow those markets, and what can sports bettors expect for odds on the upcoming tournament?
The Lack of Betting Options for Women’s College Basketball
Some sportsbooks don’t even offer odds on regular-season women’s college basketball games. Where they do, the markets often lack good coverage.
During any week of the regular season, books will have futures odds for the NCAA champion and spreads for the most popular games. You often won’t find moneyline bets, totals, or player props. Most games aren’t even listed.
“We do offer some regular-season game odds, but there is more interest from bettors in other leagues/sports,” said Jason Scott, VP of trading at BetMGM.
For men’s college basketball, you’ll find markets galore: futures odds for March Madness and conference winners, and dozens of bets for each regular-season game, including moneylines, spreads, totals, team props, parlays, quarter/halftime lines, and more.
Even during the tournament, sportsbooks may or may not include as many options for the women, such as in-game play and player props commonly seen for men’s hoops.
Can Sportsbooks Just Put up More Odds for Women’s College Hoops?
The answer gets complicated. Sportsbooks are businesses. If they can write good handle on a market, they’re going to put it on their betting boards. But for smaller markets that might not get much action, sportsbooks have to weigh the benefits against the risks.
“We have to use our assets wisely. Sports never take a day off. You don’t just want to put up something and not do the proper research it deserves,” Pullen said. “Even if you aren’t getting a handle on it, you still want to do the best you can with putting up solid numbers.”
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With limited resources, sportsbooks are more incentivized to focus on the markets that will do the most business.
“Making the odds on all this is easy,” said Johnny Avello, director of race and sportsbook operations at DraftKings. “But we have to pick and choose what we think is best to put our time and resources into.”
How Sharp Betting Can Affect NCAAW Markets
Another risk to sportsbooks? Sharp bettors.
“For every sport, there are people out there that know it inside out,” Pullen said. “We have to know, if we put something up, that it’s ready for the sharpest of the sharps or these knowledgeable customers to bet it. We can’t just say, ‘Let’s put this up and see what happens’ and not give it the work.”
Chris Bennett, the director of risk at Circa Sports, said women’s markets can be lopsided with sharps.
“I would like to see a growth in bets on the women’s tournament because the action you get is typically very sharp,” Bennett said. “Optimally, you would have a large number of people betting in the market. Then you can let the market dictate what the number should be, and it’s about various customers betting against each other, and we’re just an intermediary.”
In a smaller market with less public money, sharps are essentially betting against the books and making money off them. Of course, some sportsbooks will say they appreciate the work sharps do for them.
“Sometimes the sharp play helps you get your line where it should be,” said Avello. “They’re telling you something that you need to move. You’ll find sharp play in everything you do, not just women’s basketball.”
Increased Parity Should Help Betting Markets
Historically, parity has been a big issue for women’s college ball. Women’s hoops has been dominated by dynasties, with schools outside the top four falling hopelessly behind. In tournament history, only the top-six seeds have winning records. Nos. 14 and No. 15 seeds have yet to win a first-round game, and a No. 16 seed hasn’t won a game since Harvard in 1998.
But what makes men’s March Madness so popular is that smaller schools have a shot at busting brackets and making deep runs. The upsets, Cinderella stories, and underdogs generate the most interest and excitement.
Parity also has a massive influence on the kinds of odds bookmakers can list.
“Women’s basketball historically didn’t have the parity that men’s does, which makes it more difficult to have great betting opportunities,” said Avello. “There was a time when it was almost a foregone conclusion that the (UConn) Huskies would win. Even before the tournament started, we would have Huskies against the field. You couldn’t even put up individual teams.”
Since a gender equity report in Aug. 2021 blasted the NCAA for neglecting women’s basketball, we’ve seen changes. The NCAA has worked to increase equity for NCAAW coaches and players and parity between teams. The competition is getting tighter, the play better, and the compensation fairer.
Likewise, bookmakers have been able to post more odds markets, especially on the tournament.
What’s Necessary To Get More Betting Markets for Women’s College Basketball?
Every operator we talked to said women’s hoops just needs to keep growing. Television networks broadcasting games give markets a considerable boost. Fans bet more when games are live on TV.
“People like to watch what they bet and bet on what they watch,” Pullen said. “Anything that’s televised somewhere or available online, we want to put it up.”
Bennett said the next logical step is to have women’s college basketball up on odds screens like those from Don Best.
“One thing that would help get women’s college basketball on people’s radar is if the data and oddsmakers like Don Best put these games on their odd screens,” Bennett said. “Bookmakers and bettors use these screens to track the market and see what other numbers are moving at other sportsbooks. Women’s college basketball is not popular enough yet to be on those screens.”
Pullen and Avello say it’s not a matter of sportsbooks not wanting to put up markets.
“It’s just a matter of getting everyone excited about it,” said Pullen. “What South Carolina is doing is amazing. Seeing if they can repeat and go undefeated this year will get people talking. I think the publicity is out there, and again that should lead to more betting once the women’s tournament comes around.”
What To Expect for 2023 NCAA Women’s March Madness Odds
For the upcoming tournament, DraftKings, Caesars, BetMGM, and Circa Sports all say they plan to have updated futures markets and every game up, too. Caesars and DraftKings hope to have in-game play, depending on their resources on a given game day. DraftKings also plans to announce its first-ever tournament bracket game for the women’s side.
“As women’s basketball continues to grow, we will continue to grow with it,” said Avello.
“We expect interest from bettors, especially in later rounds when the best teams play each other,” said Scott at BetMGM.
Even the odds screens will change, thanks to the tournament’s popularity.
“Once you get to the NCAA Tournament, and you’ve got the bracket, then Don Best will put all of those games on their screen,” Bennett said. “Then you’ll see that most sportsbooks will have lines for every tournament game and a point spread, and most likely, many places will have totals.”
Because of the parity issue, moneylines may be less readily available early in the tournament.
Said Bennett, “As far as moneylines, there will be some of them, but the women’s games tend to be a little less competitive than the men’s, and you’ll have lots of first-round games where a team is a massive favorite, so you might not have the option to bet on them outright. For example, you’d have to bet them to win by 40 points.”
In the end, Pullen, Bennett, and Avello said that with growth comes more opportunity. New states are launching sports betting each year, and women’s college basketball is getting more coverage and action.
“Everything is growing across the board,” Pullen said. “More populous states coming on board should lead to an increase in everything.”
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