Taking A Gamble: Betting on Harvard Men's Basketball

Dennis A. Sun

When most people think of the Ivy League, they entertain thoughts of SAT prep classes and impossibly low admissions rates. Others may think of the Ivy League’s impressive list of alumni.

But for a small group of gamblers in Las Vegas, the Ivy League offers a chance to make a few bucks on Friday night during the college basketball season since the Ivy League is one of the only basketball conferences in the NCAA that plays on that day.

The Ancient Eight has retained this format since its inception in 1956 so that students miss as little class time as possible.

Many schools play basketball on Thursday nights, and an even greater number play on Saturdays. These are the nights when the 30 plus sports books in the most populous city in Nevada—where gambling on sports is legal, unlike in most states—receive the most bets. The teams that attract this large gambling traffic usually have Friday nights off, which leaves the three or four Ivy League games as the only college sports options for bettors.

Still, the Ivy League does not receive much attention in Las Vegas. One explanation is the increasing number of NBA games on Friday nights. But for the most part, the general public is simply uninterested in what transpires in Ancient Eight basketball, says to Jay Kornegay, the vice president of race and sports book operations at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino Superbook.

As a result, only a small group of gamblers test their luck on the lines for Ancient Eight basketball.

“I don’t think a casual bettor is coming in to bet on a Harvard game,” says Sean Van Patten, oddsmaker at the Las Vegas Sports Consultants. “It’s probably more professionals: wiseguy-type action rather than Joe Schmoes. The same guy betting on the Heat vs. Knicks isn’t going to bet on a Harvard basketball game.”

“The casual sports watcher betting on $10 parlays probably isn’t going to have Harvard and Princeton on their ticket,” he adds.

It is unclear just how much money these “wise guys” are placing on Ivy League hoops. Kornegay estimates that it could be anywhere from $500 to $5,000, depending on the sports book, though the average is somewhere around $1,000.

Some sports books limit the money that can be placed on these games because of the lack of public money to balance the bet.

The professionals that Van Patten alludes to, unlike many gamblers in Las Vegas, do not place their bets on a whimsical hunch. Instead, they do detailed research to increase their chances of winning. Since Ivy League basketball is not as well publicized as other conferences, these bettors scour the net for information. Some go as far as reading college newspapers like The Crimson, according to a 2009 New York Times article.

“There is so much information on the web; you can look up anything,” Kornegay says. “Whether it’s Kentucky or Harvard, that’s where [the information is], and those guys will do their homework.”

“The average Joes…form their opinion based on [a team’s] national ranking or whether they saw it on TV or saw it in some sort of national coverage,” Kornegay adds. “A sharper player is going to dig a little deeper. They might look at who the team is playing, possible matchups, look at their front line, if they had two days rest, if their starters are 100 percent.  That’s the type of homework they do, and that homework is on the web.”

As Harvard basketball has found success in recent years, information on the once lowly program has become far more accessible. And with the team’s—and the league’s—rise, the perception of both is changing. That, in turn, is affecting bettors’ interest in the conference.

“The more coverage you get, whether it’s on ESPN or the web or major TV networks, is always going to [be reflected] at the betting windows,” Korengay explains. “It all depends on getting recognition nationally. The more you get, the more bets are going to be on those teams. Whether it’s Harvard or another team, the more successful teams in the Ivy League, the better.”

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