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Ranking the Top 8 Summer Sports Leagues

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I used to cover American football exclusively, which is not to say that I didn’t watch and read about other sports genres as much as I could. But it got a little annoying in May and June and July when that “Boys of Summer” MLB ad ran on ESPN a few too many times. “When will it ever circle back around to my sport,” I would often think.

I wonder if specialty handicappers are all like that. There’s probably some guy out there who is 65% against the spread in FIFA tournaments but could care less about the Premier League. He rolls his eyes as fans and speculators shout, cry, and go bananas over club matches throughout winter and spring. Then in May, the FIFA U20 tournament and the Women’s World Cup roll up on the calendar. Everyone else in Vegas is burned out, or at least burned out on soccer. Our guy is just getting started.

Summer sports betting – at least for those who like to occasionally gamble on something other than Major League Baseball – can make even a year-round PPV subscriber feel like a niche fan.

Handicapping the NBA, NHL or NFL is a head-start vocation for most bettors from America; we grew up with the rulebook and already know most of the top talent before clicking on a tip sheet. Australian Rules Football, on the other hand? Those from the Northern Hemisphere struggle to understand all of the punting and the dribbling…and why wide kick-attempts still count for a point.

In any ranking of the best pro sports of summer, you’ve got to include hardball. I enjoy baseball gambling even though I know it’s a matter of taste. But what about choices for action-lovers who get jaded with 162 days of chewing and spitting?

Here my top 8 summer pro leagues – in descending order of course.

#8 – Professional Tennis (ATP and WTA)

I didn’t realize how addictive it could be to gamble on tennis until a recent Grand Slam. When the Australian Open happened to be streaming at the same time I happened to be awake working every night, it got to be fun to engage in live-betting on the matches while writing articles, stopping every so often to peer at a rally and cheer for my pick.

Why live-betting? Because gambling on tennis (if not covering tennis) is relatively new to me, I wanted to try to find an angle from which I could at least be sure to win most of the time, odds be damned. Just like a newbie who helps misprice the O/U line at the Super Bowl.

I recognized that while early rallies in the 1st set can go either way in a Men’s or Women’s match, by the 2nd or 3rd set you can usually tell that 1 player is looking quicker, more powerful, more accurate, and more up to the challenge. You don’t always get fabulous payoff odds on them. But they’re pretty sure winners – and if the gentleman or gentlelady you wager on does happen to falter they’ve usually got a nice lead on the board as a cushion.

Look for underdog live lines for opponents of aging players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer, especially in smaller Tour events in which they’re more likely to withdraw from a match if they feel the slightest twinge or tweak to a bone or muscle. I believe if a player quits during a match the moneyline outcome in Vegas is awarded to the opposing player, but I’ll double check on that prior to our next Grand Slam preview on the Tennis blog.

#7 – PGA Tour

Anyone who has read my links previews knows that I’m a golfer and a golf historian. So why rank the PGA Tour all the way down at 7?

Because the major championships are the only events at which handicappers know for sure that every golfer is giving his best effort. Ordinary PGA Tour events can be frustrating to speculate on because the winners are often players who need the wins most, not the best golfers in the field that week.

Bettors are learning the hard way that Tiger Woods’ recent results in Tour events are often a product of his long-term thinking. For instance, to consistently succeed at Pebble Beach you need to have a bag full of low shots and running iron approaches for when the Pacific Ocean turns nasty. But when Tiger has competed in the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, he has tended to play high draws and putt with great caution from under the hole, even as other players are making more birdies by attacking pins and “popping” their putts across patchy winter greens.

High draws, ball placement and smooth putting. I wonder what event those skills would come in handy for.

Tiger and other marquee golfers often win major tournaments because they prepared for them throughout the PGA Tour season. They often lose PGA Tour events because they’re preparing to win majors.

#6 – Chicago Pro Hockey League

There are unlikely to be a lot of markets at online betting sites for the Chicago Pro Hockey League. But it’s my sentimental favorite summer league, because it is integrating women into its rosters.

It’s a non-contact league, of course, but that rule isn’t simply there to “protect ladies” and greenhorns. The upstart pros of the Windy City brand would probably be happy to crash and bang, but NHLers play in the Chicago Pro Hockey League, and imagine the lawsuit if an NHL commodity was injured in a game.

Women’s hockey has its haters. There will always be the guy in a speakeasy calling Hilary Knight a “terrible” skater, claiming that his Beer League club could beat Team USA. His ignorance is matched by his hubris, since the USWNT practices against boys’ prep teams filled with pro prospects.

American team captain Kendall Coyne-Schofield – all of 5’2” and 125 pounds of her – skated in the CPHL last summer and scored 14 points.

Try asking a standard-issue hater to produce video of himself leading an undersized squad over Pope Francis Prep, or lining-up across from Alex DeBrincat and notching a goal and an assist.

#5 – UFC

There are professional wrestling fans who believe that the wild success of Mixed Martial-Arts promotions lies in the sport’s similarities to TV wrestling.

But on the other hand, it’s refreshing to watch athletes actually try to beat each other as opposed to merely demonstrating holds prior to a scripted finish.

There is also a profound element of fellowship and respect that comes out in MMA. Commentators like Joe Rogan pay the appropriate homages to UFC champions. But they also speak of the elite Octagon combatants as foremost among equals, not “better” than the hundreds of upstarts and youngsters honing their craft. Everyone is given respect and consideration for their skills. Nobody “sucks.”

It reminds me of Eddie Trunk and That Metal Show’s vibe of absolute appreciation for anyone who has ever picked up a guitar and recorded a song.

All valid reasons for the UFC fights to remain popular. But the promotion’s real genius is that Ultimate Fighting is a year-round product. The fact that weight classes like Women’s Bantamweight are spawning stars right along with Men’s Heavyweight means that events can be suitably spaced-out so that matches are always appealing and fans (and bookmakers) never get worn out.

#4 – Major League Soccer

I wanted to begin #4 by saying, “even with the ABC league and the XYZ league closing down shop for a couple of months in Europe, there is still a lot of great pro soccer out there in the summer.” Then I realized it would lead to a rather goofy run-on sentence. “Even with all of the major European leagues wrapping things up in May, like the Premier League and Ligue One and the Dutch league and the Russian league and the Spanish l…”

It all comes to a grinding halt late every spring, even though soccer never really stops in Europe, or anywhere. If club soccer is your bag and friendly summer matches are a drag, then where to go for action that doesn’t suck like a Warrant record?

Major League Soccer is clearly not an organization of elite footballers. The best MLS squads have a very hard time beating Mexican clubs which have had their best talent taken away overseas. But what does the league have going for it? The timing.

American soccer fans can’t turn to the AM kickoffs of the Premier League in July, and bettors looking for action at soccer betting sites have few other prime-time options. MLS stands for Monopoly League Strikes!

Jokes aside, just because a club league isn’t full of the world’s best players doesn’t mean that some of the MLS footballers aren’t outstanding, and it certainly doesn’t disqualify fans and bettors alike from enjoying the matches.

If level-of-skill were the only litmus test for whether a sporting event mattered, then the Miami Dolphins would be more popular than the Texas Longhorns.

Nixon and the Texans 1969

#3 – Non-NBA Basketball Leagues

Just a couple of caveats on this one – I do not know very much about European or South American or African or Australian pro basketball, outside of being a fan and handicapper of the FIBA World Cup and the Men’s and Women’s Basketball competitions at the Olympic Games.

In other words, my understanding of overseas pro hoops is probably much the same as yours is – somewhat different styles of play from what we’re accustomed to seeing, “tweener” players who never caught the eye of NBA scouts, and a whole lot of nickel-and-dime gate receipts. Who knows who the players are? The state-side media certainly doesn’t report much on them.

However, I’d feel funny not putting the “alternative” pro cagers of the world on this list, given what happened at the 2019 Ice Hockey World Championship. Team Finland became the 1st team of the modern era – excluding a “technicality” from an NHL lockout over a dozen years ago – to win the Worlds with 0 – repeat 0 – active NHLers on the roster.

Finland beat a “JV” team from Canada in the gold medal game. That means the Canucks “only” had NHL 20-goal scorers on the 3rd forward line (cough). But in the semifinal against Russia, a batch of “minor” league hockey pros from Europe and the American Hockey League represented Suomi against a PlayStation roster that included names like Kucherov, Ovechkin, Malkin, and Dadonov, not to mention Andrei Vasilevsky in goal. Finland stifled the Russians with defense and won 1-0.

The moral of that story? No, I don’t think a team with no NBA players can show up to the FIBA World Cup and prevail with gold. But it also might not take a complete squad of 12 Association ballers to do it, which means that a LeBron-less Team USA is not guaranteed to take the podium.

That makes it a little more intriguing to follow the Euro leagues. Besides, if you like basketball, don’t enjoy Virtual Sports betting, and log onto a betting site looking for action at 6 AM in July, the odds on overseas hoops are the only girl in town.

#2 – College Football

I cover local pigskin in Missouri, and great golly Mark Twain, does it ever start early in the year. Prep football is largely a late-summer sport in some parts of the Heartland. (Alaska football starts in July, and quite reasonably, because at some point the Sun is going to go down and stay down for a very long time, but that’s the only parallel I can think of off-hand.)

There’s a mad dash in the schedule to A) include every Missouri team in the playoffs and B) finish by Thanksgiving anyway, winding-up the season with the Show-Me Bowl at Faurot Field and in St. Louis with the Turkey Day Game. The adherence to these “great” traditions not only forces teenagers to practice intricate plays in the brutal summer heat, but makes for sloppy football and lightning storms leading to confusion and cancellations.

NFL football wisely avoids that sort of nightmare, relegating the summer to training camp and meaningless exhibition games.

Handicapping the NFL preseason is a pastime for football junkies – everyone else can follow their favorite rookies and spend a month praying for the well-being of various hamstrings. The smartest coaches, like Tony Dungy, simply phone-in the preseason effort and are content to lose 40-3 with no injuries on the field.

So when the real game gets going, it starts out warm. And then it gets cold – often very cold – later on. But the players endure, and the fans annually realize that the payoff was worth the wait.

Ah, yes, and that brings us to NCAA football. That upstart brand that the NFL threatened to make into a 2nd-class citizen until – you guessed it – the internet age created new ways for student-athletes and teams to brand themselves.

Draftniks know about the 40-yard-dash time of the Cleveland Browns’ 6th-round pick – casual football fans know to flip on ESPN2 late on Friday nights. Look, it’s the Boise Blue!

The rivalry between Clemson and Alabama is taking the sport to new heights. College football is doing everything right…except that it begins in the middle of stupid August now with Week Zero.

Bleh. Everyone marvels at the hi-tech offenses of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State – I just imagine how bad Sun Belt football smells on the field and in the dressing room in August.

College football is on our list of summer gambling sports because it’s a summer sport now, which it shouldn’t be. It’s fun to bet on the NCAA any time, but it’d be good for the game if we were made to wait until September.

#1 – Major League Baseball

It’s strange. I always knocked gambling on baseball as a waste of time. Then I tried it, enjoyed it, and even won a few times.

Baseball and gambling have been woven together for centuries no matter what the stuffed shirts of MLB have to say about it. Pete Rose was wrong for gambling on and against his own team, but that’s another can of fish.

Back in the day, baseball served as a lynchpin for speculators in the stands. It took up hours, days, weeks, years of people’s lives. Purists complain that modern media has reduced everything to highlight reels and obscured the art form of play on the diamond. I say that the internet could help Major League Baseball enjoy a renaissance.

Gambling is a pleasure when you can follow along without stressing-out. I find that being logged into the internet, talking to pals, working, eating, cooking, cleaning, and all sorts of other productive activities can take place while streaming and betting on a ballgame. There’s rarely a threat of either team scoring unless men are on base and/or a power hitter is at the plate, and a solid play-by-play announcer can give you a “radio” experience to follow along with even when you’re not watching.

The ambience of a ballgame also clues-in the distracted gambler to pay attention. The crack! of a base hit and the roar (or groan) of a home crowd signifies that something is happening, and that 2nd helping of meatballs is going to have to wait on the griddle for a few minutes.

Heck, I’ve written stories, gone shopping, even flown cross-country while happily following my baseball bets on hand-held devices, and ignoring all of the boring parts of a ballgame. What kind of gainful activity were those big-time sharks in top hats having in the Roaring 20s, sitting in the stands all day? Counting sunflower seeds? Measuring lead-offs from 2nd base? Making money?

Well, 1 out of 3 weren’t bad.