When you look at an event on a sportsbook, typically the spread will be the first option, the moneyline odds will be listed right in the middle, and the game total will be on the right. Plenty more options could be displayed by, for example, clicking the “+119 bets” on the right in the graphic below, but we’ll start by covering those three basic “single” bets.
The simplest bet to place in all of sports is a moneyline pick. All you do is select which team you think will win a given game. If you bet Team A to win on the moneyline, your wager will cash whether they beat Team B by 20 or squeak out a victory in overtime. Unlike spreads and game totals in the above graphic, only one number is listed for the moneyline; that number represents the odds for each team to win. The favorite is always the team with the lower number (remembering that negative numbers are lower than positive numbers).
For every major sport except soccer (which includes draws), the moneyline will only offer two options: (1) Team A to win and (2) Team B to win. Since there are no ties in the NFL, MLB, NBA, or NHL these days, your moneyline bets will always be settled; one team has to win the game. However, it can also be difficult to make a decent return when just betting the moneyline.
The biggest challenge with winning a reasonable return on the moneyline is that, often, there is a heavy favorite — particularly in sports like football and basketball — who is expected to (and goes onto) dominate. Take the Golden State Warriors, for instance, who have run roughshod over the NBA the past few years. It’s been common for them to be -2000 favorites (or shorter) on any given night. In such cases, your options are either to stake a lot of money to win very little, or hope for an upset that is far less likely to happen than the odds actually suggest. Betting the Warriors repeatedly will see your bankroll grow very slowly, in the best-case scenario. Betting their opponent will, most nights, see your bankroll shrink.
How do you determine your potential payout, exactly? The moneyline number is the potential payout. A negative number represents the amount you have to bet in order to win $100. A positive number represents how much you will win on a $100 bet. In the graphic above, then, you have to bet $550 on Cleveland in order to win $100, while a $100 bet on Boston will net you a $375 profit.
For wagering games between two evenly matched teams, or in cases where you are expecting a big upset by an underdog, the moneyline is where you want to look. But otherwise, you’ll want to try …
Betting Against the Spread (ATS)
To counteract the lopsided nature of some games, sportsbooks will place a “spread” on the action. The spread is a certain number of points bookmakers determine the favorite must win by for the bet to cash. The team that has a negative symbol in front of their spread has to win by more than that number, while the team with the positive symbol just has to lose by fewer than that number. You may hear this referred to as “ATS” betting, which just stands for “against the spread.”
Let’s say the Warriors are playing the Knicks at home. Golden State is such a superior team, the spread may be set as high as -18 in their favor. That means the Warriors need to beat New York by 19 points or more to win against the spread. If Golden State only wins 115-107, that means the Knicks have covered the spread, and those who bet on New York (+18) win.
If you refer back to the graphic above, you’ll see that the spread lists a three-digit number next to it in parentheses; that number is akin to the moneyline in that it represents the potential payout.
Spreads tend to start with equal payouts on each side, which will then be subject to line movements if most of the money is being wagered on one team.
If enough wagers are coming in on one side, bookmakers will shift the spread, itself. So, if the public was betting New York a ton, the spread could drop to only -17 in favor of the Warriors, or lower.
While the spread can make the most imbalanced games interesting, it can also result in unsatisfying endings. Using the previous example, if the Warriors beat the Knicks 122-104 as 18-point favorites, then the game would result in a “push” (i.e. a tie): neither side wins and everyone who bet that spread gets their wager back. Pushes aren’t ideal for anyone, especially bookmakers, who make no vig on those bets.
To avoid that, sportsbooks usually try and include a half number in the spread (e.g. -17.5), so that one side has to win.
In instances where the spread settles on a whole number and you’d like to avoid a push, you have the option of purchasing a half-point. (By “purchasing,” we mean you will get a lower potential payout, for example, going from -105 to -120.) You can then use that half-point to “move the spread” in your favor. So, if you liked a +3 underdog, you could adjust the spread to +3.5; and if you liked the favorite, you could move it from -3 to -2.5.
Not all games will have a spread, though. Sometimes, the public interest will dictate that a game is a pick’em. That just means a spread bet will act the same as a moneyline bet, and if the team you pick wins, your wager cashes.
Pro-tip: Middling is a strategy of betting both sides of the spread – once before the line moves and once after the line moves – and hoping the final score settles in the middle, so both of your bets win. Because the spread is subject to shifts based on which team is getting more support, a publicly adored favorite can move by a few points, and create an excellent opportunity for aware bettors.
Take Super Bowl 50 as an example. The Carolina Panthers opened the week as 3.5-point favorites over Denver, but because they were 15-1 in the regular season and coming off a blowout win in the NFC Championship, the public bet them all the way to 6-point favorites, before late money made them 5.5-point favorites. If you had grabbed Carolina early in the week at -3, you could’ve taken Denver later in the week at +6, and if the Panthers had won the game 17-12 (a 5-point difference), both your bets would’ve cashed.
The flip side is that if the Panthers didn’t win by four or five points, only one of your bets would have cashed and, when you factor in the vig, you would have ended up with a small loss. But, essentially, you’re risking a very small setback for a potential windfall.
Game Total Betting
Along with a spread, books will set a “game total” for each event. That number represents how many points, combined, are expected to be scored during the game. Bettors have the option to select the “over” or “under”, which is why it’s also known as over/under betting.
Going back, one more time, to the graphic at the top, the “Total” for the Cleveland vs Boston game is 217. If you bet the over, any final score that adds up to 218 or more will make you a winner, and any score that is 216 or lower will cause you to lose. One of the appeals of game total bets is that you can win no matter the quality of the actual game. Whether it’s a close game like 110-109, or a total blowout like 119-100, the over bet would still cash.
Game totals are like spreads in many ways, and we won’t waste your time reiterating what we told you above. Just be aware that totals, like spreads …
- will move if one side is seeing more action than the other;
- can result in pushes if the total is set as a whole number; and
- will list the potential payout to the right of the total in parentheses.