Ahead of both baseball and basketball, the most popular sport for American bettors is football by a landslide. During the regular season, bettors place somewhere around one billion dollars’ worth of bets between all major sportsbooks in the nation. In fact, it has even been estimated that more than fifty percent of adults in the United States have wagered on at least one Super Bowl at some point in their lifetime (although it is unclear from this data whether this includes casual bets between friends or only legitimate wagers placed with professional venues). The popularity of betting on football games is not exclusive to the NFL; there are also many fans who love to bet on NCAA games as well.
Anyone who wants to break into this profitable trend is going to want to know what they are doing. Even those who have never watched a football game in their life can still technically learn how to bet like a professional (although it certainly helps to be knowledgeable about the sport). Since the 2015 NFL draft does not even begin until the end of April, there is still quite a bit of time to learn more about betting and handicapping football games before the regular season begins.
It should be noted that this is simply one third of a series on sports betting for beginners, so there is a lot to learn for those who have never so much as looked at a sportsbook before. Betting football is very different from betting baseball, although it has some similarities to basketball. Even so, every sport is relatively unique. There are different things to consider when handicapping the game, and certain betting strategies may be more popular with one sport than when another. This means that even those with prior experience in betting basketball might still benefit from some of the information contained herein.
The following beginners’ guide will teach you the basics that you will need to know if you are a first-time bettor, as well as some strategic betting methods sometimes employed by professionals. There will also be a slight tutorial on how to handicap football games. You always have the option of letting somebody else do the hard work and simply sitting back and deciding which games to bet on, but you won’t lose anything by knowing a bit more about how handicapping works and how to do it on your own.
Reading the Sportsbooks
Much like basketball, most people who bet football tend to wager on the point spread. Next to the two teams playing the game, the point spread will usually be listed next to whichever team has been favored by the sportsbook in question. Since there are no upcoming games, we will have to use hypotheticals to demonstrate what this would look like.
Say that the Miami Dolphins are favored in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they are listed with a spread of -4. This means that the Dolphins must win by more than four points in order to cover the spread. If you bet on the Bucs, however, they must either win or simply lose by no more than four points. You would also win a wager on the Bucs if the game ends in a tie. Point spreads are also sometimes listed at half-points, such as -3.5, which would mean that the Dolphins must win by at least four points in order to cover the spread whereas the Bucs may cover the spread by losing by three points or less. Since it is impossible for the Dolphins to score half a point during a game, there will be no chance of a push in this type of spread.
Of course, there is also the possibility of what is known as a “push.” Say you bet $100 on the Dolphins to cover the spread, and they win by exactly four points. In this instance, you will find yourself getting a refund on your wager, as the Dolphins did not quite beat the point spread but did not quite fail to cover it either. There is no harm in a game resulting in a push, since you do not lose any money.
Now, let’s discuss totals. These show up on money sportsbooks as “O/U,” which stands for over/under. This number indicates the anticipated combined score of both teams at the end of the game. All you have to do to place your bet is guess whether you believe the score will be more or less than the over/under total listed. When making such a bet, it ultimately does not matter which team wins and which team loses. All that matters is whether or not you are able to correctly guess which side of the total the actual result will land on.
Many sportsbooks will over standard money lines for both point spreads and totals. The payout will often be slightly less than one cent on the dollar, with -110 being the standard money line. This means that a bet of $110 would result in winnings of $100, for total takings of $210. While the value is somewhat diminished in bets preceded by a minus symbol, it is still better than winning nothing.
Money lines are most commonly associated with baseball, but they are available in sports such as basketball and football as well. In fact, betting money lines in football has become more popular over recent years than it once was. When betting on the money line, you are simply wagering on which team will win the game, without accounting for the point spread whatsoever.
Unlike the point spread, sportsbooks that list money lines will list them for both teams. If the above game shows the Dolphins listed with a money line of -200, this means that they are favored to win and that a bet of $200 will result in winnings of $100. If the Buccaneers are listed with a money line of +300, this means that they are the underdog and that a $100 wager on them will result in winnings of $300. This means that most football fans who bet on money lines are likely to do so when they are wagering on the underdog. A bet for the underdog can result in greater winnings with less risk, as long as the underdog is able to achieve a victory in the game.
Some sportsbooks will have a separate list of odds for futures. We talk a bit about futures in our beginners’ guide to betting on basketball, although different sportsbooks will offer futures for just about any sporting event. These are wagers on the overall outcome of the season, such as who will win the Super Bowl. The odds on these bets are final, meaning that you will receive a payout that suits the odds listed at the time of placing your bet, even if the odds change drastically later on.
Futures books offer major profits to those who are able to make the correct guess, although this is generally hard to do given the sheer number of teams in competition with one another. There are two ways in which the odds for futures are listed. At the time of writing, there is one sportsbook that believes the Seattle Seahawks to have 11-1 odds of winning the Super Bowl next year. This means that a bet of $10 will net winnings of $110. Books that list their odds for futures bets in the form of money lines would list this as +1100, because you win $1100 for a bet of $100.
To give you an idea of just how profitable futures bets can be if an underdog wins the Super Bowl, let’s look at some of the current odds listed by a few different sportsbooks offering futures bets. There is one that has favored the Denver Broncos with a money line of +400, while their biggest underdogs are the Oakland Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars, each with a money line of +20,000. A different futures book has offered even greater odds for Oakland, with a money line of +500,000. This means that someone could wager $100 on Oakland with that particular sportsbook, and if the Raiders manage to win the Super Bowl then that bettor will walk away with half a million dollars. There may be only slim chances of this happening, but bettors who can afford the risk might believe the potential monetary gains to be well worth it.
There are also some more specific bets offered by some futures books. These bets are known as propositions. Prop bets might be based upon how many touchdowns a team will score, or what a specific players rushing yards will be. One might even place a wager on which player (between both teams) they expect to score the game’s first touchdown. Other types of prop bets may mimic over/under bets in the sense that one is attempting to guess the team’s total win-loss record by the end of the regular season. These bets have the potential to result in a push if the team in questions wins the exact number of games predicted by the sportsbook.
Some sportsbooks offer wildly specific and unique prop bets, such as whether or not a team in the Super Bowl will manage to make more touchdowns than a hockey team made goals during a game played on the same day. These are not exceedingly common, but they can be fun to partake in when a sportsbook is offering them.
It should be noted that all of these numbers have the potential to change on a rather frequent basis. Point spreads, over/under totals, and money lines (for both games and futures) are ever-changing entities. You will generally be given the odds at the time of placing your bet, but if you expect the odds to change, then you might consider waiting a bit. In this sense, wagering on sports is a bit like playing the stock market, except that you don’t stand to actively lose money by waiting too long but rather simply make less in winnings than you might have.
Making Strategic Wagers
Many people who bet on American football are fans of parlays. This is when you make a wager on several teams at once. It is possible to make over/under parlays as well, but it is much more common to make parlays when betting on the spread. Parlays in football work pretty much exactly the same as they do in basketball, with general odds as opposed to money lines.
It is possible to make a parlay of just two teams, which usually results in somewhere around 13-5 odds (every sportsbook is able to set its own odds, so this may vary from one venue to another). The problem with this is that one of these games may result in a push, after which one team would be subtracted from the parlay. This means that the parlay would turn into a straight bet on one team.
When one bets on multiple teams, the odds change significantly. Betting on three teams will give you about 6-1 odds, while betting on four teams will give you around 11-1 odds. The more teams you bet on in a parlay, the more money you stand to gain if your teams win. If there are a string of games coming up for which you are almost positive on the outcome, you may soon find yourself betting on a seven team parlay at odds of around 90-1, which is the same as a money line of about +900. If you bet successfully, this can make parlays a great method of betting. Beginners may want to hold off on parlays for the time being, but if you find yourself making numerous wagers and winning often, then parlays may be something for you to consider.
Not only are parlays relatively common, but they have actually become so common that some sportsbooks will offer specialized parlay cards. These are often relatively cheap, and can be acquired for only a couple of bucks. The manner in which these cards work and the amount that they pay off tend to vary from one venue to another, but they generally work by filling in certain boxes or circles that represent different teams, followed by filling out a box for how much money is to be wagered.
Teasers are also relatively common in football. These do not generally apply to bets on one team, but rather to parlays. Teasing is basically buying points on the point spread, by either making the point spread for the favored team smaller or making the point spread for the underdog larger. Odds are greatly reduced when a parlay is teased. For instance, while a four-team parlay might usually be worth odds of around 11-1, this is reduced to 3-1 when six points are bought on the spread. If the spread were teased by seven points, the odds would be reduced to 2-1. The payout may not be as great for these bets, but some people prefer them for the added chances of winning.
The last two types of strategic wagers we will discuss are middling and arbitrage. If you have read our other beginners’ guides, then you should already be very familiar with both of these betting strategies.
Arbitrage is somewhat risky if you like your bookmaker, since some sportsbooks frown on bettors who engage in this practice (known as “arbitrageurs” or simply “arbers”). This means that they may refuse service to anyone who is caught engaging in this practice. However, if one is comfortable with this risk, there is potential money to be made. The average arber makes around 2.5% on every wager, and they may make even more.
All they have to do is find two sportsbooks with different underdogs (which can often be admittedly difficult to do) and bet the money lines on each one to ensure that they make a profit no matter what happens. This can also be done with over/under bets, or even prop bets. A win is guaranteed since all possibilities are covered. Betting on underdogs is easiest since the same amount can be wagered at both books, while some other types of bets may require more advanced calculations to determine how much money must be wagered on each book in order to avoid a loss.
Middling is similar, although this takes advantage of the point spread rather than the difference in underdogs between two books. As noted above, point spreads are constantly changing. One day the Dolphins might be favored against the Buccaneers with a -3 point spread, while this may change to -6 by the end of the week. Betting on the Dolphins to beat this spread on one book and on the Bucs to beat the spread on the other should result in a guaranteed win, and you could even win both bets if the Dolphins win by either four or five points.
Handicapping NFL and NCAA football games can take a lot of effort if one wants to handicap the games as correctly as possible, but it is worth the effort when considering the increased likelihood of placing your wager on the correct team. Technically, a person only has to win more than half of their bets to make a profit, so any edge you can gain is beneficial.
This is a process you can technically begin now, even though the season has not yet begun. Whether you’re handicapping professional or college games, you should be able to find some information on how they’ve been performing during spring training camps. You’ll be able to get an idea of which players are adding the most to the team, which players have the biggest deficiencies, and so on. In the case of the NFL, their selections during the free agency period will give you an idea of what type of offensive and defensive strategies they might be trying to implement in the coming year. There will be a great deal of internet research on these matters, and there are even preview magazines for college teams.
Try to get a feel for the overall depth of the team. If you are handicapping a college team, look to see how many of their starting players are planning on sticking around after the draft. If you are handicapping an NFL team, see which players have gotten franchise tags and how much money the team thinks each player’s contract is worth. For instance, you know that the Dolphins are going to be implementing Ndamukong Suh in some of their major defensive strategies. No one writes a $114 million contract because their roster needs a new benchwarmer.
All of this information will give you an idea of which teams have the best offensive and defensive rosters this year. That can help you out a bit if you plan on hitting the futures books, but ultimately it’s just good information to have going into the season. There might be teams that some bookmakers consider to be underdogs during the first few games of the season, when in reality their training camps and the additions they’ve made to their roster have made them a breakout powerhouse.
Another thing you’re looking at before the season starts is injuries. You will want to keep abreast of injured players well after the season starts as well. Don’t just look to see who gets injured and when they’re back in the game, but actually look at the injury report to see whether or not this is an injury that could affect their game throughout the season or even come back to haunt them later.
When you’re watching the games, or even reading up on the recaps later, you want to pay attention to how each team achieved their final score. Things like fumbles, sacks, interceptions and other stats will show you which players are adding the most to the team and which players are taking away from it. If a team’s top scorer is a running back who just suffered a major injury, then you might not want to bet on that team the next week. Conversely, if a player just returned from injury and the team is doing substantially better than they were before, you’re going to want to remember that.
Also look at the type of defensive and offensive strategies each team is using and how well these are working out for them. If there’s a team that simply can’t defend against a west coast offense or can’t rush a blitz, this will give you an idea of how they’ll perform against teams that utilize those strategies. How each team matches up against one another in terms of offense and defense is a major aspect of handicapping a game.
When you are assessing this data, never forget the end result. Try to handicap your games at least a week in advance, and try to guess your own point spreads and over/under totals. Even try setting money lines. Once betting lines are open, check your numbers against those of the sportsbooks. Then, see how close you were once the actual game has come to a close. You will likely be pretty far off the first few times, but you will get better and better with more practice.
As you get better, you will learn to see potential flaws in the sportsbooks that you can exploit to your own advantage. Maybe they’re underestimating an underdog, and you want to bet on that team’s money line. Maybe they’re overestimating each team’s defense, and you want to bet that the total is going to be higher than the sportsbooks have predicted.
Last, but not least, remember that there’s really no such thing as a perfect handicapper. If you’ve been getting better at it, don’t think that you’re losing your abilities to assess a team’s data just because the total was suddenly way higher than you expected or because a receiver you assessed as a weak attribute suddenly caught the most touchdowns of any game in their career. Teams and players sometimes give unexpected performances. For the fans, this is part of what makes football incredible to watch. It can be unfortunate for the bettors, but you just have to get back on the horse and keep trying. It’s better than simply giving up and leaving your future bets to chance.