UNDERSTANDING NFL POINTSPREADS
One of the biggest mistakes made by beginning bettors is thinking that knowing about a specific sport is all that is necessary for success. Some familiarity with a sport is necessary to be sure, but understanding the discipline of sports betting in some degree of depth is far more important. I know plenty of successful expert sports betting pros that are only casual fans—and some that don’t pay attention to sports at all other than the statistics they produce. I don’t know any successful sports bettors that are experts at a sport and know nothing about betting.
One of the more profound things that I’ve been told by a giant in the sports gambling world is this: “Squares bet teams. Pros bet numbers.” In other words, casual sports bettors focus on the team based on the news they receive from the mass media. Pros focus primarily on statistical analysis and pay close attention to betting lines and their movements. Understanding the dynamics of how betting lines are made and how they move is essential for sports betting success and in this article we’re going to teach you the basics of pro football pointspreads:
UNDERSTANDING THE PURPOSE OF POINTSPREADS
Pointspreads were created sometime in the mid 20’s century to provide an elegant solution to a problem that had long bedeviled bookmakers. Their customers loved to bet on successful, popular teams but these teams were invariably huge favorites. Since the public has never been fond of ‘betting a lot to win a little’, laying huge odds just to back a popular team was unattractive. Bookies correctly perceived that this problem was not only bad for their bottom line but also make betting less fun for their customers. Enter the pointspread which grew in popularity until it was the predominate form of football betting.
So what is the purpose of the pointspread? The recreational player will tell you that it’s the bookmaker’s ‘prediction’ of who will win the game. That is technically incorrect and understanding this is essential for a more sophisticated knowledge of sports betting and handicapping. A pointspread is intended to split action evenly between both sides of a betting proposition. While this might have a predictive component to some degree that isn’t the goal of the bookmaker. A more correct assessment is that he’s trying to predict the public opinion and the resulting betting patterns in a certain game. Bookmakers don’t pat themselves on the back if they accurately predict a game or a final score—that’s simply not their job.
HOW POINTSPREADS ARE MADE
There are a lot of things that get factored into a NFL pointspread. Linesmakers spend more time on pro football pointspreads than any others they make for a variety of reasons. NFL football is by far the most popular betting sport and attracts the most wagering action. This doesn’t just include recreational players—some sports betting pros love the NFL and sportsbooks typically take higher limits on pro football games. Factor in teaser and parlay exposure, and NFL lines can dramatically impact a sportsbook’s bottom line.
Linesmakers initially consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams involved in a matchup. To do this, they use power ratings to begin their work in the same way that good handicappers do. Once they get a raw number they consider a number of factors to modify it. The best known is home field advantage. In the NFL, home field advantage is typically -3.5 points. Take a look at this pointspread on a hypothetical NFL game:
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS -3.5
In essence, the bookmaker is saying that these teams are evenly matched with the exception of home field advantage. Road underdogs are often attractive plays in matchups like this.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC PERCEPTION
As we noted above, public perception and the resulting betting patterns influence everything that the linemaker does. In the previous example, if the betting public was of the opinion that San Diego was an especially nasty place for visiting teams to play you might see the bookmaker ‘shade’ the line accordingly and open it San Diego -4.5. If the Chargers played in front of disinterested fans who gave them little support you might see the line set the other way.
In very simplistic terms, this is why it pays to be a contrarian in any form of sports betting—and particularly in NFL football betting. Linesmakers have a good ‘feel’ for what the public (eg: recreational bettors) think and shade the lines accordingly. Sometimes they’ll shade a line just because a team is popular. Think of the NFL teams that are perennially popular—the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots. You ‘pay’ a point or two when you bet these teams simply because the bookmaker knows how popular they are. Public perception about anything can influence a pointspread including weather, situation, matchups, injuries and recent form.
WHY POINTSPREADS MOVE
Legitimate pointspread moves happen for one of two reasons. They can happen due to some significant change in the game matchup like an injury. If it’s a major injury—say a team loses their starting quarterback—the game is usually taken ‘off the board’ which gives the book time to accurately assess its significance. The game will then be put back up at the new price.
The other type of line movement is more common and in actuality more important. Sportsbooks move the line in response to money bet. Remember that the goal of the pointspread is to evenly split betting action. In our hypothetical example, if bettors are throwing money at the Chargers the book will want to do something to attract money to the other side. To do this, they’ll make San Diego a bigger favorite which (in theory) provides a disincentive to bet on them. At the same time, San Francisco will be getting more points and (once again, in theory) become a more attractive betting proposition. This is the line movement component that attracts the majority of attention from sports betting experts.