Spreads, Totals And The Elusive Betting Edge

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 5:41 PM UTC

Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 5:41 PM UTC

Spreads and totals bets are perfectly tuned to give the house the edge -- here's how you change that.

Last week I wrote a post about flipping coins and drawing cards from a deck, which is to say, it was a lesson in probability and emphasizing the necessity of having a financial edge. "Should I take the bet?" is a question that should be immediately followed up, not with "do I think I can win?", but "how much is the payout and does that cover my risk?"

So let's revisit that coin flip scenario just long enough to remember some key numbers: you have a 50/50 shot at winning the bet (e.g., calling heads and having the flip turn up in your favor), which means that you need to be making at least dollar-for-dollar (or +100) just to break even. You need better than +100 to start turning a profit.

So what does that have to do with spreads and totals bets?

Quite simply, they're all coin-flip bets. Take a look at these win percentage numbers from sport to sport over the 2018/2019 season:

NBA
  • Spread favorites: 50% WP
  • Spread underdogs: 50% WP
  • Unders: 50% WP
  • Overs: 50% WP

NCAAB
  • Spread favorites: 50% WP
  • Spread underdogs: 50% WP
  • Unders: 52% WP
  • Overs: 48% WP

NFL
  • Spread favorites: 46% WP
  • Spread underdogs: 54% WP
  • Unders: 53% WP
  • Overs: 47% WP

NCAAF
  • Spread favorites: 49% WP
  • Spread underdogs: 51% WP
  • Unders: 50% WP
  • Overs: 50% WP

NHL
  • Spread favorites: 35% WP
  • Spread underdogs: 65% WP
  • Unders: 51% WP
  • Overs: 49% WP

MLB
  • Spread favorites: 42% WP
  • Spread underdogs: 58% WP
  • Unders: 50% WP
  • Overs: 50% WP

Keep in mind that NHL and MLB don't offer variable spreads like the other sports do, they offer a fixed +/- 1.5 figure, known as the "Puckline" in NHL and known as the "Runline" in MLB. You see a little bit of variance in the NFL, getting as high as a 54 percent win percentage on spread underdogs, but that's unique to this season. Over multiple years, that number sits closer to 51 or 52 percent, just barely above the coin-flip odds.

So when you bet the spreads or totals at the standard rate of -110, it's a mathematically losing proposition in which, over the long term, you will lose -4.5 percent of your investment.

You can quite literally get better return-on-investment odds by playing basic strategy at the Blackjack table.

The solution isn't necessarily to stop betting spreads and totals altogether, it's to start getting better payouts. This can be done at a large number of sportsbooks (5Dimes and Bookmaker, for instance, have this option), it just takes a bit of patience to find the right numbers. For instance, the Bucks are 4.5-point favorites against the Pacers in tonight's game, at -110 payout. At 5Dimes, you have the option of setting the spread to Bucks -5 instead of Bucks -4.5, and your payout jumps from -110 to +100.

Similar options are sometimes available for setting your own totals, and as always, the goal is to get as close to +100 or better as is humanly possible. The extra half-point (or even a full point) on a spread or a total has virtually zero impact on your 50/50 odds of winning the bet, but you've increased your financial edge significantly. And that, more than anything else, is what will make you a profitable sports investor.

Stay tuned for future betting strategy posts, and be sure to check out my other sports analysis on Twitter at @HooksPicks and on Patreon at patreon.com/hookspicks!

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