It almost seems impossible to imagine a world without point spreads, but that is exactly how things were before the point spread was invented in the 1940s. Before that bettors relied simply on the money line.
The money line still exists today, obviously, and is the most popular way to bet on baseball and hockey games. However the money line is often overlooked, although widely available for wagers, when it comes to football and basketball.
Unlike the point spread or an over/under, when you bet on the money line, you are betting on one side to simply win. Points mean nothing just the final result. As confusing as point spreads can be for first-time bettors, understanding money lines often requires patience and a calculator even for more seasoned sports bettors.
To best understand money line wagering, always base your calculations off of a $100 bet. Here is an example of a money line a bettor might see posted on an online sportsbook. (We will stick with football for these examples although the money line is used in all major sports.)
Chicago Bears –240 vs. Minnesota Vikings +210
Any time you see a money line, the minus sign (-) indicates the favorite while the plus sign (+) indicates the underdog. Using $100 as the base, it will take $240 wagered on the Chicago Bears to win $100. For a bettor wagering on the underdog Minnesota Vikings in this scenario, $100 will win $210.
When the point spread was invented in Chicago by Charles McNeil the money line took a backseat. When two unevenly matched teams played, the playing field was leveled by having the favorite give points (for example Chicago Bears –7) while the underdog got points (Minnesota Vikings +7). No matter which team the bettor took the bettor would always risk $110 to win $100. The extra $10 needed to win $100 is called the juice or the vig, it is basically the house’s or the bookie’s take. It’s 10-percent of the bet so it would take $33 to return $30 and $440 to return $400 etc. (winning bettors get the vig back).
In football the money line is often a popular choice for bettors who have been burned by last-second scoring that actually had no actual affect on the outcome of the game. With the money line you just have to hope your team wins rather than cover a point spread. Of course, the one downside is having to risk more money to return the same amount that a point spread bet would net you.
Money line bets tend to be even more popular with underdogs. A nice profit can be made if a touchdown or more underdog pulls off an outright win. Of course, it’s still a risky proposition to bet on a team expected to lose by a touchdown or more to win the game outright.
Baseball and Hockey continue to live off the money line, mainly because a good percentage of games in each sport are decided by one run or one goal, rendering a point spread useless. Run lines and puck lines are available usually in baseball and hockey but the line is always –1.5 or +1.5 and using this betting option greatly impacts the odds.
In football and basketball sometimes money lines are not available on a wide-spread basis. When the point spread climbs above 25 points in football or around 20 points in basketball, sportsbooks often do not place a money line on either the favorite or the underdog. The same goes if the line is small enough, ½ a point to 1 ½ points, where taking a money line would not make sense
In head-to-head sports like Tennis, it’s much easier to bet money lines and with big-name tennis stars it’s not uncommon to see money lines from –1000 to –5000, meaning that it would wager more than $1000 just to win $100.
Most sportsbooks allow money lines to be parlayed with other money lines or other point spreads. This will often change the payout drastically. Instead of a three-team parlay paying out about 6-to-1, a three-team parlay with money lines involved requires a complicated formula to figure out a payout. Just adding one money line underdog (for example a team that is +250) can drastically boost the payout for a parlay.
The math involved with betting money lines can be frustrating at times, but nowhere near as frustrating as betting on a football team at –3.5 and watching the losing opponents score a meaningless touchdown as time expires to cut the game to 24-21.
In that example money lines can be considered insurance for bad beats. Betting on the money line also simplifies things when it comes to cheering for an outcome. There is nothing worse than sitting at a bar watching everyone cheer as the hometown team runs out the clock and wins the game but you cannot help but dwell on the fact that they missed a chance to cover the spread as well.