Understanding Football Odds
by Trevor Whenham
Anybody who tells you that picking winners is football is easy is lying to you. There are seemingly a million different things that go into making successful picks, but all of that work is useless if you don't have good knowledge of odds. Fortunately, understanding football odds is really quite simple, and it is not nearly as intimidating as it can seem at first glance.
To bet on football, the first thing you have to understand fully is the point spread. There are lots of different ways to bet on football, but the large majority of bets are made on the point spread. It's a very rare game that has two teams that are perfectly evenly matched. In many cases the likely winner is quite obvious, so sportsbooks would lose a fortune if betting on football were as simple as picking the winning team. The most common way to even out the games is with a point spread.
Essentially, a point spread is a penalty that the better team has to overcome to win a game in betting terms. A point spread can be any half or whole number. Let's say, for example, that the Indianapolis Colts are seven point favorites against the New York Giants. You would most likely see this expressed at Indianapolis (-7) or something similar. What it means, essentially, is that oddsmakers have determined that Indianapolis is a touchdown better than the Giants over the course of a game. That means that the Colts have to win by more than seven points in order for you to win if you bet on them. If the Colts were to win the game by three points then they would not have covered the spread, so you would lose if you had bet on the Colts and win if you had bet on the Giants. If the Colts won by exactly a touchdown then the game would be called a push, or no action, meaning that neither team won and all bets would be returned.
Point spreads are set by the sports books, and you are guaranteed the point spread that is in place when you make your bet. In most cases, the books will try to have about the same amount of money bet on both teams, so you will often see the books adjust the point spread in the time leading up to the game so that one team seems more or less attractive to balance the bets. That means that it is possible for a bet on a team to be both a winner and a loser in the same game depending upon the spread. If the Bears started as a 2.5 point favorite and the spread then moved to 3.5 points because of the betting action, and the Bears won the game by a field goal, then the bettors who got the 2.5 point spread won, while the bettors who got the 3.5 point spread were losers.
Thinking about point spreads can be confusing. Thankfully, there are lots of different ways to think about spreads, so there is probably one that will make sense for you. You can make your adjustment before the game starts. In the Indianapolis example, you could think of the score being 7-0 for the Giants before the opening kickoff. That way you can keep score yourself as you watch the game from this starting point. I like doing it that way when I can, but most people prefer to make the adjustment to the final score. To do it that way you can subtract the point spread from the favorite's score, or you can add the point spread to the underdog's score. Depending on how you look at, then, the adjusted score in a game that had an actual score of 24-12 for the Colts would either be 17-12 or 24-19 depending upon how you look at it. No matter which way you choose, the result is the same - a bet on the Colts is successful, and a bet on the Giants is a loser.
There is some terminology you need to understand if you want to sound like you know what you are talking about. In our example of Indianapolis Colts -7 vs. New York Giants, the Colts are the team with the negative spread, so they are the favorites. Of course, that means that the Giants are the underdogs. If you bet on the Colts, the terminology is that you are 'giving' or 'laying' the points. That means that you are giving the underdogs the extra points. If you bet on the underdog you are 'taking' or 'getting' the points. It would also be perfectly acceptable to express the line as New York Giants +7 vs. Indianapolis Colts. If the actual score of the game is 24-12, then the Colts won the game straight up. Once the game is over and you have adjusted the score appropriately, you have determined the winner against the spread, or ATS. In this case, the Colts win both straight up, or SU, and ATS. If the final score had been 24-20 for the Colts, then Indianapolis would have won straight up, but the Giants would be the winners ATS.