NFL Betting Lines

Why are NFL betting lines the way they are? The “point spread” schema is hardly intuitive, after all (just try explaining this apparently not-so-simple concept to a non-sports fan), and for both bookmaker and bettor it works best with gridiron football. Yet somehow they exist – and often set the boundaries for prediction-based shows or online banter.

The bookmaker naturally wants to maximize profit, as does any capitalist worth his/her salt – but whereas straightup money-line bets on every contest is well more profitable for the sportsbook, the point spread and over/under bets are available everywhere. 

Before the standardized format we’ve accepted as common sense, bookies (approximately 99% of which in the United States were certainly illegal) would simply offer unfair odds on what are today called money-line bets or just not offer anything on games with an obvious favorite. Parlay betting with video poker-like payouts, i.e. pick 8 games correctly to get a 20/1 payout, and going “double or nothing” were pushed by bookmarkers: Football betting was more or less reduced to the sheer luck of a slot machine or daily fantasy football. (Ooooh, burn!)

Point spreads: Wholesaling odds

A former math teacher by the name of Chales K. McNeil is credited with creating the point spead and over/under system we all know and love today. While limiting bookies to a single line upon which to base bets, McNeil’s system might appear to harm a sportsbook operation, to which we say, “Yeah, surrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre.”

First of all, McNeil made sure to base payouts on 10/11 odds rather than 1/1; now known as the “vig” or “vigorish”, this prevents a total washout even in situations wherein 100% of bettors all wagered on the favorite.

Providing a single line per game also drastically simplified the bookmaker’s operations Instead of having to create NFL betting lines on the spot (“What odds will you give me on the Jets by 3 points?”), the point spread bet actually reduces all deviations done to a single number which, in theory, balances out bets on both teams in every game – in fact McNeil himself called the point spread “wholesaling odds.”

The trick is to turn a profit

Not for the bettor, mind you, but for the sportsbooks. This is an important point to consider when looking at those point spreads week to week. Whereas the over/under lines need not pay heed to hype or public perception, marketing has everything to do with point spreads. 

You can usually start by determining the difference between the two teams’ average number of points per game. Figure the home team to get 3-6 points more than in a game played on a neutral field. Loss of a key “skill player” or offensive lineman to injury, suspension, etc., will likewise shave another 3-6. Most any other further points in the spread are based on attracting the NFL bettor.

So yeah, teams with widespread fandoms such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys will get higher pointspreads than, likesay, the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns. Vegas et al are betting on the vehement fan to be overrating his/her team and so make the would-be wagerer pay for that confidence.

The point here is that these lines are to be taken seriously – but the smart bettor doesn’t believe the hype and simply picks the games regardless of offerings by the ’book.