NFL Betting: Remembering Why It's Called the Money Line

When betting NFL football and NBA basketball, bettors often rely too much on the point spread instead of concentrating on who will win the game.

We are all creatures of habit. The only differences are the habits we don't share.

OK, I'm a little confused by that statement, so let me get to the point here. For some unexplained reason betting both football and basketball has become almost 100% about "point spreads" over the years and not simply considering who is going to win the game. Most of our lingo includes "value" and judgement toward who will come out ahead on the final score regardless of winning or losing. It's great to say "I didn't even need the points" but we're much more likely to worry about getting destroyed by a "back-door cover" or the infamous "bad beat".

Unlike baseball or hockey where 90+% of all wagering is conducted on "the money line", for some unexplained reason in football and basketball it's all about analyzing point spreads. Come World Series time it's conventional in casual conversation to say "I like the Red Sox in 6 games" or "the Mets to win tonight". But why do we ignore the profit opportunities in football? How often do we agonize of betting the Seahawks on Monday Night but more concerned whether they will cover? With more games being televised, especially the proliferation of college football games, it seems concentrating on "the number" is all we focus upon.

It would also seem like the sportsbooks thank us for that. Although I don't have official exact statistics backing this, a greater majority of bettors play favorites against the spread although teams receiving points (underdogs) cover the number approximately 62% of the time.

The overall volume of wagering dollars is different between books. But a good observation of a business trend occurs at very popular sportsbook Bovada. For example, due to the large amount wagered on certain NFL favorites, often teams lay an extra half-point to full point more at Bovada versus other established online sportsbooks. The amount of money wagered on the money line can often be ignored compared to attempting to balance wagering for both sides on many football and basketball games.

Money Line Management

Similar to the pitcher's line in a baseball game, the higher a spread is on a football game, the more risk and/or potential return depending on which side of the money line you're on. For example, if the Cubs Jake Arrieta is pitching at Wrigley Field against the Phillies you might be laying -320 for a straight-up win as opposed to a +280 upset for a Phils upset. The only difference here is the point spread correlates out to the money line. The more points you lay the higher the odds, etc.

For example, this Sunday the Cincinnati Bengals are listed as -2.5 at home playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Diamond Sports. On the money line the Bengals are -140 to win, while the Steelers are +120 (to win outright) without the points. Should the Bengals be bet up to -3 expect that line to move toward -150 and the Steelers to around +125.

money line betting in the NFL

In a game like this where the Steelers desperately need a win to continue their wild card hopes, it is well worth considering a money line play in lieu of taking +2.5. But, should the line move toward +3 or an unlikely +3.5 it makes a tougher wagering option decision as so many NFL games are decided by this narrow margin and a potential push is possible with a loss.

Remember, the higher the line the higher the WIN odds and often the disparity between the teams. Many Nevada and top offshore sportsbooks like Diamond Sports, Heritage Sports and BetOnline receive an uneven amount of money line betting on the "favorite" and again, up the odds and spread in comparison.

Take this week's Atlanta Falcons-Carolina Panthers game as Exhibit A. While the Panthers are listed as a -8 favorite at home they are a prohibitive -375 at Diamond Sports on the money line to win the game. Their motivation right now is solely to keep their perfect season going and a chance to potentially host the NFL Championship Game, should they reach it. Meanwhile, the reeling Falcons are desperate for a win to stay alive in the wild card race and could be an interesting play at +305 to ruin the Panthers perfect season dreams. It could be a better value bet than getting those +8 points. After all, Jake Arrieta needed the entire Cubs team to win and didn't win every single game by himself.

20-20 Hindsight

Let's circle the Thursday's NFL Football game as another prime lesson, especially if you lost out wagering the Arizona Cardinals using the point spread.
Bettors and the sharp guys pounded the Cards off the planet by kick-off time. Many were wondering if there was some mysterious injury or somebody knew something they didn't know. Arizona opened as a -7.5 point favorite, but closed at -10 and at most wagering outlets and as high as -10.5 at game time. Following this trend seemed like a lock.

Unfortunately, bettors who faithfully backed the Minnesota Vikings were rewarded as the Cardinals won 23-20 but did not come close to covering the double digit spread. However, on the money line a pricey -475 at Bovada was intimidating but was a win for those confident the Cardinals were guaranteed a victory no matter what the point spread or final score.

Overall, I DO NOT recommend fully abandoning the point spread as your main diet wagering the NFL or NBA. But often it is very wise to look over the menu for other options including the money line for a healthy wagering lifestyle.

Glenn Greene covers the games from a betting angle every week exclusively at For weekly betting insights, inlcuding NFL previews and picks from Glenn, click here.

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