Money line vs. the points: Which is the better bet?

Aug 13, 2002 12:21 PM

For football bettors, the point spread is the great equalizer. It makes it possible to bet prohibitive favorites at nearly even money, as well as woeful underdogs without having to actually win the game.

As an example, take the Nebraska Cornhuskers, which has dominated the Missouri Tigers for decades. Over the past 10 years, Nebraska has beaten Missouri 10 straight times. But because of the point spread, which has ranged from 17 to 50 points, Nebraska is only 5-5 against the spread (ATS).

In Nevada, sports books create a points spread, then allow players to bet either side, the favorite and the underdog, at slightly less than even money (usually —110, that is, bet $1.10 to win $1).

In addition to the spread, some books offer a money line, which is a decimal version of odds to win the game, in which no points are involved (you simply pick the winner). Not all college games get money lines (virtually all NFL games do), and very seldom are money lines posted for games where the point spread is above 10 points.

For instance, in a game where the Redskins are favored by 5½ points over the Eagles, the money line prices might be —2.40 on the ’Skins, and +1.90 on the Eagles. (The minus indicates the team is the favorite with less than even money odds; the plus denotes the underdog with odds greater than 1-1.)

Mathematically, this translates to odds of 1-2.40 on the Redskins (you bet $2.40 to win $1 for a total return of $3.40); and 1.90-1 on the Eagles (bet $1 to win $1.90 for a total return of $2.90).

There is no precise correlation of money line to point spread because each is dictated by the amount of money wagered. But here are some typical money lines for a variety of point spreads:


2½ points: —1.55 and +1.35

3½ points: —1.65 and +1.45

4 points: —2.00 and +1.70

4½ points: —2.20 and +1.80

5½ points: —2.40 and 2.00

6 points: —2.80 and +2.40

7½ points: —3.60 and 2.80


Obviously, the odds increase as the point spread rises. But is it worth giving up the points in order to receive odds of up to 3-1?

To help answer that question, GT took a sampling of 114 NFL games. Overall, 79 of the 114 favorites (69.3%) won their games outright, although only 54 favorites (47.4%) covered the spread. The numbers are more revealing when broken down:

”¡ In games under 3 points (24 games), favorites won 15 and lost 9 (62.5%).

”¡ In games of 3 to 5½ points (40 games), favorites won 23 and lost 17 (57.5%).

”¡ In games of 6 points and more (50 games), favorites won 41 and lost 9 (82%).

Even though favorites won games at nearly a 70% clip, they were only 54-60 ATS. Moreover, in games with spread of 6 points or more, underdogs covered 26 of 50, even though they could muster only nine straight up wins.

Where does this leave bettors? If you like playing the points, favorites do well when the line is less than 3 points (62.5%). But underdogs do better as the line increases: from 3 to 5½ points, dogs went 25-15 (62.5%), and with 6 points or more, they were 26-24 (52%).

For money line bettors, underdogs had a hard time winning when the spread was 6 points or more: they won only 9 of 50 games (18%). However, dogs fared bettor when the spread was 3 to 5½ points, winning 17 of 40 games (42.5%).

Remember, these are only statistics and not hard and fast betting formulas. They should serve only as indicators. If you’ve handicapped a team that looks like it could win despite a large point spread, don’t be shy about backing it. The rewards could be worth the risk.