How To Tell The Favorite In Sports Betting

When two teams square off, we often view one of them as having an advantage, or the favorite. The same is true for multi-team tournaments — there’s generally a team or teams that we perceive as having a better chance of winning.

This perception will generally align with the betting odds for the contest. At times, the favorite can be very clear-cut, but at other times not as much.

What’s a favorite in sports betting?

At its most basic level, the word favorite describes the side that oddsmakers think is more likely to win. By extension, the opponent is the underdog.

  • The New York Yankees are favored over the Baltimore Orioles for tonight’s game.
  • The Baltimore Orioles are underdogs for their upcoming game against the New York Yankees.

You can mostly identify favorites and underdogs by looking at the lines, though there will be times when the matchup is a pick ’em. That means the oddsmakers view the contest as a toss-up or the equivalent of a coin flip.

You’ll also see the term favorite appear elsewhere in sports betting:

  • The team that’s the top pick to win the next Super Bowl, NBA Finals, etc.
  • The horse with the lowest odds to win an upcoming race.
  • The player who appears most likely to win an individual award, such as NFL MVP or the Heisman Trophy.

Identifying the favorite

When you visit an online sports betting site, you’ll see odds for all of the upcoming games and events. As you scroll through the matchups for team sports like the NFL and NBA, it’ll be easy to identify the favorite:

Favorites will have negative values for moneyline odds and point spread odds.

  • Moneyline: Dallas Cowboys -140
  • Spread: Dallas Cowboys -2.5

Underdogs will have positive numbers in both spots.

  • Moneyline: Pittsburgh Steelers +155
  • Spread: Pittsburgh Steelers +3.5

The exception will be a pick ’em or other scenario with no clear favorite. The moneyline odds will be equal on both sides, such as -110, and there will be no spread to account for.

In the US, the default odds listing calls for American odds, which use whole-digit numbers. Other parts of the world may use decimal odds or fractional odds. When viewing the numbers in those formats, the lower of the two values indicates the favored side.

For events in which there are multiple participants, such as a PGA Tour event, the favorite has the lowest number. As an example, here’s what the numbers might look like for the top five golfers:

To win the PGA Championship

  • Scottie Scheffler: +1000
  • Rory McIlroy: +1200
  • Jon Rahm: +1200
  • Justin Thomas: +1400
  • Collin Morikawa: +1400

Favorites for common bets 

For major team sports, game listings will start with three bets: moneyline, spread, and total. The numbers for the first two will clearly indicate the favorite.

Moneyline favorites

TeamMoneyline Odds
Houston Astros+120
Atlanta Braves-140

For this matchup, the Atlanta Braves are favored to win, as you can see by their -140 odds. The Houston Astros, at +120, are the underdog. The range between the numbers indicates how close the matchup appears to be — at least from the perspective of oddsmakers and ensuing betting response.

Spread favorites 

When you look at a point spread, there are two numbers to note: the value of the spread and the actual odds for placing the bet.

TeamSpread Odds
Los Angeles Lakers+2.5 (-110)
Boston Celtics-2.5 (-110)

Just like the moneyline, the direction of the numbers is key: negative spreads indicate favorites and underdogs are positive. For spreads, the odds are typically in a fairly tight range on both sides. When there’s a difference — such as -112 and -108 — the side with the spread number farther from zero has been the more popular choice.

As a general rule, you’ll find that there’s a correlation between the moneyline and spread. For a tight spread such as -1.5, the moneyline odds will also be close, for instance.

Is there a favorite for other bets?

The term favorite most commonly describes the more likely team to win. For other bets, there might not be winning and losing teams, but the odds can still point us to the favored side. Let’s look at a pair of examples:

Totals betting

Here you’re betting on whether the total combined score in a game will be over or under a line that the sportsbook sets.

Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers, total goals

  • Over 6.5 -108
  • Under 6.5 -112

On the initial release of odds, sportsbooks will generally set the numbers for spreads and totals at -110 on both sides. Once people begin to bet, the odds may move in response to where the action is going. If we look at our example, which choice is favored — over or under 6.5 goals?

It’s the side with the odds number that is of greater negative value — in this case, under at -112. Sportsbooks can adjust the odds in response to where the betting money is going to make the side that is bringing in less handle more attractive.

Bettors can get a slightly better return at odds of -108, similar to how a winning moneyline bettor would get back more for a bet on the underdog. A bettor would need to wager $112 to win $100 on the -112 side or $108 to win $100 on the -108 side.

Player prop betting

With many team sports, you can also place prop bets on individual player accomplishments. Some give you multiple options on which to bet, such as picking who will score the first touchdown in an NFL game. Others are over/under bets with two choices:

Total rushing yards for Tom Brady

  • Over 1.5 (+135)
  • Under 1.5 (-155)

Similar to a total or spread, there are two things to be concerned with: the line and the actual odds for placing the bet. For this prop, the line is at 1.5 yards. The odds, meanwhile, once again show us the favored side. In this case, the sportsbook views the under (-155) as more likely to happen.

Not all favorites are equal

While the overall concept of favorites and underdogs is pretty straightforward, there’s more to the story. For one thing, favorites can vary in stature.

At one end of the spectrum, you could have a team that’s a slim favorite. At the opposite end, there might be a favorite whose loss would be downright shocking.

For betting purposes, here are some loose categories into which you can sort moneyline favorites:

  • Small: Odds in the range of -101 to -130. Only a slight favorite, so a win by the underdog wouldn’t be stunning.  
  • Average: Numbers ranging from -131 to -200. On paper, the favorite should win if everything plays out as expected.
  • Large: From -201 to -399. Anything can happen in the world of sports, but a loss by the favorite would be surprising.
  • Huge: Anything over -400. A win for the underdog would be pretty stunning and a big story in betting circles.

In short, understanding how big of a favorite you’re dealing with can help you set reasonable expectations while you research a matchup.

How much money can you make by betting on favorites?

The potential returns on sports betting depend on your overall success rate and the odds at which you’re placing your bets. For an individual wager, here’s what you could expect back on a winning bet of $100, depending on the odds.

OddsProfit on a Winning $100 Bet
-110$90.90
-125$80.00
-150$66.70
-175$57.10
-200$50.00
-250$40.00
-300$33.30
-400$25.00

The bigger the favorite, the less of a potential return that you can expect. While some bettors take this to mean that betting on big favorites is a bad deal, it really comes down to your perspective and the returns you’re comfortable seeking.

If you don’t mind smaller returns and feel that betting on larger favorites is more predictable and safe, then you can certainly lean in that direction. However, it’s important to remember that anything can happen on the field of play and no favorite is certain to win.

In other words, even the biggest of favorites can lose at times. When that happens, it can quickly wipe out any smaller returns that you’ve gained from a stretch of betting on big favorites. For some bettors, the risk doesn’t equal the potential return.

When it comes to overall profitability, there are simply no guarantees that always betting on favorites or underdogs will lead you there. There’s plenty of room for betting on both in any well-rounded sports betting strategy.

Do favorites always have negative odds?

There will be times when the favored choice actually has positive odds. Most commonly, this is with three-way moneyline bets for soccer, as well as for bets with multiple choices such as futures and props.

On a three-way moneyline, all three of the options could have positive odds. Ties are common in soccer, which translates into outright wins being harder to pinpoint in the absence of a clear favorite.

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City

  • Madrid +240
  • Draw +280
  • City +105

As for futures and props, let’s consider the preseason Super Bowl odds for a few of the favorites:

To win the Super Bowl

  • Buffalo Bills +650
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers +700
  • Kansas City Chiefs +1000
  • Green Bay Packers +1000
  • Los Angeles Rams +1000

The Bills and Buccaneers are the clear favorites, but winning bets at these odds would still see a premium return. This is because bettors are picking from all 32 NFL teams. There are no guarantees that any club will live up to preseason expectations. As a result, you can generally get positive odds even for the top favorites.

How likely is a favorite to win a game?

Favorites win more than they lose when we’re talking about moneyline bets, but results are more mixed against the spread. Historical trends can make for interesting research and talking points, but the story can easily change from season to season. For example, here are the overall betting records for wagers on closing-line favorites over the last five NFL seasons:

SeasonMoneylineATS
2021171-98 (63.6%)128-139-3 (47.9%)
2020172-83 (67.5%)114-141-1 (44.7%)
2019164-91 (64.3%)169-85 (66.5%)
2018169-85 (66.5%)115-133-8 (46.4%)
2017179-74 (70.8%)132-113-8 (53.9%)

Instead of solely relying on trends as a way to figure out the probability of outcomes, you can also gauge it by looking at the betting odds. There are betting calculators that can help with this, but there are also formulas that you can use.

Negative odds: Odds/(Odds+100) * 100 = implied probability in percentage form (make the odds number positive for the purposes of the formula)

For example, odds of -200

200/(200+100) * 100 = 66.67%

Positive odds: 100/(Odds+100) * 100 = implied probability in percentage form

For example, odds of +150

100/(150+100) * 100 = 40%

For further perspective, here’s how the odds translate for a few common splits.

Favorite OddsImplied ProbabilityUnderdog OddsImplied Probability
-13056.52%+11047.62%
-14058.33%+12045.45%
-15560.78%+13542.55%
-17563.64%+15539.22%
-20066.67%+17037.04%

Are favorites the best bet?

When you bet on sports regularly, there will be times when betting on the favorite makes sense for you. There will also be instances when your research points you in the opposite direction. Since anything can happen in sports, a balanced approach is to stay open to different possibilities.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sports betting, nor is there any one strategy that will lead to instant or sustained success. Favorites aren’t necessarily the best bet for every game.

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