How To Read A Sports Betting Line

Key points

For those new to sports betting, learning how to read the lines is a critical first step. Once you have the basics down, there are even more takeaways that you can glean by having a full understanding of the numbers and what they’re telling you. Read on for a complete look at sportsbook lines.

How do you read a sports betting line?  

An online sportsbook will display betting odds for upcoming games and events. You can change the display in the betting lobby by clicking on the name of the sport that you’re looking for. Let’s run through some examples, starting with the NFL:

A sportsbook line showing the main types of bets for NFL.

The main bets for NFL lines are spreads, totals, and moneylines. For the first two, you’ll see two numbers on each side: the line and the odds for placing the bet.

On the spread, the team with the negative line is the favorite, and the positive line indicates the underdog. In this case, the San Francisco 49ers are 6.5-point favorites. For the total in this example, you could bet on over or under 42.5 points.

You can also identify favorites and underdogs by looking at the moneyline. Once again, it’s negative numbers for the former and positive for the latter. Note that while the above example is from DraftKings Sportsbook, the bets may be in a different order at other online books. The numbers all mean the same thing, though.

While this example is from the NBA, the lines work the same as they do for the NFL. For this contest, the Golden State Warriors are 5.5-point favorites on the spread in a game with the over/under at 214.5 points. The Warriors are the moneyline favorite, as well. By reading the three boxes, you gain some perspective on how the sportsbook expects the game to play out.

For betting on MLB games, the same basic concepts apply, but the run line replaces the spread. It works in the same fashion: you can choose the favorite to win by more than the line or the underdog to lose by less than the line or win by any score. Unlike the point spread, where the line varies, the standard run line is always 1.5 and the odds adjust to indicate the disparity between the teams. In this matchup, the Tampa Bay Rays are run line and moneyline favorites, with the total at 6.5.

NHL game lines are similar to MLB in that the spread goes by the wayside in favor of the puck line, which also uses a standard 1.5. For the above example, the Carolina Hurricanes are puck-line favorites. Carolina is also the moneyline favorite in a game with a projected total of 6. 

How to read lines for other types of bets 

Beyond the standard bets we just covered, there are also odds for all of the other wagers that you can place. For example, a player prop bet might look like this:

The over/under for Mika Zibanejad’s goals in this game is 0.5. If you bet on the over, you win if he scores a goal. If he doesn’t, bettors who picked the under will win. There are also odds for the two choices that follow the same standard premise: negative for the more likely of the two outcomes and positive on the other side. A bet with more than two potential outcomes, meanwhile, might look like this:

For this bet, you’re trying to pinpoint the first player to score a goal in the game. In this case, there are no negative odds numbers. The book lists the positive odds in ascending order, with more likely options having lower numbers. This is similar to what you’ll find in futures betting:

The Colorado Avalanche have the lowest odds to win the Stanley Cup, which makes them the favorite. The numbers increase from there for all of the other available options.

In summary, when reading the odds for a pair of choices, the negative value is the favored side. If both numbers are negative, then it’s the greater negative number of the two values. When it comes to bets with multiple options, the one with the lowest positive odds is the favorite, but the differences in some of the numbers can be very slight.

Are the lines the same at all sportsbooks?

Not always. While there is a lot of uniformity in betting odds at first glance, sportsbooks set their own lines. There will be some variances at the initial release as a result, and you can continue finding differences right up until game time. To demonstrate, let’s take a look at the odds for an NFL game at two top sportsbooks: DraftKings and the FanDuel sports app.

Example of how the line can vary between DraftKings and FanDuel.

At DraftKings, the LA Rams are one-point favorites over the Buffalo Bills, with the over/under at 52 points. The moneyline odds are even. At FanDuel, it’s Buffalo that is the one-point favorite, and the total line is at 51.5 points. The Rams are slight moneyline favorites. With either situation, you will pay slightly more (-115) to bet the underdog and take the point.

While the differences are only slight in this case, the variance can be a bit more dramatic in others. For bettors, this is actually a good thing as you can shop around to find the best odds and lines for any bets you want to place.

Why do sports betting lines move?

After the initial release of betting odds, the lines won’t necessarily stand still. There are two main reasons for this: betting action and new information.

Once the lines come out, bettors begin wagering. Generally, bets from well-known “sharp” professional players and groups will have the greatest effect on a line. Spreads and totals can adjust by a half-point or more, and the odds may move up and down.

Additionally, sports betting lines are based on the information at hand. After the lines come out, news can break that can impact the perception of a game. Examples include an injury to a key player or a shift in the weather forecast.

Often, the lines won’t move in exactly the same way from book to book. For line shopping purposes, you can pick and choose the numbers that you like best or align the closest with what you’re thinking.

Calculating payouts from sports betting odds 

The odds also have a direct relationship to the payouts that you can expect back in winning bets. There are a few ways to calculate the profit potential.

What should you look for with sports betting odds?  

After you understand the basics of reading the odds, it’s time to learn what to watch out for. You can use the following quick checklist as a general guideline while you scan the lines at online sportsbooks:

As you move forward, it helps to gain an even better understanding of what the numbers are telling you. Beyond favorites and underdogs, you can determine the payouts on winning bets and the implied probability of outcomes, for example.

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