What Do the Lines Mean in Sports Betting?

If you’re reading this, I assume you’re either a sports bettor yourself or someone who knows one; if not, then maybe it’s time to consider becoming more involved in the wagering world. The lines in sports betting — specifically, the American sports betting lines — can be a bit complex, and not all that straightforward. Let’s take a look at what the lines actually mean and how you can apply them in your favor when placing a wager on sports.

The Basics Of American Sports Betting Lines

You might be familiar with the idea of betting on sports, but do you know exactly how it works? To start, let’s look at the basic framework, which hasn’t changed much in years: You place a wager on the outcome of an event (e.g., the NBA Finals), and if your chosen team (e.g., the Los Angeles Lakers) wins, you win your bet. If your team loses, you lose your bet. So, in the case of the NBA Finals, for example, if you bet $10 on the Los Angeles Lakers, and they win the game, you’ll earn $20 — minus your original $10. In this case, your net profit after costs (fees, taxes, etc.) is $10.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the things that aren’t as straightforward.

The Spread

As I mentioned above, one of the key concepts behind sports betting is the idea of taking a team you support (usually, but not necessarily, out of the Super Bowl) and applying their winning streak or losing streak to smaller markets. It sounds easier than it is; the key is in the calculation behind the spread, otherwise known as the point spread. The point spread is usually listed either in favor of (“+”) or against (“–”) the team you’re backing; basically, it’s the amount of points you’ll need to wage in order to win your bet. So, if you bet on the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl this year, you’ll need them to cover the (-8.0) point spread in order to win. (You can find the calculation for the spread here.)

Additionally, when you’re calculating the spread, you need to keep in mind the caliber of athletes on the competing teams — in other words, how good are the players and how much experience do they have? Great players can make even the most talented teams win, so the spread can end up being quite high (if the game is close) or low (if the game is far enough along that the starters have locked in). For example, let’s say you’re backing the Arizona Cardinals against the San Francisco 49ers this year. The Cardinals are a very good team, and they’ve got some talented players, but they also have a lot of young players on the roster who aren’t yet proven. The 49ers, on the other hand, have been to the playoffs multiple times in the past decade and are led by one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. The spread on this game alone is likely to be around (-11.0), which could make for some great betting value if you’re feeling adventurous.


Another important concept in sports betting is whether a team is going to cover the spread or go “over” or “under” the point spread. If you’re looking to make some money, you want to bet on the over. When you bet on the under, you’re agreeing that the spread is going to be enough to win the game. (Note: If you’re not confident that you can pick the winners, then it might be a better idea to choose some football tickets for the Champions League or the Super Bowl instead of betting on sports. But if you’re feeling lucky, then by all means, go for it!)

For instance, if you bet $10 on the under against the Chicago Bears this year, you’ll win $20 if your team wins and loses $10 if they lose. The line for this game is actually (-9.5) — which means you’ll need all the help you can get (and a little bit of fortune) in order to win your bet. Alternatively, if you bet $10 on the over against the Bears, you’ll win $20 if your team wins and lose $10 if they win. In this case, you’re better off taking the over, since the line is quite low (-3.5), which makes it much more appealing.

Game Totals

Another thing to keep in mind is the total number of combined points scored (or allowed) by both teams. This is quite important, as it gives you an idea of how close the game is going to be — for example, if its total is very close to being matched, then it could be a very high-scoring game, with lots of points scored (but don’t be surprised if it’s a low-scoring game as well). Conversely, if the total is significantly higher than that of the other team, then it might be a blowout, with lots of scoring (but you might also lose).

For example, if you bet $10 on the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl, you’ll win $20 if they win and lose $10 if they lose. The line on this game is actually (+2.5), which means you’ll need all the help you can get (and a little bit of good fortune) in order to win your bet. Alternately, if you bet $10 on the Tennessee Titans to win the Super Bowl, you’ll win $20 if they win and lose $10 if they lose. In this case, you’re better off taking the under, since the line is very high (+10.5), which makes it a very unlikely event to happen.

Keep in mind that these are just some of the basics of American sports betting. There are several more concepts that can be helpful to know including points scored in [odds-related terms], whether there is a running game or passing game, and whether the under/over is winning the majority of its picks (if so, it’s usually a sign that the line is too low and there’s a good chance your team will win).

When To Lay A Sports Bet

Now, when should you lay your sports bets? Bear in mind that different books/organizations have different policies on when they want to take bets, so you might not be able to apply this general rule. Some books/organizations prefer to take bets only after a certain period of time (usually after the 1st or 2nd quarter of the game) has elapsed. Others might want to take bets anytime during the game. (If you want to get more specific, then you can look up the specific rules of each book/organization online or contact them directly to find out their policy on this matter.)

For example, if you’re watching the Detroit Lions play the Chicago Bears, and you’ve got faith in them winning, you might want to lay a wager on them as soon as possible. If you do this early in the game, you might get some great value since the spread is usually quite low (at the beginning of the game, it’s usually -3 or -4, which makes it easier for the underdogs to cover).

Another thing to keep in mind is the time of day the game is being played. Some books/organizations prefer to take bets early in the day, while others might want you to wait until the last quarter to place a bet. (This might depend on whether the book/organization is doing well or poorly at that moment.) For instance, if you’re watching the San Francisco 49ers play the Arizona Cardinals and you’ve got confidence in the 49ers winning the game, you might want to lay a bet on them as soon as possible. Doing so might help you gain some extra credits since the over/under is quite high at the moment — at least, in the early part of the day.

Tricky Situations

If you’re wondering how to apply the above information, then you might find it helpful to look at some of the “tricky situations” — those games where the spread doesn’t make much sense, if any. Here’s a short list of some of the more common scenarios: