How to Shop for the Best Sports Betting Lines

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If you’re anything like millions of Americans at the moment, you’re probably developing an interest in betting on sports.

Back in May of 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued a transformational ruling that paved the way for sports betting legalization nationwide. After lawmakers and voters in New Jersey attempted to legalize sportsbooks to complement its existing casino gambling industry, the NCAA, NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA teamed up to sue the Garden State.

According to the leagues’ argument, New Jersey’s efforts to legalize the sports betting industry violated a federal law known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992. Under the PASPA, wagering on the outcome of sporting events was prohibited nationwide – except, of course, in Nevada.

But that all changed in May, as the Court handed down a 6-3 decision in favor of New Jersey -striking down the PASPA in the process.

From that point forward, individual states have been free to pursue their own sports betting regulations if and when they see fit. So far, the list of states to launch legal sports betting stands at five – Delaware, New Jersey, West Virginia, Mississippi, and New Mexico – with several other states like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania expected to implement their own laws soon.

All things considered, Americans now have more access to legal sports betting than ever before. And when you factor in the role of major online sportsbooks like Bovada, Pinnacle, and 5 Dimes, 2018 is a proverbial smorgasbord for sports betting enthusiasts.

Because of this sudden shift in the legal landscape, new bettors are taking to the hobby in droves. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been wagered in New Jersey alone, and within the next few years, industry experts expect the list of sports betting legal states to reach 30 or more.

Sufficed to say, the sportsbooks will have steady streams of new customers hoping to hit on a few winners while watching their favorite games and matches.

Unfortunately, however, new sports bettors are often prone to rookie mistakes that help the bookmakers line their own pockets. Just imagine the first time you played poker or blackjack – and the basic strategic errors that led to your downfall – to get an idea of what first-time sports bettors are up against.

The Basics of Sportsbetting

If you’ve ever been inside a sportsbook on the Las Vegas Strip, or pulled up an online betting platform like the three mentioned above, you’re probably familiar with the labyrinth of numbers and symbols that comprise the betting board. These boards display the current point spreads* and moneyline* odds attached to various contests.

*A point spread is the number of points added to the underdog’s final score, or subtracted from the favorite’s score, to balance out two disproportionately talented teams

**Moneyline odds are used in lieu of a point spread, so the unadulterated final score is used to determine a game’s winner. Moneyline odds reflect the payout winning bets receive relative to their wager, so favorites will pay out less on the dollar, while underdogs will pay out more than the original bet

You might see something like ATL (-3.5) / (-170) vs CLE (+3.5) (+160) under the NFL betting board.

In this case, the Atlanta Falcons are playing the Cleveland Browns, with the Falcons tabbed as favorites by 3.5 points. That means the Falcons not only need to win the game for your Atlanta ticket to cash, but they must also win by at least 4 points to “cover” the (-3.5) point spread. Conversely, bettors who back Cleveland can collect on their wager whenever the Browns win outright, or when they lose by 3 points or fewer.

As for the other set of numbers attached to this game, the Falcons are listed as (-170) moneyline favorites, which means you’ll need to bet $170 to collect $100 in profit. You can bet any amount you’d like, of course, but your wager size will be reduced according to the (-170) moneyline number. In this case, a $100 wager on the Falcons would return $58.82 in profit, with no point spreads to worry about.

Simply figuring out how to decipher the lines and odds can be difficult enough. But as soon as you feel comfortable assessing the betting board and making your picks, the sportsbooks throw another wrinkle your way – line shopping.

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The Best Sports Bettors Play the Line Shopping Game

One of the most recognized voices in the sports betting industry, Ted “Teddy Covers” Servansky has been beating the books at their own game for two decades and counting.

As a professional handicapper, Servansky routinely posts win rates in the 60 percent range across all major professional and collegiate sports, so he’s certainly an authority on sports betting strategy. In a profile of Servansky published by the Intelligent Betting Tips website, his first warning to aspiring sports bettors concerns the crucial importance of identifying the best line:

He says that one of the biggest mistakes that casual bettors make is failing to shop for the best line variance.

For example, when people buy shares of stock, the stock costs the same no matter which broker sells them the stock. When people bet on sports, different sportsbooks offer different lines, which can make a big difference in how much profit a bettor makes.

Servansky goes on to explain exactly why shopping for optimal lines benefits sharp bettors:

“The rule for shopping lines is comparing what other bookies are offering first.

The goal is simple: make sure that you are maximizing potential return on investment. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens enough that just shopping the football line that you want to bet on can substantially invest your return – and because you’re spending less, you’re automatically reducing your loss.

That one simple rule will change the way a bettor looks at a bet, and a standard practice almost every sports bettor will perform. You can oftentimes find much better deals than what you originally thought.”
(Quote from: intelligentbettingtips.com)

The key to Servansky’s approach to line shopping is deceptively simple – the odds are essentially the same as a price tag. When you want to wager on a particular side, the sportsbook uses the line to charge you a certain price.

For example, a $100 wager on a (-110) moneyline will only return $90.91 in profit on your money. But if you can shop around and locate the same side offering (-105), that same $100 ticket would return $95.24 instead.

That’s a difference of $4.33 – or 4.33 percent using a $100 betting unit – which is quite substantial given the ultra slim margins associated with sports betting.

And if you’re the type of bettor who prefers sizing their wagers to secure a flat $100 return, the analogy makes even more sense. In this case, you’d need to fire off a $110 bet at (-110) odds to bring back a $100 win. And when you lose, you’ve just paid the bookmaker a $10 surcharge on the action.

Get yourself a lower (-105) price, however, and you only need to stake $105 for a chance at winning $100. Find yourself on the losing side though, and your surcharge drops in half to only $5.

Servansky isn’t the only sharp out there preaching the gospel of line shopping either.

Morey “Doc” Moseman – a professional handicapper for the last 40 years who also serves as a sports betting consultant forDocSports.com– offered aspiring bettors the following sage advice in a piece titled “Don’t Be a Square” published by the Huffington Post:

“Another important aspect of betting on football is shopping for the best number. There will be more discrepancy in the numbers at different sports books.

The NFL, for example, will have very similar numbers at most of the betting shops you visit. On college you will be able to find different lines at different sports books.

These books change their numbers according to the betting patterns of their customers, so it is not entirely uncommon to find two- or three-point differences in the lines.”

(Quote link: huffingtonpost.com)

In this case, Moseman was focusing on college and NFL football action, where point spread betting reigns supreme. But his wisdom is applicable to any sport where lines fluctuate one way or another ahead of game time – and that’s every sport under the sun.

The Long-Term Benefits of Line Shopping

The stock market example Servansky employs above is especially apt, because Wall Street traders attempt to squeeze out the slimmest of margins by exploiting high-volume transactions. Even the most minimal changes in a stock’s price – right down to the penny – can create tremendous fluctuations in a trader’s eventual return on their investment.

When that process is applied to sports betting, it looks a little something like this…

Let’s say you stick to (-110) favorites only over the course of a 1,000-bet sample. In this case, the conservative strategy of backing slim favorites would require 524 winning wagers to bring yourself back to the breakeven point.

But if you were sharp enough to shop around for slightly better (-105) odds on the same 1,000 bets, the threshold for breaking even drops down to 513 winners.

That might not seem like much of a difference, but achieving any level of sustained success in the sports betting world is a war of attrition. Remember, the very best bettors in the world struggle to reach a 55 percent win rate, and 60 percent is practically superhuman. With that in mind, finding any possible way to cut down on the number of winners you need to generate a profit is of paramount importance.

The term “line shopping” may leave you focused on moneyline wagers, but you can also shop for the most advantageous point spreads.

This process is more intuitive for new bettors too, because the difference between a particular point spread and another are straightforward and easy to see.

If you’re interested in backing a (+3) point NFL underdog next Sunday, part of the deal is banking on those 3 points to help your cause. But if you can manage to find a book listing the same side getting (+3.5), it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the extra half-point – known as the “hook” to avid football bettors – offers a significant helping hand to your cause.

With 3.5 points to work with, your team can lose in overtime to a game-winning field goal and your ticket still cashes. Any 3-point margin, for that matter, will be overcome by the power of the hook. Check any football scoreboard at the end of the weekend and you’ll realize just how important adding a hook to your side can be.

Simply put, in a game like football where final scores will tend to remain tight, getting any extra equity via half-points or full points is invaluable.

Line shopping for point spreads works the other way too, with bettors who back favorites looking to shave the number they’re “laying” down whenever possible. After all, why back a (-7) fave when you can make the same wager at (-6.5) or (-6)?

To get a better idea of how shopping for point spreads in football betting can affect your bottom line, it can be helpful to examine historical scoring trends.

The table below showcases data from the last 12 NFL seasons, with an emphasis on how various underdog point spreads – (+X.X) – perform against real life final scores:

Win Probability by Point Spread (NFL Underdogs from 2006 through 2018)

Spread Games Wins ACTUAL PROBABILITY ESTIMATED PROB.
1 139 69 49.60% 46.40%
1.5 88 43 49.59% 44.60%
2 126 51 40.50% 42.90%
2.5 224 98 43.80% 41.10%
3 517 279 45.50% 39.40%
3.5 279 107 38.40% 37.70%
4 157 59 37.60% 36.10%
4.5 128 47 36.70% 34.40%
5 89 23 25.80% 32.80%
5.5 118 38 32.20% 31.30%
6 133 45 33.80% 29.70%
6.5 147 42 28.60% 28.30%
7 220 51 23.20% 26.80%
7.5 146 36 24.70% 25.50%
8 65 14 21.50% 24.10%
8.5 52 16 30.80% 22.80%
9 58 13 22.40% 21.60%
9.5 48 6 12.50% 20.40%
10 104 19 18.30% 19.30%
10.5 61 15 24.60% 18.20%
11 41 4 9.80% 17.10%
11.5 22 4 18.20% 16.10%
12 13 3 23.10% 15.20%
12.5 25 4 16.00% 14.30%
13 34 6 17.60% 13.40%
13.5 36 4 11.10% 12.60%
14 36 3 8.30% 11.90%
14.5 12 1 8.30% 11.10%

The first impressions from poring over this data set are rather obvious…

Lower point spreads help underdog bettors cash tickets much more often than higher spreads, as a (+1) or (+2) dog is handicapped at right around even with their opposing favorite. Small spreads like this for the underdog side tend to cash tickets somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time.

Conversely, when you back a huge double-digit dog getting (+10) or higher – or teams that are woefully outgunned compared to their competition – the win rate plummets to below 20 percent on average.

But when you take a closer look at the minutiae of the numbers above, you can get a good sense of how line shopping serves the sharp bettor.

Let’s say you find a big dog like the Miami Dolphins (+9.5) visiting the vaunted New England Patriots. You know you’ll be looking to grab the Phins and the points, hoping for a close game and a cover, but if you fire that first (+9.5) line you find, your historical win rate stands at just 12.5 percent.

By taking your time and waiting for the line to shift ever so slightly to (+10), your expected win rate jumps to 18.30 percent. And if you’re lucky enough to find a book spreading the game at Miami (+10.5), the win rate doubles from its original mark all the way to 24.60 percent.

The folks who consistently excel at the sportsbook know how to exploit minuscule advantages of a percentage point or less – so any opportunity to increase your win probability by double-digit percentages is a godsend.

Tools to Make Like Shopping Easy and Efficient

The technological advantages bettors enjoy today are unparalleled, and thanks to the power of the internet, you’re always connected to the major sportsbooks and their betting boards.

A favorite resource of mine when shopping for lines is USAToday. Here you’ll find a running database featuring statistics and up-to-date lines from several popular sportsbooks online.

To check the odds board for your favorite sport, take a look at the links below:

NFL

NBA

MLB

NHL

Finally, be sure to check in with the “Behind the Bets” podcast on the ESPN Network. This highly educational and entertaining podcast is hosted by Chad Millman and Bob Scucci – supervisor of all sportsbook operations for the Boyd Gaming casino company -and “Scooch” is never shy about explaining exactly why his book has moved the lines one way or another.

All in all, bettors today have more information available to them than any generation before, so you might as well take advantage of that access while shopping for the best lines.

Conclusion

Any rube can size up a sports contest and choose a side – especially when one team is clearly bettor than its opponent – but point spreads and moneylines make the challenge much more interesting. Adding to the intrigue are the intricate line movements that see the odds slide up and down the scale. As a sharp bettor who wants to give themselves the best chance to extract profit from the books, shopping for the best possible lines should be your highest priority.