Sports Betting Basics: Moneyline, Spreads, Totals

Peanut butter and jelly. French fries and ketchup. Pancakes and Canadian maple syrup. Bring up one, and everyone immediately thinks of the other. In sports betting, the same companionship applies to a trio of popular bet types:

  • Moneylines
  • Point spreads
  • Totals

Those three bet types, arguably the holy trinity of sports betting, thrive because they are:

  • Easily understood
  • Simple to incorporate into your sports betting strategy
  • Educational in sports betting and adjacent types of wagering

Single-game betting is a watershed development for Canada. After decades of parlay-only betting, the door was opened by Bill C-218, which legalized single-game betting for online sportsbooks and sportsbook apps.

If you’re poised to jump into sports betting for the first time, enjoy this complete look at the three most popular bet types.

What’s the most popular bet type for beginners?

That actually depends on the sport. Some feature certain bet types that work better than others. However, overall, the most popular bet type for beginning bettors in North America is the moneyline.

The reason is very simple: moneyline bets are the easiest to make and require the least research. These sometimes come in the form of “match winner” or a similar term.

In the end, they all mean the same thing. You pick which team wins. If you’re right, you win based on the odds assigned to the team for that event. If you lose, the sportsbook keeps your wager.

Moneyline bets are also popular because they often afford the best chance of a return on your initial wager. The payouts aren’t as high as with other bet types, of course, but that’s because there is more of a chance that you’ll hit on a moneyline bet than the others. Sportsbooks are in the business of making money, so they offer up more enticing odds with the hope you’ll place a bet on a riskier position.

What’s the most popular bet for experienced gamblers?

That would be the point spread. It requires a bit more knowledge and research, but the odds are almost always better than on the moneyline, thus giving a better return on the initial bet.

Bettors tend to look for those games where the point spread is favourable to their team of choice, especially if their homework digs up any indication the oddsmakers were off the mark when setting the spread.

Since you’ll come across these bet types for just about any sporting event in any sportsbook, let’s continue with some basic examples of “the holy trinity.”

Moneyline example

What is a moneyline bet? As we mentioned above, a moneyline bet is simply you, the bettor, choosing which team or individual is going to win a particular event. There are odds associated with each team or person, and those odds are used to determine the payout for a winning bet slip.

For example, in an NFL game pitting the Green Bay Packers against the Kansas City Chiefs, a sportsbook’s moneyline listing could look a lot like this:

  • Kansas City (-110)
  • Green Bay (+100)

What you’re seeing here is the favourite (represented by a negative odds number) and the underdog (represented by positive odds). In order to win $100 on a bet on Kansas City, the initial wager needs to be $110, and the Chiefs need to win. For a $100 win on the Packers, they need to win, and you will have to bet $100.

Point spread example 

This wager type will feature not only the odds (as with the moneyline wager) but also a set number of points for each team. The favourite has to win by that number of points or more in order for your bet slip to be deemed a winner.

As we mentioned previously, experienced bettors have made the point spread their wager of choice. It has a better return on investment than the moneyline and is still significantly easier than many other bet types.

The reason the point spread exists is to even the playing field, so to speak. Oddsmakers have already chosen the moneyline favourite, so the point spread is used to help equalize the teams or contestants. While one team might be expected to dominate the contest, the point spread is designed so that each team has an almost even chance to win the game—on paper at least.

Experienced bettors will often play both sides of the spread. They wager a larger sum on the team they think will bring them a winning bet slip. But then, they’ll routinely make a smaller wager on the other side to minimize potential losses. You’ve heard of this before, usually through the phrase “hedging your bets.”

We’re going to stick with football betting for the example here. How about the Buffalo Bills against the Pittsburgh Steelers? In our scenario, the Bills are favoured to win and are 3.5-point favourites.

  • Buffalo Bills -3.5 (-110)
  • Pittsburgh Steelers +3.5 (-110)

In order for a wager on the Bills to win here, Buffalo has to take the victory by 3.5 points or more. If they win the game 26-21, then the bet would be a winner as well. If they win the game 26-23, then the bet slip would be a loser.

However, the Steelers would yield a winning bet slip in that second scenario because they would have lost by fewer than 3.5 points. The underdog only has to lose by fewer points than the spread (or win outright) in order for the bet slip to pay out.

Totals example

For this bet type, which is more commonly referred to as an over/under bet, the sportsbook sets a number it believes will comprise the combined total score of both teams. As the bettor, you have to decide whether the two teams will combine to score over that total or under it. The winner doesn’t matter, only the total sum of points, runs, goals or any other relevant mode of scoring.

This wager type requires more research than the other two we’ve discussed. Offences and defences have to be studied, not to mention injury news, weather reports, historical matchups and recent trends. These are all elements of the handicapping process, though hardly an exhaustive list.

Odds are usually -110 for each side of the contest. If you remember, that means you’ll need to wager $110 in order to take home a $100 profit.

Let’s take a look at the last Super Bowl matchup between the Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for our example. The total predicted was 54.4 points.

  • Over 54.4 points (-110)
  • Under 54.4 points (-110)

If you recall, the Bucs walked away with the game and a 31-9 victory over the defending NFL champions.

Thus, those who wagered on the over ended up losing, thanks to the 40-point final. Those who wagered on the under took home the winnings with every $110 wagered added $100 in returns.

What are the decimal points on the spread and over/under?

Always keep in mind that sportsbooks are in the business of making money. The more shrewdly they can set themselves up not to pay out on winning wagers, the happier they will be.

So in the point spread example above, we indicated a 3.5 spread. In the over/under example, we used 54.4 as the hypothetical total.

Since there are no half-points, or 0.4 points for that matter, there is no way for the two teams to tie. If a tie did happen in a game where there is no decimal in the final prediction, then the sportsbooks would have a “push” on their hands. This essentially means the spread and total bets would be invalid, and the original amount of money wagered would be returned to the bettor.

With decimals, the sportsbooks guarantee there won’t be any returned bets, barring unforeseen circumstances that are typically addressed in each book’s terms and conditions. Make sure to familiarize yourself with those whenever you register for a new account.

What sports use these bet types?

Pretty much every single one of them. The bets might have different names, but they all end up circling the same concept. Once again, moneyline bets are just picking the winner. This might refer to games, or matches or even tournaments for individuals.

Point spread bets are picking a team to cover the spread or betting against the spread. You might see these as goals, or runs or puck lines.

Total bets may also be referred to as an over/under. This is any bet where you choose whether a game or match will exceed or fall below a combined number of points.

Sports betting FAQs

What is covering the spread?

You’ve heard the phrase, no doubt. This means the favourite wins the game and scores as many, or more, points than predicted by the sportsbook. If they do, they cover the point spread.

What is a pick ‘em?

Sometimes there are two teams so evenly matched that oddsmakers just can’t see either team coming away with a win by any particular margin. In these cases, there won’t be a point spread offered. That leaves just the moneyline wager, which is often then referred to as a pick ‘em.

What other bet types are there?

There are numerous other bet types out there. Popular choices include parlays, futures, prop bets and teasers. Each has its own nuances and strategies, and each can be a lot of fun. But make sure you understand the basics before you start expanding to new bet types.

Are there any others worth noting?

Well, there is one starting to gain popularity in betting circles. It’s called in-game betting, or live betting. This refers to a bet you place right as the action unfolds on the field, court or ice.

The key to participating in this bet type is having a legal and regulated online sportsbook app at the ready. Tellers at retail books can’t keep up with the quickly changing odds presented during live betting; online sportsbooks can.

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