Ever found yourself watching a Sunday Night ballgame and heard Al Michaels casually make one of his tougue-in-cheek remarks (always at the end of the contest & usually when the Winner has already been determined) like “these last 30 seconds are of strong interest to a handful of viewers”? Or something like that.
Think about it. You have, haven’t you?
Well for those not already in the know, Michaels, the crafty master announcer, is acknowledging the ubiquity of the points spread.
THE POINTS SPREAD. The raison d’être of watching & following Pro Football (College too) for many sports fans in the universe.
Think about it: why do you think Pick Em shows & segments, and newspaper & magazine columns picking NFL (and College) games are so popular? It’s because of the point spread!
Let me explain. The point spread is the handicapping of a sporting event–in this instance, a given NFL game–that factors in the favorite & the underdog contestants thereby putting the pending matchup into proper context for speculators.
Alright Virginia. Allow me to fully explain. See, one of the primary reasons why Football is so damn popular is because betting on the ballgames is a standardized part of the american sports culture.
In fact, according to Esquire, if betting on The NFL was ever legalized by the feds, the U.S. would represent the world’s largest legal gambling market.
How about that?
But if you ain’t already up on this, that factoid doesn’t help you one bit. But it does help you understand that sports gambling is a huge business in this country.
The Line (Explained)
The Line. The Spread. The Odds. For the purposes of explanation, it all means the same thing.
This is how it works.
In order for bookies (the guys that handle the betting) to set the market for a given matchup, they provide odds on the scheduled game. The odds represent the anticipated likely result of a football game.
Let’s use a generic example.
Team A is set to face team B on the weekend. In order to address the quality gap (who’s better) in the teams, the point spread is used. In our example, we will assume that both teams are evenly matched. In such a scenario, the Home Team is given the benefit of a Home Field Advantage & is favored by 3 points.
That is standard fare.
If both teams are considered competitive equals, then the host gives the 3 points to the visitor. That’s the baseline, right? And you will see it in the paper expressed in this manner:
Team A vs Team B (-3)
Since Team B is the Home Team in this matchup (and because they are favored) they give the points (or spot the points) to Team A. From a gambling perspective, that means the Home team needs to prevail by 4 points or more in order (for the guy betting on that Home team) to Win money!
If a gambler bet on Team A, in this case the Road team, as long as they don’t lose by more than 2 points he Wins dough. And if they Win the game outright, he Wins as well.
This is what all the fuss is about!
And that’s not all. Injuries, suspensions, and all kinds of mitigating circumstances adjust the line (the spread).
Take the team A/team B example. Remember that they are evenly matched opponents. But what if Team B’s Starting Quarterback was injured & out for the game? Then the line would take this information into account.
The new line may read
Team A (-2) vs Team B
In this case, the line is implying that the injury in question is so significant that it renders Team B an underdog!
This is why The NFL requires its teams to publish Injury Reports the day before the week’s slate of games is played. While that may not be the official reason, The League knows that this information affects the gambling economy (and it is definitely in its best interest to accommodate the gambling houses with up-to-date information).
Why Handicapping Games is Relevant
Typically right after the week’s games are played, the new lines come out for the succeeding week. At that point (if you pay attention), the key injuries for the teams around The League are factored in during the course of the week.
This is why the Star Wideout’s ankle soreness is such a big deal. If he’s considered a go for Sunday, you will see this information reflected in the point spread.
Should he experience a setback, or end up being downgraded to Out For The Game, the line will shift again.
And make no mistake, the money does move according to the available information and the widely held speculation. Just like the stock market.
And this isn’t even considering the cash wagered between work buddies, fans of rival teams that meet that week, or the mountain of Pick Em pools that exist around the country.
The point is that Pro Football wouldn’t be a behemoth it is without the betting action. That fact is beyond dispute.
“So what? I don’t gamble on football games” you say. That’s fine. But you can still take advantage of the points spread to deepen your understanding of the game.
Don’t believe me? Let’s try a little exercise.
Here’s this week’s slate:
(These lines are courtesy of ESPN. See? They know.)
[One thing I didn’t touch on was the over/under. That’s the number right next to the spread. All the over/under means is the sportsbooks compile a total number of points that will be scored in a contest. Those that believe the total will be less than the baseline number set will bet the under. Those that expect more will take the over.]
So, if you take a minute and actually look at each matchup, you will begin to gain your own insight on certain teams/matchups.
Now you might notice that Cleveland is a Road Favorite(!) this week. Or perhaps you peeped that even the bookies wouldn’t touch the Tampa Bay/Minnesota matchup. Or maybe you saw that Houston is the biggest underdog of the week (at +13).
Whatever you did see provides more insight into not only a standard week’s matchups, but it also reveals a little about the teams themselves.
Again, for the Browns to be favored is a stronger comment on Indianapolis’s ineptitude.
See what I mean? Wild shit, right?
Now you see the full picture.
And I want to take this opportunity to tell you that I am not promoting gambling here. You have my word that I did not link to a single gambling site in this post (nor have I ever done so). And I do not intend to get into betting axioms (parlays & teasers, etc.) either.
If you use any information derived from this blog to factor into any wagering decision, that is your choice. I want to be absolutely clear that I am not endorsing sports betting in this post, nor on this blog.
But my view is that it’s important to understand how this ocean of cash being bet every week affects the information provided to the general public about the games.
Does the betting affect the outcomes of games? No.
But it does impact the analysis of each team.
In fact, oftentimes the bookmakers previews tend to be the most unbiased, because there is money at stake! Therefore, the incentive for accuracy is much stronger for the sportsbooks than it is for the Pregame shows.
And when you understand the psychology behind the favoring of teams, it can definitely help you understand the quality of the teams themselves.
And that understanding is the best Win of em all!