Spread v Money Line Betting in American Football

Spread vs Money Line BettingAlthough American football, by which we mainly mean the NFL, has been a popular sport to watch in the UK since the days of Joe Montana in the 1980s, in recent times its popularity on these shores has grown. That also means that betting on it has also grown and whilst it remains relatively niche in comparison to what haters might call “proper” football, there are certainly more people in the UK betting on the NFL than ever before.

If you are relatively new to the sport and in particular if you have not bet on it before, you might be a little puzzled by the options, even if you are a regular punter on other sports and events. In most sports, the simplest, most popular bet, is normally centred on who will win the game or match, the match odds or winner market. However, those pesky Americans like to do things a little differently (much of what we say in this piece applies equally to betting on other “US” sports such as basketball and ice hockey). So in this piece, we take a closer look at American football betting and more specifically, money line betting and wagering on the spread.

What Is Money Line Betting?

American Football MoneyThe money line, sometimes written as moneyline (without the space), is essentially the US equivalent of the match odds, or match winner market. So if you were betting on a Premier League game between Arsenal and Spurs, a bet on Arsenal to win in 90 minutes is essentially a bet on the money line. Some UK bookmakers actually simplify their NFL/American football odds by not offering the money line, which is something of a US term, and instead offer a market called “Winner including overtime” or words to that effect.

If you understand the concept of the money line and you see such a market, then you can rest assured they are the same thing. However, when it comes to the money line, you will only ever see two options: Team A to win or Team B to win, with no option to back a draw.

Draws in the NFL are relatively unusual in normal time, just as they are in rugby due to the high-scoring nature of both. In addition, US sports, and the viewing public in America, do not like the concept of not having a winner and so the NFL, in common with all the other main US sports, uses overtime, even in the regular season, to decide games that end with the scores level. Because of this, the money line is based on who is ultimately declared the official winner of the game, be that after the regulation four quarters or after any necessary overtime. So when you bet on the money line you are quite simply betting on who will win the game.

Note that many bookies also offer a three-way match result market which is even more like the match odds in a game of football (soccer) because it does include the draw, always at lengthy odds. This, of course, does not include overtime and is based on the score after the normal four quarters. So assuming you back Team A in the three-way match result market and they win in overtime after the game ended 26-26, your bet will actually lose, because the winning bet in this market was actually the draw.

What About Draws And The Money Line?

American Football Player Holding the BallWhilst draws are unusual in normal time, real, post-overtime draws, are rarer still. But they are possible, at least in the normal season. In the post-season, there must, of course, always be a winner who progresses to the next round. However, in the main body of the campaign draws are possible, when nobody scores during overtime (or in certain circumstances both teams score the same amount of points in overtime), though they rarely occur.

The precise rules regarding the nature of overtime have changed several times over the years. From 1920 to 1973 the NFL and its forerunners did not use overtime at all. From 1974 to 2011 there was a single period of sudden death overtime and under these rules, 17 out of almost 500 games ended in ties.

In 2012 to 2016 a modification was made and this saw the incidence of ties almost double, with five from 83 games. In 2017 the rules were tweaked again, with overtime reduced to just 10 minutes for most games and again there was an increase in the number of games ending in ties. Though at this stage the sample size is fairly small, obviously reducing the length of the OT period is likely to make ties more common.

But the key point we want to get to here is what happens to money line bets in the event of a tie. The draw or tie are not offered in the simple two-way money line market, so what happens to your bet? Well, you may fear that you will lose your stake. After all, you backed a certain team to win and they did not. But that said, they did not lose either and the option that occurred was not even available for you to back.

In such a scenario, as with certain handicap bets in various sports and occasional other markets, the bet is settled as a push, or a void. This means that you get your stake back, so you neither win nor lose money. The only time this may be problematic is if the bet was made using a free bet or bonus funds. In such a scenario, unlikely though it is, you may lose out on your free bet, though you could always contact the bookie and ask them very nicely to reinstate it. Precise terms, and flexibility with regards to enforcing them, will vary from one bookmaker to the next.

What Is The Spread In American Football?

American Football SpreadThe spread is the focus for most US punters, who typically eschew the money line. What you choose to bet on is entirely up to you and there are pros and cons to each but what is the spread? In very simple terms, the spread is akin to a handicap market in football or, closer in terms of the analogy, rugby. If you are at all familiar with this concept in either sport then understanding the spread should be simple enough but even if not, it is straightforward.

Because draws (even in normal time) are unlikely, the match is effectively a two-horse race. This means that unless the clash is predicted to be very close, one of the sides will be a very short odds-on price. Of course, this team is more likely to win, so lots of punters do not want to bet against them. However, at the same time, few recreational punters like backing teams at odds of 1/3, 2/5 or 1/2 (or whatever the big favourite is priced at) and so this creates a dilemma.

When it comes to the major American sports, including American football, bookies get around this by using a handicap. This gives the team at longer odds a theoretical head start. If, for example, the Bills are playing the Colts, we might see odds as below:

Market Bills Odds Colts Odds Tie Odds (Where Applicable)
Money Line 3/10 13/5 NA
Three Way 1/3 11/4 12/1
Spread (-7) 9/10 (+7) 9/10 NA

With regards to the spread prices, you would normally see it shown as:

  • Buffalo Bills (-7): 9/10
  • Indianapolis Colts (+7): 9/10

In such a scenario the Bills, the favourites, are given a seven-point disadvantage at kick-off, applied only as far as bets on this market are concerned. So, if you back them, they need to win by at least eight points for your bet to win. On the other hand, if you had backed the Colts then if they win, tie, or lose by one to six points inclusive, then your bet wins.

Half-Point Spreads To Avoid Ties

American Football on GrassMany spreads, as with handicaps in other sports, are set in half points, so rather than seven, you might see 6.5, thus eradicating the possibility of a tie when the handicap/spread has been applied. In our example above, should the game finish Buffalo 24-17 Indianapolis, the match would end as a tie as far as the bet is concerned. The spread only applies to the bet, so obviously the sides will not play OT in New York state because Darren from Rotherham has a tied handicap bet. Instead, your bet will be a push; as explained, this is akin to a void bet and means your stake is returned with no net win or loss.

This gives half-point spreads a real attraction for both the bookie and the punter as there will always be a winner. Let us imagine another game between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, predicted to be a closer contest.

The odds might be as below:

Market Bears Odds Lions Odds Tie Odds (Where Applicable)
Money Line 8/15 6/4 NA
Three Way 8/13 8/15 10/1
Spread (-3.5) 10/11 (+3.5) 10/11 NA

In this case, anyone backing the Bears to cover the spread, as it is termed, needs them to win by four points or more. Any other result, be it a three-point (or less) victory for Chicago, a tie (after overtime) or a Lions win, and bets on the Lions +3.5 are successful and the Bears -3.5 is a loser.

This is an interesting point about the tie because those accustomed to betting on handicaps in most other sports, certainly “UK” ones like football and rugby, would expect a tie after regulation time to settle as a win for the Lions +3.5. If the handicap was applied at that stage they would win by 3.5 points but unusually NFL (as with some other US sports), includes overtime for a wide range of bets. As such, should the Bears win with a TD in OT (we hope you are keeping up!) they would cover the spread and be the winning bet in that regard.

Odds And Spread Value Can Vary From Bookie To Bookie

American Football BettingIn our example with the Bills and the Colts we quoted both sides at 9/10, whilst in the second game we showed the two teams at 10/11. In fact, the odds can and do vary from site to site. Some bookies may always quote both teams at the same price on their main spread (we will look at alternate/alternative spreads shortly) whilst others may have one a little shorter or longer than the other.

In addition, whilst the best American football betting sites might quote 10/11 for both teams on the spread, others may offer much shorter odds. You might see some offering rather parsimonious odds of 5/6 or even 4/5, significantly less value and odds that should be avoided if you have the option of other bookmakers.

Last of all, not all bookmakers will always quote the same spread as their main handicap option. So if a bookie really fancies the Bears, they might have a money line significantly shorter than the 8/15 we have quoted above. In such a scenario they could stick to the 3.5 spread but price the two sides at different odds (Detroit at the bigger price) or they could choose to go with a four-point spread on the game, or even four and a half.

Alternative Spread

American Football GameAs well as differing spreads being available at various bookies due to variation in the perceived probabilities of the game, that is to say, a difference of opinion about how strong a favourite the supposedly better side should be, oddsmakers also offer different spreads to give punters more choice. Whilst a spread of 3.5 points, 6.5 points, 10 points, or 15.5 points (or whatever), may be used to generate odds around even money for both teams, alternative spreads can be used to create longer or shorter odds.

So if the Bears are -3.5 on the spread but you think they will win much more easily, you can increase your odds from the standard 10/11 (at a good bookie, shorter with others) by backing them with a larger handicap. Taking on a handicap of 4.5 points would improve the odds to evens or perhaps a shade longer, whilst if you went up as high as 7.5 points (requiring a win of eight points or more) the odds would leap to around 2/1. For the uninitiated it can be surprising how quickly the odds increase so if you are confident your pick will win with room to spare, looking to the alternative spread lines can be a brilliant option.

Alternatively, if you want something that is a banker you can back the favourites with a smaller, or even positive handicap (so back the favourites with a head start of their own). If you fancy an NFL acca this can be a good way to improve your chances of winning. You could just back Chicago on the money line at 8/15 but if, for example, you backed them -2.5 then you would get odds around the 4/5 mark, whilst if you opted to bet on them +2.5 those odds would drop to 10/21 but your acca would still survive even if they lost by two points.

The alternative spread lines allow you to use this market to make more accurate and unlikely predictions about how the game will unfold in order to improve the odds. This can be done by increasing the handicap for the favourite so they have to win by more points or decreasing the head start the opposition gets if you fancy an upset. On the other side of the coin, you can give yourself more wiggle room by going the other way; either giving the underdog a large advantage or opting to back the favourite with either no negative handicap or even a small head start.

Ultimately the various alternative spread lines allow you to create the bet you want at the odds you want. This will reflect how you think the game will pan out and also your attitude to risk and reward.