How Much Does the Spread Matter When Betting NFL?

How Much Does the Spread Matter When Betting NFL?

We’re officially into Week 5 of the 2022 NFL season. I was sure to put the year in that last sentence, because I imagine that this piece will be an instant classic, one that people refer to and revisit for years to come, and I want everyone to be able to know, at a glance, when this soon-to-be masterpiece was written.

Has a sports betting piece ever won a Pulitzer? It’s about time.

We’re at the point in the season where, like clockwork, people on Twitter start talking about how the spread is irrelevant in the NFL. They’ll say something like, “The spread has come into play in only 20% of games this year, so if you like a team — especially an underdog — you might as well bet them on the moneyline, because the spread basically doesn’t matter. What matters is picking winners.”

Let’s examine this perspective.

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20% of Something Is Not Nothing

First of all, people who act as if 20% is nothing — in my opinion — aren’t exhibiting enough respect for the weightiness that is one-fifth of anything.

Generally, 20% is a lot. Think about 20% if it’s applied to your salary, your taxes, your heat bill, your bar tab, etc. You notice that 20%.

That 20% impacts your sports betting bankroll.

When it comes to money, to things that are tangible, people immediately sense the impact of 20%.

But when it comes to probabilities, to thinking about whether something will or won’t happen, too many people act as if 20% is almost 0%.

So that’s the first thing: 20% of all NFL games is not an insignificant portion.

NFL Spreads vs. Moneylines

As I’m writing this sentence, it’s Monday, October 3. Again, 2022. We’re still hours away from Monday Night Football. As I peruse the Bet Labs database (available via Action Network), I notice the following data going back to 2003.

Abbreviations: Against the spread (ATS), return on investment (ROI), moneyline (ML).

ATS ROI: 4,808-4,808-270 (-2.3% ROI)
ML ROI: 4,921-4,921-24 (-2.9% ROI)

What do you notice?

Historically, bettors lose more — have a lower rate of return — in the moneyline market than the spread market.

And that makes sense.

In the spread market, we normally see only 20 cents of juice with -110 odds on both sides. And when oddsmakers adjust one side to -115 or -120 they will almost always counterbalance the other side with -105 or +100.

But in the moneyline market, the books commonly add more juice and create a larger hold for themselves, which means that typically there’s less overall value in that market for sports bettors.

And that matters, because that difference over time impacts your bank roll.

The smaller the hold, the less juice overall, the better.

Of course, price sensitivity really doesn’t matter if all you’re doing is picking winners — but 1) I’m saying that facetiously, because 2) it’s hard to pick winners, which is why 3) the price you get always matters.

So from the outset we should be skeptical of the idea that the spread doesn’t matter and that we should invest via the moneyline market.

Historically, spreads have offered more value to bettors.

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NFL Spreads vs. Moneylines: Underdogs

When people talk about how the spread doesn’t matter, they normally say that in reference to underdogs: “If you like an underdog, you might as well bet them on the moneyline.”

What does history say?

ATS Underdogs

Record: 2,446-2,351-135
Win Rate: 51%
ROI: -0.6%
Units: -30.0
Margin: -0.19

If you’d blindly bet all underdogs against the spread in the regular season every year since 2003, you’d be down 30 units.

Honestly, you could do a lot worse than that. Many bettors — maybe I should say “former bettors” — would love to be able to lose only 30 units over the course of 20 years.

What about the moneyline underdogs?

ML Underdogs

Record: 1,638-3,272-12
Win Rate: 33.4%
ROI: -2.6%
Units: -129.8
Margin: -5.58

Well, should I just stop writing the article now? I probably could — but I won’t.

Historically, bettors have lost more than quadruple the money by betting underdogs on the moneyline instead of the spread.

And that’s just the money. That doesn’t take into account the mental toll that accompanies the fact that you win with less frequency (51% vs. 33.4%) and you experience a greater point deficit (-0.19 vs. -5.58) in the moneyline market.

It’s tough to lose bets at a 2:1 ratio. And when you lose it’s even tougher if you’re not even close to getting the win.

But that might be worth it if betting on the moneyline were actually more profitable in the long run.

But it’s not. It’s not even close. In fact, it costs bettors a phenomenal amount of money.

In effect, sports bettors for the past 20 years — for the right to feel all the pain that comes with winning just one-third of the time — have paid a dummy tax of over 400%.

And, yes, “dummy tax” is exactly the right way of putting it.

NFL Spreads vs. Moneylines: Favorites

So that’s underdogs. But what about favorites?

Has the spread-vs.-moneyline dynamic been any different for teams expected to win?

ATS Favorites

Record: 2,351-2,446-135
Win Rate: 49%
ROI: -4.0%
Units: -195.3
Margin: +0.19

Oh, baby. I trust that you can see where this is going.

ML Favorites

Record: 3,272-1,638-12
Win Rate: 66.6%
ROI: -3.1%
Units: -152.6
Margin: +5.58

Amazing. Not only are the “bet the moneyline” proselytes wrong about avoiding the spread market for underdogs, but they’re also wrong in their secondary suggestion: “If you like the underdog, bet the moneyline, but if you like the favorite then bet the spread.”

No. That, historically, has been wrong.

As donkey-ish as this sounds, it’s true: Over the past 20 years, you’d have been better off betting favorites on the moneyline than the spread.

You’d have experienced the joy of winning your bets at a 2:1 clip. And your average moneyline bet would’ve resulted in a win of not quite a touchdown.

Sure, yeah, you would’ve lost a ton of money. Way more than your entire bankroll.

But you at least wouldn’t have lost your bankroll as quickly as you would’ve if you’d bet favorites on the spread.

By the way, now seems like a good place for a quick tangential aside.

NFL Favorites vs. Underdogs

As you can see, historically it has been far more profitable — or far less costly — to bet underdogs instead of favorites, whether it’s against the spread or on the moneyline.

Yes, every situation is different. Every game presents its own unique setup. You should bet whatever value you see in the market based on your numbers, regardless of however you generate them — as long as they’re generated in a systematic and informed manner.

But, com’on. The gambling gods help those that help themselves.

Favorites have been inflated in the market for the past 20 years. By and large, we should be betting against them, not on them.

Whenever you bet on a favorite and lose, you have no right to blame the quarterback, the coach, the referees, the weather or anything else.

It wasn’t a bad beat. It was probably a bad bet.

If history is any indication, when you bet on a favorite and lose, you have only yourself to blame.

OK, back to the rest of the article …

NFL Spreads vs. Moneylines: 2022 Underdogs

The long term usually matters more than the short term. The larger sample tends to have more weight than the smaller, more recent sample.

The general over the particular.

Tobias: You know, Lindsay, as a therapist I have advised a number of couples to explore an open relationship where the couple remains emotionally committed but free to explore extramarital encounters.

Lindsay: Well, did it work for those people?

Tobias: No, it never does. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking that it might, but … but it might work for us.

You’ve seen the numbers. And yet, still, you think to yourself …  “Maybe this is the year to bet on moneyline underdogs?”

2022 ATS Underdogs

Record: 38-24-1
Win Rate: 61.3%
ROI: 16.8%
Units: +10.6
Margin: +0.98

That’s pretty good. Underdogs against the spread paid the vig in Week 1 at 8-8, but in Weeks 2-4 they paid off with 10-5-1, 11-5 and 9-6 records.

2022 ML Underdogs

Record: 27-35-1
Win Rate: 43.5%
ROI: 10.7%
Units: +6.7
Margin: -3.4

That’s not bad — but it’s also not as good as the ATS performance.

Betting underdogs on the moneyline instead of the spread hasn’t made sense for the past 20 years — and it hasn’t made sense in 2022.

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Betting NFL Moneyline Underdogs Is Fun

I can hear some objections to my position on moneyline underdogs, the first of which is this: “Betting on big underdogs at long odds is fun.”

You’re right.

When they hit, it’s fun. Betting at plus money and winning more than you’re wagering is a thrill.

And the books know that. And they make you pay extra for it.

But if you want to bet on moneyline dogs for the sake of entertainment, I’m not here to stop you. Do it. In the name of fun, bet all the moneyline dogs you want. And parlay them together for good measure.

I mean, the market needs losers who are fine with being losers.

I’m not saying that you can’t bet moneyline dogs.

What I am saying is that, if you want to make money consistently, you shouldn’t automatically pivot to the moneyline market anytime you see an underdog you like against the spread.

How Relevant Is This Historical NFL Data?

Another possible objection: “This historical data might not be relevant now because the market can change.”

Fine. Yes. The market can change. But the market is made up of people, and they rarely change. Over time, they tend to exhibit the same general biases and inclinations, and that makes them — and the market — predictable and exploitable.

Also, I’d rather have some old data than no data.

And I also suspect that many people who would raise this objection would want it to run in only direction. If I told them that they can’t use historical data to help them make their arguments, they probably wouldn’t like it.

I think most objections to the relevance of the data based on the number of years it covers are irrelevant. The long timespan actually ensures that the data is meaningful, because time brings with it a large sample.

But there might be another objection to the dataset that I’ll entertain.

NFL Spreads vs. Moneylines: Short Underdogs

That objection: “Despite everything you’ve just said, betting the moneyline makes sense for short underdogs based on how points are unevenly distributed when scored, so your overall dataset isn’t relevant because you’ve included all dogs.”

You know what? That’s a fair objection. And smartly articulated. You have a point.

Let’s look only at short underdogs.

ATS Underdogs: +0.5 to +3

Record: 834-789-79
Win Rate: 51.4%
ROI: 1.6%
Units: +27.2
Margin: +0.67

That’s pretty good. Betting on short dogs against the spread has been a profitable strategy for the past 20 years. What about the moneyline?

ML Underdogs: +0.5 to +3

Record: 768-930-4
Win Rate: 45.2%
ROI: 2.4%
Units: +40.8
Margin: -1.6

Well, there it is. Consider me a convert.

Short underdogs have been more profitable on the moneyline than against the spread.

Bet Short Underdogs on the Moneyline … Maybe

In my mind, what gets lost in the “bet underdogs on the moneyline” conversation is the all-important point about short underdogs.

If someone is talking about a +2.5 underdog and says, “Bet them on the moneyline, because if they cover they’ll probably win,” then I guess that’s fine. Maybe that person is sharp. Maybe not.

But if someone says, “They’re +6.5, if you like them just bet them on the moneyline because the spread almost never matters anyway,” then that person might not be someone with profitable sports betting advice.

And it’s not as if it’s as simple as pivoting from the spread to the moneyline. The two are correlated, but they’re not perfectly correlated.

As I’m writing this, the Cardinals for Week 5 are +5.5 home favorites against the Eagles with -110 odds at DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars.

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But even though these three sportsbooks have identical odds for the Cardinals (and the Eagles, for that matter) in the spread market, they have wildly different odds in the moneyline market.

DraftKings: Eagles -225, Cardinals +190
FanDuel: Eagles -255, Cardinals +210
Caesars: Eagles -235, Cardinals +192

The difference between +190 and +192 is marginal … even though you should always seek to bet the best line available.

But the difference between +190 and +210 is meaningful. At +190 odds, the Cardinals need to win 34.5% of the time to break even. At +210, that number drops down to 32.3%.

Sure, we’re talking about a differential of only 2.2%, but with this kind of bet — when you’re trying to stretch a theoretical 1.6% ROI into a 2.4% ROI — the difference between +190 and +210 is massive.

And if you grab the wrong number — if you bet this at +190 instead of +210 — you might actually be selling yourself short and making a worse bet than if you’d just taken the Cardinals at +5.5.

So with short underdogs does it make sense to bet them on the moneyline instead of against the spread? Yes. Sometimes. It depends.

As with anything, context — and the actual odds you’re getting — matters most.

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Author: Stephen Hayes