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Super Bowl Lines: How to Read Sportsbook NumbersBy Kurt Boyer
Most gambling games come with a lingo all their own. Super Bowl betting is just a little bit more laissez-faire. NFL fans refer to “lines,” “odds,” and “the number” on a given Super Bowl, but are they really talking about the same thing?
Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on who you’re speaking to – and what their favorite sportsbook fancy happens to be.
Super Bowl gambling verbiage can be confusing, but only because the words are so interchangeable. The “moneyline” is a line – the word “line” is right there in the term itself. Yet a moneyline is also the “odds,” as defined as what the sportsbook is willing to pay-out on a won bet. Moneylines involve a single number and that number represents a monetary risk and reward. “Odds” are supposed to always represent money, but for some reason we call the moneyline a “line” just as often.
Other Super Bowl “lines” include the point spread, the Over/Under point total, and various “prop” or proposition odds (often styled like moneylines) for the annual Greatest Show on Earth.
Lines on the annual pigskin gala can move – dramatically. To understand how a sportsbook’s Super Bowl odds work and why the lines move up, down, or toward an NFC or AFC champion, let’s dig deeper into some common markets offered at betting books in the 2 weeks prior to each title-tilt in February.
What are the Most Common Super Bowl Lines?
The point spread has gotten the most attention of any Super Bowl line throughout the history of the event. Because Super Bowl point spreads are based on taking points from a favorite and “spotting” the same amount of points to an underdog, the spread gives Las Vegas and the surrounding NFL community a decent idea of not only who’s likely to win, but what the margin-of-victory is expected to be.
Moneyline odds run a close 2nd and are the go-to betting line for a lot of serious high-rollers. Moneylines are odds on which team will win the Super Bowl straight-up (as opposed to “beating the spread”) and are essentially “pure” odds with the number containing the risk-reward deal for gamblers. 5-to-1 underdogs are represented as a “(+500)” line with $500 in potential payout on a won $100 bet. The favorites are listed with a minus-symbol in front of the odds, which represent the amount of cash which must be risked in order to receive a $100 payoff with a winning bet on the favored club.
For instance, if the Atlanta Falcons are handicapped to be a solid favorite at a Super Bowl, the Dirty Birds’ moneyline odds might be represented as (-250), offering $100 in payout for every $250 wagered.
Over/Under lines are lines on the total number of points scored in the Super Bowl. An Over/Under total can be expressed as a simple number like (54) or a halved-fraction like (54.5). If a bet is made on a whole-number point total and the final score adds-up to the exact line (such as a 28-26 final score on a (54) point Over/Under line) then all bets are returned no matter what the payout odds might have been, a scenario known as a “push.”
What is the Difference Between Lines and Odds?
There isn’t necessarily a difference between “lines” and “odds” in popular vernacular. An online handicapper might publish a blog post called “Super Bowl lines” but write mostly about odds, or risk-reward payout offers from the sportsbook, instead. A gambling podcaster might call her show “Ophelia’s Odds” and talk about the lines, or O/U totals and point spreads, for an entire episode. Lines and odds are often synonymous.
But it’s crucial to differentiate between the line and the odds for at least a pair of common wagers. If a moneyline is (+300) then it can be referred to as the “line to win” or “3-to-1 odds.” However, a point spread betting market will contain the team’s line, such as (+7.5), and then the odds next to it which tell what the sportsbook will owe winning bettors. Point spread odds are usually (-105) or (-110) which indicates almost an exact 1-to-1 risk-reward scenario.
Over/Under lines are the same – the line (or expected point total) stands next to the payoff odds on each side of the market.
Sportsbooks don’t always charge a simple 10% and otherwise pay out 1-to-1 odds on point spread and Over/Under lines. There’s a little more house strategy involved on occasion.
For example, suppose the New York Giants play the Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl, and the teams are handicapped as an even match-up by Las Vegas bookies. The point spread would be likely to open as a “pick ‘em” in which gamblers can pick either team to win by a single point (or more) and “cover” the pick ‘em spread. But suppose the bookmaker believes Denver has a slightly-better chance to win the contest. In that case, he might offer (-120) odds on the Broncos’ side of the market and (+100) odds on the Giants’ side of the market, hoping to discourage clients from taking the AFC representative due to the reduced payoff on an AFC winner and increased payoff on an NFC victory.
Super Bowl Odds: Lines With More Than 2 Betting Options
Some lines come with more than 2 options, and some don’t even offer either team (as a whole) but rather specific players or statistical benchmarks.
“Futures” lines on the Super Bowl are odds set on each NFL club to survive to reach the February date and then win the Lombardi Trophy. In preseason, futures odds are “longer” (i.e. promising larger payoffs) and every club is represented on the betting board. As a season advances the mathematically-eliminated teams are removed from the sportsbook’s futures lines and only postseason-eligible teams are included. Finally, prior to the NFC and AFC Championship Games, only 4 teams will be left in the futures odds – with much-shorter payoff lines on each.
Some proposition, or “prop” odds come with more than 2 options. An example is the oft-popular prop-betting market with odds on every player who could be the Super Bowl’s MVP.
Quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs are far from the only options available on the MVP betting board. Every player who could conceivably handle the ball multiple times is a potential Most-Valuable-Player pick and therefore should be offered in a reliable sportsbook’s MVP odds.
Super Bowl XXX MVP: From Betting Bonanza to Bust
The most unlikely MVP award-winner in Super Bowl history may be cornerback Larry Brown Jr., who intercepted 2 passes to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. Brown Jr. was not even a starting CB for the Cowboys when the playoffs began, but became a hero in Texas following the triumphant performance. A few lucky Super Bowl prop-bettors won big at long odds thanks to the defensive back’s unexpected MVP award, but Brown Jr. would fail to live-up to a lucrative contract signed with the Oakland Raiders the following offseason.
Causes of Line-Movement on the Super Bowl
Bet lines and odds can fluctuate or move rapidly toward a team or player as the betting public receives more information leading up to the Super Bowl. The cause of line-movement can be as simple as a popular player like Tom Brady or a well-respected team like the Baltimore Ravens getting a lot of betting action and forcing the sportsbook to adjust in order to balance both sides of a market. However, there are often distinct factors that predictably cause lines to shift prior to the big date in February.
Injury reports are a common cause of line movement. An Over/Under total which was falling (thanks to betting action on the “Under”) a week prior to the Super Bowl might shoot upwards if a final injury report is released that rules-out defensive stars on both teams. Likewise, a high-profile QB or running back injury would likely cause the Over/Under line to shrink once the player is confirmed out. Meanwhile, the injured player’s team is likely to suffer on the spread and in moneyline odds as well.
A nasty weather forecast is a common reason why the Over/Under line might drop (or why the point spread might tighten) prior to a kickoff. Late-season games at Soldier Field, for example, often come with Over/Under lines in the mid-30s range even if the Chicago Bears have a competent offense. However, the NFL has taken to scheduling Super Bowl events at indoor stadiums, stadiums with retractable roofs, or outdoor fields warm-weather climates. Hard Rock Stadium in Miami will host the next upcoming Super Bowl, set for Sunday, February 2nd.
But the exact date isn’t as important as Hard Rock Stadium being an outdoor venue subject to potential rain – meaning that gamblers (Over/Under gamblers especially) will be consulting weather reports in addition to scouting sheets. There is a partial roof attached to the stadium in Miami – but it doesn’t block-out all of the rain or wind on stormy days.
Taking Advantage of Super Bowl Line Movement
Professional gamblers tend to give “soundbite” advice to hobby bettors, which may be good for business, but it’s bad for an audience trying to develop good betting habits.
For instance, the time-honored Super Bowl betting advice is to wait for lines to move following days of sportsbook action, then bet “against the public” in addition to against-the-spread. But that doesn’t work as well when there’s a badly-priced line in the opening odds. Handicappers advise betting immediately on lines and odds that appear to be mistaken, but that doesn’t jive with the tactic of waiting for line movement.
A more-sophisticated tactic is to bet against the media, not simply against the public.
Las Vegas handicappers can be as influenced by media reports as anyone, and large-market clubs such as the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets are often over-hyped and overestimated on TV and on the internet.
Even the Jets’ long-shot odds to reach the Super Bowl began to shrink after a handful of decent performances by ex-USC quarterback Sam Darnold early in the 2019 season. The hype surrounding the QB reached a fever-pitch after New York upset the Dallas Cowboys in October, causing moneyline odds, point spreads, and futures odds to change rapidly. But Darnold wasn’t ready for prime time, losing to Tom Brady 33-0 in the next outing as the Jets would suffer a losing streak to fall out of contention.
If a QB from New York or Los Angeles is labeled a Super Bowl hero before the game even begins, ask yourself what the media would say (and what the odds and lines in Sin City would look like) if he played for the Arizona Cardinals or Tennessee Titans. The difference between hype and reality can lead to profitable Super Bowl bets at excellent odds, assuming you know how to tune-out the buzz.
Where to Find Reliable Super Bowl Lines?
Some online sportsbooks can be “line thieves,” yanking odds and markets offline just as the action gets going, refusing to explain why, and then offering brand-new lines later on.
It’s hard to take advantage of shifting moneyline odds or a moving Over/Under line when you never know when or if bets can actually be placed!
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