Betting lines explained

Understanding betting lines is crucial if you're going to be a successful sports bettor. In our guide, we'll take you through everything, from how betting lines work to how to read sports betting lines.
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What is a betting line?

By Daniel Coyle | July 2024

To put it simply, the betting line is the number or gambling odds set by a sportsbook that is used to determine the favourite and the underdog in a sporting event. This margin or 'line' levels the playing field between the two teams and so encourages wagering on both sides.

How to read betting lines

For new sports bettors, figuring out how to read a betting line can be a daunting and confusing task. There are multiple bet types out there that feature different betting lines, but the three most common are the moneyline, the point spread and the total (also known as an over-under bet). Here's how to read and understand these lines and odds at a glance.

Moneyline betting allows you to wager on which team you think will win a certain game, with the potential payout determined by odds. But in contests where a good team is playing a bad team, the potential payout from betting on the favourite tends to be small, diminishing its value. That's where point spread betting, also known as line betting, comes in.

With point spread betting, you can bet on the margin of victory or defeat in a game, with more favourable odds often resulting in a bigger payout.

Toronto Raptors
Toronto Raptors
-2.5 (-120)
Boston Celtics
Boston Celtics
+2.5 (+100)

In the above NBA point spread example, the Toronto Raptors are pegged as 2.5 points in their date with the Celtics. That means if you bet on the Raptors, they must win by at least three points for your wager to pay out. And conversely, if you were to bet on the Celtics as 2.5-point underdogs, your wager will be a winner as long as Boston does not lose by more than two points.

You will notice that the point spread is accompanied by moneyline odds, which determine the size of the payout on a winning bet. In this case, the Raptors enjoy short -120 odds of covering the 2.5-point spread, which means if they win by three or more points, a C$120 bet will produce winnings of C$220 (your profit plus your stake). On the other hand, if the Celtics cover, you can double your money with a C$100 bet.

How to read Vegas betting lines & odds

Essentially, Vegas odds is the term for the Vegas betting lines system that is used by the majority of US sportsbooks today. This system allows the sportsbooks to streamline their betting process and keep all of their stats organized.

A typical Vegas betting line will comprise rotation numbers (a unique number assigned by the sportsbook to each betting line on the board); the teams to bet on; the point spreads; moneyline, and over/under. We will go into more detail about to read each of these different bet types for various sports below.

How betting lines work for different sports

Common betting line formats can be almost universally applied to all major North American sports leagues. However, there are some important variations on the moneyline, point spread and totals as a result of the diverse methods of scoring used in different sports.

Let's take a look at how betting lines are adapted in some of North America's top sports leagues.

NFL betting lines

In addition to being the most popular sports league in North America, the NFL is also the most popular sports league in the world among sports bettors. Billions of dollars are wagered over the course of the NFL season, which culminates on the second Sunday in February with the crowning of the Super Bowl champion.

Moneyline betting is used the same way in NFL betting as it is in NBA wagering. But, since the scoring system is radically different in the NFL compared to NBA basketball, for instance, you can expect NFL betting lines against the spread to differ from other sports.

With seven points being awarded for a converted touchdown and three points for a field goal, NFL point spreads often range between three and seven points. Indeed, during the NFL pre-season, most games feature a point spread of three points.

Team Line bet (point spread) Moneyline Totals (O/U)
Buffalo Bills Buffalo Bills -7.5 (-110) 1.56 O 51.5 (-110)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tampa Bay Buccaneers +7.5 (-110) 2.50 U 51.5 (-110)

The above example illustrates how typical NFL betting lines will be presented at your favourite sportsbook. We have used the decimal format here (being the most popular in Canada when it comes to odds), but you can also find American (moneyline odds) and fractional odds used.

In this Super Bowl betting line example, the Buffalo Bills face the Kansas City Chiefs as heavy 7.5-point favourites, and as 1.56 favourites on the moneyline. In addition, the total is pegged at 51.5.

That means, if the Bills and Bucs combine to score 52 or more points, sports bettors taking the 'over' will cash in, with a C$110 wager generating a profit of C$100 plus your original stake. Conversely, if the total points scored is 51 or less, than sports bettors taking the 'under' will cash in.

NBA betting lines

It is quite common for NBA teams to score well over 100 points in a single game. That means that the point spread and totals on NBA betting lines can fluctuate wildly depending on the two teams hitting.

Team Line bet (point spread) Moneyline Totals (O/U)
Los Angeles Lakers Los Angeles Lakers +10.5 (-110) 3.00 225.5 (-110)
Golden State Warriors Golden State Warriors -10.5 (-110) 1.59 225.5 (-110)

In the above example, the Golden State Warriors are perched as 10.5-point favourites in their date with their rival Los Angeles Lakers. And as discussed, that means the Warriors must win by at least 11 points to cover the spread, and reward loyal sports bettors with a return of C$210 (C$100 profit plus your original stake of C$110).

That payout is far greater than what you can expect by taking the Warriors on the moneyline in this contest. With Golden State pegged as 1.59 moneyline favourites, you'd have to bet C$170 to win C$100 in profit. But, the Warriors' margin of victory does not matter. In contrast, a C$100 bet on the Lakers to stage the upset win as 3.00 underdogs would produce C$200 in profit.

As for NBA totals betting, it works just the same way as the NFL. In this case, if the Lakers and Warriors combine to score 226 or more points, sports bettors taking the over bet can cash in, while a bet on the under requires the total number of points to finish at 225 or less.

NHL betting lines

While there are many similarities between NFL and NBA betting lines, the relatively low scoring nature of hockey must be taken into consideration when it comes to how to understand hockey betting lines or understanding NHL betting lines.

Team Line bet (Puck line) Moneyline Totals (O/U)
Chicago Blackhawks Chicago Blackhawks +1.5 (-150) 2.60 O 5.5 (-125)
New York Rangers New York Rangers -1.5 (+125) 1.50 U 5.5 (+105)

As is the case in other sports, the NHL moneyline enables you to bet on which team you think will win the game, with the payout determined by odds. In the example above, the New York Rangers are listed as clear favourites with moneyline odds of 1.50. Unlike the NFL and NBA, line betting is handled dramatically differently with the NHL.

Instead of using a point spread that can range widely, from a pick'em to double digits, NHL betting uses what is known as the 'puck line'. When it comes to puck line betting explained, you'll find it's a bit different. The spread is almost always set at 1.5 goals, with the payout determined by moneyline odds. In the example above, the Rangers are heavy favourites to win the game, but sport long +125 odds of claiming victory by at least two goals.

That means if New York were to win the game by, let's say, a 4-2 margin, your C$100 bet will win you C$125 in profit. But if the Blackhawks manage to keep things close, and lose by just one goal, they will cover on the puck line and a C$150 bet will profit C$100. Of course, it is possible for a team to lose on the moneyline and win on the puck line, and vice versa.

With NHL totals betting, the same rules apply as with NFL and NBA totals. But unlike the NFL and NBA, where the total can range widely, and climb into the high double or triple digits, NHL totals typically range between 5.0 and 7.0. That is due to hockey's low-scoring nature.

It is also not unusual to see fluctuations in the moneyline odds attached to NHL totals. That is illustrated in the example above, where over 5.5 is favoured with strong -125 odds.

MLB betting lines

Baseball is a relatively low-scoring game when compared to football or basketball. As a result, MLB betting lines share many similarities with NHL betting lines.

Team Line bet (Run Line) Moneyline Totals (O/U)
Atlanta Braves Atlanta Braves -1.5 (+135) 1.53 O 10.5 (+100)
Los Angeles Dodgers Los Angeles Dodgers +1.5 (-155) 2.60 U 10.5 (-120)

Like all sports discussed, the moneyline enables you to bet on who wins the game, with payout determined by odds. In the example above, it is the Atlanta Braves who sit perched as clear 1.53 favourites. And while NHL betting utilizes the puck line, MLB betting lines feature the run line, which operates in very much the same fashion.

As you can see, the Braves are strong 1.53 favourites on the moneyline, and sport attractive +135 odds to claim victory by at least two runs. As with the NHL, MLB betting lines feature lower numbers on the total, typically ranging from as low as 8.0 to as high as 11.0.

In this particular case, the total is pegged at 10.5, but it is the under that is favoured with -120 moneyline odds. That means if the Braves and Dodgers combined to score 10 or fewer runs, a -120 bet on the under will win C$100 in profit if you wagered C$120.

CFL betting lines

The CFL provides Canadian sports fans with a unique brand of football. Unlike the NFL, the CFL game is played with a larger ball, on a field that is closer in size to a soccer pitch than an NFL gridiron.

And most importantly, the Canadian game features just three downs instead of four. While the NFL and CFL games are quite different, how betting lines are presented for each of these leagues are virtually the same.

Team Line bet (point spread) Moneyline Totals (O/U)
Saskatchewan Roughriders Saskatchewan Roughriders -3.5 (-110) 1.71 O 55.5 (-120)
Montreal Alouettes Montreal Alouettes +3.5 (-110) 2.25 U 55.5 (+100)

The above table illustrates how typical CFL football betting lines will be presented at your favourite sportsbook. In this example of a potential Grey Cup betting matchup, the Saskatchewan Roughriders take on the Montreal Alouettes as heavy 3.5-point favourites, and as 1.71 favourites on the moneyline. In addition, the total is pegged at 55.5.

That means, if the Riders and Als combine to score 56 or more points, sports bettors taking the over will cash in, with a C$120 wager generating C$100 in profit. On the flip side, if the total points scored is 55 or less, than sports bettors taking the under will cash in with a C$100 bet also generating a profit of C$100.

OGCA's top tips for reading betting lines & odds

Here are some top tips to help you with line betting:

Do your homework

There is nothing more important to improve your chances of success at the sportsbooks than doing your homework.

This includes staying up to date on the recent form of teams and players, as well as key injuries, changes in weather, etc. Consult news and game previews authored by trusted sports betting experts can also help you gain an important edge that can make the difference between winning and losing.

Shop for odds

Any sharp sports bettor will tell you that one way to increase your chances at turning a profit with sports betting is to shop around for the best odds.

Shopping around will not only help you find the most profitable odds on the game of your choice, but it may also help you to place smart middle bets that can produce winners on both sides of a line bet.

Manage your bankroll

One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced sports bettors make is not managing their sports betting budget. Like any other investment, it is important for sports bettors to have the discipline to limit the size of their wagers to a certain percentage of their budget or bankroll.

This makes it easier to keep track of whether you are winning or losing over the long term. It can also help you avoid placing bets on impulse that can quickly deplete your bankroll.

More on sports betting


What is a line in betting?

A line in betting is used to represent odds published by sportsbooks on individual players or teams participating in a game or other sporting event. The most common types of betting lines are moneyline odds, the point spread and the total (also known as the over/under).

What does O and U mean in betting lines?
How are betting lines determined?
How do negative betting odds work?
Why would you bet on negative odds?
Daniel Coyle
Daniel Coyle, Sports writer

Based in Montreal, Daniel has been writing about sports betting for two decades. His work has been featured in major sports media and daily newspapers, including Sportsnet, NESN, Sports Illustrated, Montreal Gazette and Globe & Mail. He has also contributed to a number of betting blogs, covering major sports leagues and tournaments around the world.

Daniel's expertise: Sports; Sports Leagues

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