Off-Standard Football Pointspreads

Each week I chat with a few of our clerks about what we can do better or what the biggest issues are for clients. As you all know, the standard payoff on a football pointspread is 10/11 (or -110) but occasionally books deviate from that. Anything other than -110 is referred to as an ‘off-standard’ line and it is standard practice for football. However, at this time of year, there are many clients that are new to betting with an International sportsbook and some are puzzled when one of their wagers doesn’t pay out $50 on a risk of $55. In fact, one player last year closed his account because our lines were weird and one this week called to vent at me about our outrageous 20% vig.

It looks like there will be off-standard lines on at least five NFL games next weekend, including the Sunday night and Monday night games, I figure this is a perfect time to explain the what and why of off-standard lines. Again, I have borrowed from a column I wrote last football season, but it warrants repeating at the start of every football season in my opinion.

First off, football is unique among the major pro sports in terms of how points are scored. In baseball, hockey and soccer, all scores are valued as a single point. These sports also tend to have low scores and the average margin of victory is extremely low so pointspreads aren’t used in the same way as they are in football and basketball, and moneylines are the most common form of betting.

Basketball scores come in increments of 1, 2 or 3, but the high amount of scoring makes for an even distribution of final scores. As a result, basketball is perhaps the simplest sport to wager on in terms of lines offered. Football gets complicated because the scoring comes in chunks of 3 points (for a Field Goal) and 7 points (for a converted Touchdown). There is also a small amount of other scoring possibilities with safeties providing 2 points, missed extra points making a Touchdown worth only 6 and the two point conversion making 8 a possibility.

Scoring in football tends to take place an average of only about 8 times a game and as a result of few scores; the final scores do group around certain numbers, known as key numbers. The major key numbers are 3 and 7, but 1, 4, 6, 10, 13 and 14 have a high likelihood of being the final margin of victory as well and are sometimes referred to as minor key numbers. If we look at how all these numbers relate to 3 and 7, its easy to see why they occur frequently. The following chart shows the frequency of certain final scores for the 2002 NFL season as well as the relationship of the number to a combination of Touchdowns and Field Goals:

  • 3 16.0% Field Goal
  • 7 11.3% Touchdown
  • 6 6.6% 2 Field Goals
  • 10 5.1% Touchdown + Field Goal

This past weekend had 4 of the 16 games decided by a Field Goal! It is easy to see that a Field Goal is the difference in a lot of NFL games. I’m sure that this is not a big surprise to you but let’s look at this from a sportsbook’s point of view.

Let’s use an imaginary Pittsburgh-New England game to illustrate the danger to the House and what sportsbooks must to do to avoid the peril. Say the line in this case opened at Pittsburgh -2.5. Here is where the Book Manager’s nightmare begins. At -2.5 bettors loved the Steelers but as soon as the House moved to -3, the action shifted to New England. If 3 weren’t a key number, this would have been no problem, as book managers would simply move between the two numbers to balance action. Unfortunately, because the spread was -3, moving between 2.5 and 3 entails large risks. I have covered this in previous columns, but here is a quick recap.

In the most basic of cases, lets assume there were wagers of $110 to win $100 on the Steelers -2.5 and then $110 to win $100 on Patriots +3. The game is balanced but the House would risk being sided if the game ended with the Steelers up 3. The Pittsburgh wagers would win but the Patriots wagers would push so the House would lose the $100. In this case, the House would be in a situation where it could only lose $100 or collect the vig of $10 if the score fell on any other number.

The chance of the final score for a game landing on 3 is roughly 16% as we saw above. Assuming an even split between dogs and favorites, the chance of a 3 point favorite winning by 3 is about 8%. This would mean that 8% of these games would result in the House being sided or middled. This would be disastrous for a business where 4.5% is the desired profit margin! Now lets look at what sportsbooks do to balance action without moving on or off key numbers.

What books do is alter the odds associated with the pointspread. Most pointspreads are offered at standard odds of -110, meaning you must risk $110 to win $100. (Remember that when sportsbooks move a pointspread, the odds don’t change, as the spreads only affect whether your wager is a winner or not. Changing the odds, on the other hand, doesn’t affect whether your wager is a winner or not, but instead affects the payout.) By changing the odds away from the standard of -110, the House can make the same line more or less attractive to people looking to place wagers.

If bettors like the Steelers -2.5 and also like the Patriots +3, a middle ground is the bookmaker’s only choice. In this case, the line might be Steelers -2.5 -120 (making the Pats +2.5 Even) at some books and -3 Even (making the Pats +3 -120) at others. Bettors now have a choice, they could take Pittsburgh at only -2.5 but would have to risk $120 to win $100 or they could give up the 3-points but risk only $100 to win $100. The -3 spread is far more likely to be a push but the payoff is better. New England bettors could now get +3 instead of +2.5 but would have to risk $120 instead of $100 to win $100. Off-standard lines split the bettors into the two groups (those that like the extra half point and those that like laying the lower price) and give books a chance to balance action without having to move on-and-off a spread such as -3.

I checked 20 books on Sunday and they all had off-standard lines on at least two games, so this is far more common in the NFL than many new bettors think it is. Hopefully now when you see a sportsbook offer a line that is off-standard, you will know the logic behind it and hopefully you can benefit by looking for some value and laying less than -110 on the team you want. This also explains why many books charge premiums for buying points on or off key numbers.

Now for a quick recap of the week. Thursday night was good for the book when Utah rallied to beat Cal. The line moved from Utah -1.5 all the way to +1 because of injuries to Utah. Friday was good as well when Toledo upset Marshall. Saturday saw bettors win with Purdue (-2.5 at Wake Forest), Rutgers (-7.5 at Army), Iowa (-5 at Iowa St.), Kansas (+4.5 at Wyoming) and Oregon (-13 at Arizona). The House also did well with Penn St (+10.5 at Nebraska), Michigan (-10 vs. Notre Dame), UNLV (+20.5 at Wisconsin), Arkansas (+14 at Texas) and Georgia (-13.5 vs. South Carolina). The Purdue/Wake Forest had the most action of any of Saturday’s games but Michigan/Notre Dame and Penn St/Nebraska were close behind.

Sunday was a good day to be a bettor with them cashing in big on Buffalo and Miami as 3-point road favorites. Kansas City, Green Bay and the Rams/49ers Over were also good for bettors early. The Colts were the biggest win for bookies early by far, but the Clev/Balt total going over was very good as well. The late afternoon games went the book’s way though with big wins on Carolina, New England (I hear there is an APB out for the Eagle’s offence in Philly) and Cincinnati. Bettors did have a big win with Seattle and a small one with Denver, betting was all Vikings and the line moved from -8.5 to -10. Minnesota dominated but needed a late TD on a 3rd down play to cover. Books rallied from a losing Sunday for a big win with the Cowboys upsetting the Giants.

I’ll be back next week with a look at shopping for lines.

The enjoyment of your wagering experience with us is my number one priority. Should you have any questions, concerns, or comments, I will personally ensure you are satisfied with your Bodog experience.

Good luck with your wagers!

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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino