An Introduction to Football Handicapping
It’s no secret that most people who bet on football lose. This doesn’t stop them from trying though. There are millions of dollars wagered on the NFL and college football every year, and the numbers just keep on increasing. The Super Bowl alone attracts over $100 million in wagers in Las Vegas. And that’s just ONE game. Yes, we understand that it’s the most significant game of the year, but still, that figure doesn’t even take into account the amount of money wagered outside Vegas.
A lot of people struggle to understand just why there are so many football bettors who are prepared to put their hard-earned money at risk. If most of them lose, why do they keep on placing wagers? This might come as a surprise, but the truth is that many of them don’t really mind losing. These people are called “recreational” bettors, and they treat betting as a form of entertainment. They view any money they lose as the cost of that entertainment.
Now, this doesn’t mean that these recreational bettors don’t WANT to win. Of course they want to win! No one places a wager hoping they’ll lose money. That wouldn’t make any sense at all. However, there’s a world of difference between simply wanting to win and actually being prepared to do what it takes to win. The main reason why most football bettors lose is purely because they’re NOT prepared to put in the time and effort that’s required to be a consistent winner.
This isn’t necessarily a conscious decision. A lot of recreational bettors are very knowledgeable about football, and they genuinely believe that they can rely on their football knowledge to help them beat the bookmakers. They figure that they can accurately predict what’s going to happen more often than not. Unfortunately, they’re usually wrong.
The small percentage of people who DO profit from their football betting know this. They tend to be knowledgeable about the sport, but they recognize that it’s their handicapping skills that will ultimately determine whether they win or lose in the long run. As such, they work very hard to ensure that their handicapping skills are where they should be.
Recreational bettors could instantly improve their betting results by learning just the basics of football handicapping. The problem is that most of them completely misunderstand what handicapping is and what it involves. They tend to think that it’s incredibly complicated, and that can deter them from even trying to learn more. Instead, they’ll keep relying on their football knowledge, in the hope that they’ll eventually start getting the results they want.
Of course, it’s not fair to say that everyone thinks in exactly the same way. There are lots of recreational bettors who WOULD like to learn about football handicapping. So then, what’s holding them back? Many of them don’t know where to start, which is exactly why we have written this article.
We start our introduction to football handicapping by explaining the primary purpose of handicapping. This probably won’t be what you assume it is. We then look at exactly what football handicappers do, focusing on the basics in order to demonstrate that football handicapping is a lot more straightforward than many people think. We also provide some information on the different handicapping techniques that can be used, and provide advice on how to use them effectively. Finally, we look at how handicapping the NFL differs from handicapping college football.
The Purpose of Handicapping Football
If we asked a cross-section of recreational bettors to explain the purpose of handicapping in one sentence, we’re pretty sure that most of them would provide one of the following two answers.
- To win money
- To make more accurate predictions
The first answer is technically correct. It’s not a particularly descriptive answer though, and it fails to tell us what’s actually involved. The second answer is technically correct too, although not in the way you might think. Most people assume that trying to make more accurate predictions is the same thing as trying to win more wagers. This is not actually the case. The purpose of handicapping is NOT to win as many wagers as possible. Not explicitly, at least.
Now, winning as many wagers as possible is obviously a good thing. If we could achieve a 100% win rate, then we could become insanely rich. Even if we could achieve something like a 70% or 80% win rate, we’d still potentially be able to make an absolute fortune. Focusing solely on winning a high percentage of our wagers isn’t the right approach though, for two reasons.
- First, football is a very unpredictable sport. Even if we only bet on extremely likely outcomes, to ensure that we’re right as often as possible, we’d still get it wrong sometimes. How often have you expected a team to win comfortably against weaker opposition, only to see them fail to perform and lose the game? We’ve learned that when it comes to football, we need to expect the unexpected.
- Second, the number of wagers we win isn’t solely what determines whether we win or lose overall. It’s possible to win a high percentage of wagers and lose overall, just as it’s possible to win a low percentage of wagers and still come out ahead. This is because not all wagers have the same odds. Wagers on likely outcomes typically have low odds, while wagers on unlikely outcomes typically have high odds.
Let’s say that our goal WAS purely to win as many wagers as possible. As we already implied, the best way to achieve this would be by betting on extremely likely outcomes. So, for example, we might choose to only back heavy favorites on the moneyline. Although we’d probably win quite often, we’d always be betting at low odds. Here’s an example of the moneyline market for an upcoming game where one team is heavily favored.
This is one of the biggest mismatches you’ll see in the NFL. We’ve got one of the strongest teams in the whole league facing one of the weakest. We expect this to be an easy win for the Patriots, so we could confidently back them.
However, if we backed the Patriots for $100 we’d stand to win just $11. As likely as they are to win, there’s still a chance that they won’t. Do we really want to put $100 on the line for the sake of winning just $11. Probably not! Sure, we might win wagers like this 80% of the time, but that wouldn’t be enough to make an overall profit. An 80% hit rate at these odds would mean we’d lose $200 for every $88 won. Even with a 90% hit rate, we’d lose $100 for every $99 won. This means to just break even, we’d need to win this wager MORE than 90% of the time. It’s just not realistic to rely on that kind of win rate.
This particular game is obviously an extreme example. The Patriots are 13.5 point favorites on the point spread, and spreads that large are fairly uncommon. Let’s take a look at another upcoming game, where the disparity between the two teams as significant.
This game is more evenly matched. The Steelers are six point favorites, and their odds on the moneyline are far more appealing than the -900 of the Patriots. At -250 we’d stand to win $40 for every $100 staked. That’s a lot better than risking $100 to win $11.
With that being said, we still need a good win rate to make an overall profit with wagers like this. Over 70% to be precise. That’s more achievable than the 90%+ we’d need when betting at odds of -900, but it’s still a very tough target. So backing the Steelers to win here isn’t necessarily a good decision.
Please note that this doesn’t mean it’s a wrong decision either. It might actually be a very good decision. In fact, even the Patriots at -900 could be a good wager to place. The point we’re trying to get across is simply that making selections based purely on trying to win as many wagers as possible is a flawed approach. It might result in a high win rate, but the odds we’ll get are so low that the hit rate required to make an overall profit might not be sustainable.
So if winning more wagers is not our focus, what’s the point in using handicapping to make more accurate predictions? Well, a better way to describe the purpose of handicapping would be this:
You see, handicapping isn’t exclusively about trying to predict what’s going to happen. That’s part of it, for obvious reasons, but the real purpose of handicapping is to try to accurately assess how likely each possible outcome is in any given situation. This is essentially what enables handicappers to make sound betting decisions for the right reasons. It’s the same for any sport too, not just football.
To truly understand the purpose of handicapping, and how it helps to make good betting decisions, you need to understand what handicappers do and why they do it. That’s what we’re going to cover in the next section of this article.
What Football Handicappers Do
Before we get into the detail here, we should make one thing very clear. There’s no definitively “correct” way to handicap football. There are many different methods and techniques that can be applied, each of which works in a different way. Some are very simple, while others are more complicated. They all have the same basic purpose though, which we’ve just outlined. The goal is always to work out how likely each possible outcome is.
Let’s go back to the Giants vs. Steelers game. If we wanted to handicap this game and make a wager on the moneyline, we’d have two possible outcomes to consider.
- The New York Giants win
- The Pittsburgh Steelers win
Technically there’s a third option too, as an NFL game can finish in a tie. People often overlook this possibility though, as tied games are very rare. In fact, there have only been just over 20 since the rules were changed in 1974 to allow a sudden death overtime period of 15 minutes. The most recent tied game was in 2016, when the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals scored 27 points each.
When deciding which team to back here, most recreational bettors would only consider which one is the most likely to win. They’d assess the relative strength of the two teams, and put their money down accordingly. Seeing as the Steelers appear to be the stronger team, the majority would back them to win over the Giants. This makes sense. Assessing the relative strength of the two teams is actually a basic handicapping technique. However, making a decision based purely on which team is stronger isn’t the best way to make long term profits through betting on football.
As serious handicappers, we take a more intense approach. We start by applying our methods and techniques to assess the chances of each team winning. It’s not important to understand the exact methods and techniques we use at this stage, as at the moment we’re just trying to explain the basics.
Let’s say that our assessments have led us to believe that the Steelers have approximately a 60% chance of beating the Giants. We clearly think that they’re the most likely winners in this game, but this DOESN’T necessarily mean that we’re going to back them. There’s another step we need to take before making our decision. We need to compare the chances of the Steelers winning with the implied probability of the odds on that outcome.
This is where things start to get a little more complicated. Implied probability is basically what the odds suggest the theoretical chances of something happening are. The higher the odds, the less likely the outcome. The lower the odds, the more likely the outcome. While most bettors understand this concept, not everyone is familiar with the term implied probability.
To calculate the implied probability of any set of odds, it’s easier to work with odds in the decimal format. In the example we’re using here we’re working with American odds, so we need to convert them into the decimal format. This is easily done with our odds converter tool.
The -250 odds for the Steelers to beat the Giants converts to 1.40 in decimal format. We then divide one by those odds to get the implied probability. One divided by 1.40 is 0.7143, so that’s the implied probability of the odds here.
Mathematically speaking, probability is “supposed” be expressed as a number between zero and one. A probability of zero means something CANNOT happen, while a probability of one means something will DEFINITELY happen. The same rule technically applies to implied probability, but it’s much easier to think of it as a percentage. 0% probability means something cannot happen, while 100% probability means something will definitely happen.
To work with implied probability as a percentage, we simply multiply our original number by 100. In this case we get 71.43%. This tells us that the odds of the Steelers winning suggest that there is a
71.43% chance of them doing so. How does this help us? Well, calculating implied probability is what enables us to determine whether there is any value in backing them.
In the context of betting, value is essentially the measure of whether a wager is good or bad. This is simplifying things somewhat, but the definition works for the purposes of what we’re trying to explain here. When a wager has positive value, it’s good. When it has negative value, it’s bad.
This is when we look to get our money down. Negative value exists when our estimated chances of an outcome happening are LESS than the implied probability of the relevant odds. It’s better to avoid putting money down in these situations.
Thinking back to the Steelers game, a wager on the Steelers does NOT represent positive value. We’re giving the Steelers a 60% chance of winning, but the implied probability is over 70%. That makes this a bad wager to place. Even though we believe the Steelers have a much better chance of winning, we wouldn’t back them in this scenario.
This may not make much sense right now, but we’re actually going to recommend backing the Giants. If we’ve given the Steelers a 60% chance of winning, then clearly that means we’ve given the Giants a 40% chance of winning. If we calculate the implied probability of the odds on the Giants winning, we get 32.79%. Our estimated chances of them winning are higher than the odds on that outcome, so positive value exists. This tells us that we should go ahead and back them.
To understand why this is the right decision, you need to understand that we’re always thinking about the long term. Remember, we’re not just trying to win as many wagers as possible. We’ve already explained how that that doesn’t necessarily equate to an overall profit. All we’re interested in is what makes us money in the long run, and this is why value is so important.
It can be hard to grasp this in the context of betting on football games, as each individual game is effectively a one-off event. So to help you make sense of the importance of value, let’s move away from football for a moment. Imagine you were betting on the roll of a die, and a bookmaker was offering you the following odds on two possible outcomes.
Obviously the most likely outcome here is that you roll a number from one through five. To be precise, there’s an 83.33% chance of doing that, but only a 16.67% chance of rolling a six.
If you were concerned only with betting on the most likely outcome, you’d bet on rolling any number between one and five. This gives you the best chance of winning your wager. If you rolled the die 100 ties, placing the same wager each time, you could expect to win roughly 83% of the time. But at odds of -1000, if you were staking $100 per roll you’d only stand to win $10 for each win. If you won 83 out of 100 rolls, you’d lose money overall. You’d win $10 83 times for a total of $830, but lose $100 17 times for a total of $1,700. Your net position would be a $870 loss.
Now let’s say you were concerned only with what offered the most value. You know that there’s a 16.67% chance of rolling a six, and the odds of +1000 have an implied probability of around 9%. The likelihood of rolling a six is greater than the implied probability, so positive value exists. This is the wager you would be more likely to place.
If you again rolled the die 100 times, this time you’d expect to win just 17% of the time. 83 times out of the 100 you’d lose your $100 stake, for a total of $8,300. But each time you won, you’d win $1,000. So your 17 wins would return $17,000, for a total profit of $8,700. Since you chose to focus on positive value rather than on what’s most likely to happen, you significantly increased your overall profit.
Now, clearly you don’t get the chance to bet on the same football game 100 times, but the basic principle still applies. By always betting for value, you will theoretically make an overall profit. There’s a very important point to bear in mind though.
With this point we’ve pretty much come full circle. We’ve explained that the purpose of handicapping is essentially to try to assess the likelihood of the outcomes we’re looking to bet on. We’ve also explained WHY we need to do this, and how it helps us choose the right wagers to place. Now that you know what handicapping is all about, it probably doesn’t seem as complicated as you once thought it was.
However, handicapping only serves its purpose IF the assessments we make are accurate. This stipulation probably seems pretty vague, but that’s because our assessments are ultimately subjective. There’s no way of determining precise probabilities, so we can’t technically ever be “wrong.” If we think that the Steelers have a 60% chance of beating the Giants, then that’s what we think. Other people might have different views, of course, but it’s impossible to say whether one view is more accurate than the other. Regardless of whether the Steelers go on to win or lose, we’ll never know for SURE whether their real chances of winning the game were 60% or not.
Thankfully, actually measuring the accuracy of your assessments isn’t really that important. Your betting results will ultimately show you whether you’re accurate or not. In order to be a successful handicapper, you must do everything you possibly can to assess likely outcomes as accurately as possible. This requires an understanding of some of the finer details of football handicapping, including the different techniques you can use.
Learning How to Handicap Football
Some people perceive handicapping to be about following a strict set of rules in order to determine what to bet on and when. There are some bettors who achieve success in this way, but it’s not the best approach in our opinion. We like to think of football handicapping as more of an art than an exact science. Sure, it helps when then are SOME rules to follow, but flexibility is important too.
We’ve tried many different handicapping techniques over the years. Some have proved to be very successful, while others have been completely disastrous. Many more have been between these two extremes. For the most part, the most successful techniques we’ve used have been those that require us to genuinely use our own judgement. The techniques that involve using proper analysis to try to work out the likelihood of possible outcomes are almost always the most effective.
Techniques or systems that have rigid rules are usually far less useful. They CAN work, sometimes very effectively, but they tend to be rather limited in our experience. Any system that’s based on fixed criteria is typically too flawed to work effectively for any length of time.
With that being said, we mentioned earlier that there is no single correct way to handicap football. Keep this in the back of your mind, as it will help you remember that learning how to handicap football is an ongoing process that requires a lot of trial and error. No-one can teach you any perfect techniques that are guaranteed to bring you success. What works well for one bettor may not work well for everyone. Your goal should be to experiment with different techniques, and determine which ones are the most effective for you personally. This will depend on your betting style, your skill set, and the extent of your football knowledge.
Broadly speaking, handicapping techniques can be broken down into two categories. These are as follows.
- Technical handicapping
- Fundamental handicapping
Some bettors prefer to focus entirely on either technical handicapping or fundamental handicapping. Some prefer to use a combination of the two. Again, there’s no right or wrong here. It’s simply a case of finding out what works for you.
Handicapping techniques can be further categorized too. There’s statistical handicapping, trend-based handicapping and situational handicapping. We cover these types extensively in the following article. We also went out of our way to recommend a few techniques that would be worth checking out too.
Regardless of which handicapping techniques you use, remember that the purpose is always the same. You’re trying to make assessments of the likelihood of potential outcomes. More importantly, you’re trying to make sure that those assessments are as accurate as they can be. The techniques you choose will obviously impact how well you do that, but HOW you apply them is also important. There are also a number of things that you need to get right too.
In the following article we provide some very useful advice that will ensure you use handicapping techniques as effectively as you possibly can.
We’re almost through with our introduction to football handicapping now. There’s just one more thing we need to explain.
NFL Handicapping vs College Football Handicapping
Anyone who follows both the NFL and college football is probably aware of their differences. One difference that really stands out is the number of teams involved. While there are only 32 teams associated with the NFL, there are 128 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision alone. This means there are more games being played and more betting opportunities to look at.
Many of the other differences between the NFL and college football are fairly insignificant, and don’t really have any impact on the betting and handicapping side of things. However, there are few that ARE significant. Pay close attention to these, as they will affect how you should approach certain aspects of your handicapping.
In addition to the number of betting opportunities available, the following differences are also relevant from a betting perspective.
- Quality of teams and players
- Mental strength and experience
- Media coverage and availability of information
- Accuracy and movement of odds and lines
We cover these differences in more detail in the following article. We also look at exactly how they affect you in terms of how you should apply your chosen handicapping techniques.