Introduction: Why post this obviousness?
I noticed the other day a poster had mentioned that 'the line' for the Wisconsin at Michigan game was Wisconsin -4, and they were confused as to how Michigan could be favored by four. Several posters corrected him, informing him that the -4 line means that Wisconsin is favored by 4 for betting purposes. After thinking about this for a moment, it occured to me that while most of us know this, I'm not sure WHY most of us know this.
I have never in my life seen a "beginner's guide to sports betting". Of course, I don't bet on sports, so I'm sure they probably exist, but for the majority of us that do not bet on sports, it's not something we're likely to come across. As such, it is perfectly reasonable that somebody might not get the concepts behind "lines". I'm not so much talking about how they're set, which JamieMac of Just Cover has done a wonderful job of going over before, talking about the practices of vegas oddsmakers and so on. No, I mean what they, and other sports gambling terminology means. As such, I've created a little diary here I hope that anyone who never really thought about the concept of "the line" will take a moment to look over.
Okay, fine, so what is a line, and how does it work?
Well... do you play golf?
No. I'm just a temporary personification of your target audience. I don't even know what golf is unless you decide I'm supposed to.
Shut up. You now know what golf is.
I know kung-golf.
You're not Neo, though. Moving on, in golf, one often will play with a handicap. Different leagues may calculate handicap in different ways, but the basics are this: A golfer's handicap is the number of strokes over par he is expected to finish on a given 18 holes, divided by a certain number, which changes based on the courses you've been playing. The intention of a handicap is to provide a golfer of lower ability a chance to "beat" par on the golf course.
This isn't helping.
Just wait. This is going to be rough and dirty, because I don't want to include too much math. If one golfer in a twosome has a handicap of 16, and the other has a handicap of two, that would indicate that on a standard par 72 18 holes, the first golfer would be expected to finish with a score of approximately 88, and the other a score of 74.
Rough and dirty twosomes? Lines are awesome.
Quiet. Let me speak. When you subtract each golfer's handicap from their raw score, it produces their handicapped score, which is used to determine the winner. So, in those conditions, if golfer one shot an 87, while golfer two shot his expected 74, golfer one would actually win the round with a handicapped score of 71, one under par.
And this applies to football because?
Because the lines are a form of handicap! The lines are vegas oddsmakers saying that, if we gave team one an advantage of X number of points, then it puts the teams on equal footing.
I still don't get it.
Okay. Work with me here. Lets go back to the numbers for the Wisky @ Michigan game: Wisky -4; Michigan +4. This is not an expectation of the outcome. They are not predicting that either team will win or lose by that many points.
But I though-
No. They're not. What they are saying is, "If Wisconsin were put in a 4 point hole, or Michigan were spotted 4 points, then the teams should be approximatly "on par". The difference between this and golf is that the teams should be on par with each other, rather than on par with the golf course.
So the line not a prediction of who will win or really even by how much, but a prediction of how to make the teams even?
Sort of. The important thing to remember is, the oddsmakers aren't trying to predict the outcome of the game. They're trying to generate betting. So Essentially, they're saying, "We think that on this field, at this time, Wisconsin is a better team by 4 points than Michigan. Do you agree or disagree?"
So when you bet against the line, you're not... betting on the game?
Not really. YOu're actually betting on whether the oddsmakers are right or wrong about the teams. Someone betting on Wisconsin is actually saying, "Wisconsin just destroyed Indiana, a team Michigan barely beat. They're more than 4 points better than Michigan." Someone betting on Michigan is actually saying, "Michigan is way improved over earlier in the year. I don't think they're four points worse than Wisconsin."
But isn't the answer to the question decided in the game?
Yeah, it is, but you're still betting on who will win or lose with the handicap, so you're still betting against the oddsmakers. Not against one team or the other. And even more worrisome... the oddsmakers are liars.
Yes, shocking, I know. that line they set... that's not really what they think would be an accurate handicap for the teams. If I were going to set a true handicap for the teams, I'd probably give Michigan abou a 7 handicap versus Wisconsin. If you added a touchdown to Michigan's final score, I think they'd come out tied in an average game.
So then... the point of a line?
To get you to bet. To get you either nodding your head in agreement or shaking it in disagreement with the oddsmakers, and putting your money where your mouth is.
I don't have a mouth.
Uhh... shut it anyway? Lets sum up:
The line is not a means of picking a winner of a game, nor is it intended to do so.
The line is a form of handicap, suggesting that under given circumstances, adjusting the final score by X points (subtracting for the team expected to win or adding for the team expected to lose) would create a tie score. It is an attempt to put the teams "on par" with eachother.
The line is a betting tool, and is not intended to predict the score of the game.
Betting with or against the line is an agreement or disagreement with Vegas, not a belief or disbelief in one of the teams.
Good. I'm going to bed. If you have more questions, talk to one of our resident sports gamblers. At least now you won't be confused when you see Minn +16 against an opponent and wonder how they could be favored.