There is no simpler, more time-honored sort of bet than a moneyline bet. Though it seems doubtful they called it such, the first sports bettors to ever wager probably bet on the moneyline.
When a bettor places a wager on the moneyline, they simply pick a side to win. This is different from spread betting, which uses a handicap to theoretically level the odds on both sides. All the bettor’s selection must do is win and the moneyline wager pays out.
While a moneyline bet remains the simplest sort of wager in theory, there are still some intricacies involved. Read on to learn about moneyline wagering – what it is, how it works and so forth.
What is a moneyline bet?
A moneyline bet simply wagers that one team or player will defeat another. Once the game or match ends, the sportsbook grades a bet one of three ways:
- Win – The selected team won. The sportsbook returns the stake plus the winnings.
- Loss – The selected team lost. The sportsbook keeps the stake.
- Draw – The game or game segment (half, quarter, period etc.) ended in a tie. The sportsbook returns the stake and it’s like the bet never happened.
Moneyline bets will appear at sportsbooks as follows:
- Saints (-250)
- Seahawks (+200)
Let’s use this upcoming Monday Night Football game between the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks as an example.
The easiest way to understand moneyline wagers is by using a $100 bet. Using the above example, the moneyline on the underdog Seahawks was +200 on Tuesday morning (currently ). A $100 wager at +200 would pay $200 in profit if the Seahawks won the game (for a total payout of $300). Bettors often like picking underdogs because they are usually “plus” money. This side of the moneyline bet pays out more money per unit than a wager on the favorite. In this example, the moneyline on the favorite Saints was -250 on Tuesday (currently ). A bettor would need to wager $250 to win $100. Since the favorite is considered the team with the better chance to win, a winning wager will usually pay out less than the original amount wagered.
How do moneyline bets work?
The payouts for the moneyline wagers vary depending on the respective competitors’ perceived strength in the betting market. It’s not as simple as betting good teams to beat bad teams because the payouts on the moneyline reflect the situation. That is, you’ll risk a lot to win a little, “laying” the sportsbook a price.
Different regions of the world use different odds formats. American odds use a “plus/minus” system based around $100 wagers.
The favored team is denoted with a minus sign, followed by a number. The number reflects the stake needed to win $100. So, -400 means you must wager $400 to win $100.
The underdog will have a plus sign with a number. This number reflects the potential winnings on a $100 stake. So, +400 means you would win $400 on a $100 wager.
To look at some real-life examples, let’s check out some games from the 2021 NFL season. We’ll look at how the moneyline varies from three different matchups, with lines from DraftKings Sportsbook. The first two come from Week 1, with the final one coming from way down the road in Week 17.
San Francisco 49ers (-380) at Detroit Lions (+290)
The 49ers, meanwhile, are just a season removed from appearing in the Super Bowl. While they endured a tough, injury-marred 2020, they have a strong chance of bouncing back into contention.
Even on the road, the 49ers figure to have a great chance of coming away with a win here. Thus, one must bet $380 to win $100 (bet would return $480 total – the winnings and the stake). Lions upset believers can wager $100 to win $290 (bet would return $390 total).
Miami Dolphins (+120) at New England Patriots (-140)
Despite finishing several wins apart in 2020, the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots are expected to be on a similar level in 2021. The betting market forecasts neither being in true Super Bowl contention nor bottom-feeding status.
Thus, Dolphins at Patriots in Week 1 should be a closely contested affair. A $100 wager on the Dolphins nets $120 in winnings while $140 on the Patriots would earn $100 in winnings.
Cleveland Browns (-110) at Pittsburgh Steelers (-110)
The long downtrodden Browns have finally found some momentum after making the playoffs and even winning a road game – coincidentally, against the Steelers – in 2020.
The market judges them to be stronger than the Steelers entering 2021. However, home field advantage carries some value as well. Given the confluence of the Browns’ slightly stronger team and the Steelers having home field, these teams are expected to be exactly evenly matched. That makes the line -110 on both sides, so a bettor would wager $110 to win $100.
Moneylines and implied probability
Moneylines at a sportsbook represent more than just betting opportunities. They represent the current market expectation of an event such as San Francisco defeating Detroit in Week 1 of the NFL season.
In this way, even non-bettors can gain valuable information about event probabilities by tracking the betting market. Many fans would likely find it interesting to know their team had, say, a 20% chance to pull an upset over a favored team.
How do we figure out the implied probability from a moneyline? Substitute the absolute value of the American odds for “x” into these equations:
- Negative odds: x/(x+100)
- Positive odds: 100/(x+100)
Then, multiply the result by 100. In the above example, San Francisco has a 79.16% to beat Detroit while the Lions have a 25.64% chance of pulling the upset.
“Hang on,” you may be saying to yourself. “Those percentages add up to more than 100.”
Good eye. That brings us to:
How does the sportsbook earn money booking moneyline bets?
Notice the “gap” between the two numbers in San Francisco vs. Detroit. For example, San Francisco is -380 while Detroit is +290, instead of Detroit being +380. That difference in the numbers represents the vigorish, commonly called the vig or the “juice” – what the bookmaker charges for accepting your action.
An easy way to see this is to imagine betting both sides. If you put $380 on San Francisco and $100 on Detroit, you would get back your original $480 no matter which team won if Detroit was +380 instead of +290.
A market with +380 and -380 options represents a fair market, one with no vig – the implied probabilities add up to 100. The bookmakers want to turn a profit, so they include some vig, outside of maybe a few promo offers that may happen every now and then.
To figure out how much vig is in a market, one must perform some simple math based on the moneylines offered. This page has more information about the math behind the vig. The gist of it is, to get the “true” implied probability from a line, one must divide the implied probability of the line by the total implied probabilities of all options in the market.
As a general rule, one should expect fairly low vig in moneyline markets compared to many other types of bets like props and futures. That is, moneylines are usually a bit more bettor-friendly. In the San Francisco/Detroit example above, the market has 4.58% vig. That’s just a hair more than a typical spread betting market with -110 on both sides, which has 4.54% vig.
In any case, the bettor must estimate San Francisco’s chances of winning to be higher than the 79.16% quoted above in order to make a bet with a positive expectation (+EV). That is, the bettor must clear the bar of not just the (lower) no-vig probability, but the probability with vig included, in order to expect a profit.
How and why do moneyline odds change?
Moneylines begin when a market-setting sportsbook opens a line. Some basic Googling can tell you whether or not a book sets markets. Only a few do. Most often, a sportsbook simply copies lines from the market-setters, the books that accept high-limit wagers from sharp, winning players.
The typical lifespan of a moneyline goes something like this:
- Market-setting (sometimes known as sharp) sportsbook opens a market.
- Competitors copy and post the market.
- Everyone’s limits begin fairly low. The exact size depends on the book.
- As game time draws nearer, more and more information pours into the market. This information allows the books to sharpen the line, theoretically drawing it closer to its “true” odds.
- When the books become more confident in their numbers, they expand the limits. Again, most often the books follow the leads of the market setters with some small variation based on house risk.
- The line closes when the game begins. In theory, the closing line represents the most accurate picture of the probabilities in the event.
The key point here is the information flowing into the market. Information includes injuries, weather and other variables. It also includes bets.
Sportsbooks react to sharp players placing max wagers. Often, when a line moves, it means action from sharp players has come in. The sportsbook respects these opinions and shifts the line accordingly. For example, if the book received some high-limit action from respected accounts on Lions +290, you might log in the next day and see Lions +250.
That brings us to:
Line shopping: How bettors should approach moneyline bets
When considering whether to bet a moneyline, one must figure out the implied market probability and determine where the bettor’s estimated probability stands in relation to that number.
If you think the 49ers have a greater than 80% of beating the Lions, there’s value there.
However, what if you could find the 49ers at -350 somewhere else? Now, the value you gain betting on the 49ers is even greater.
Line shopping, or checking the price at numerous different sportsbooks, gives bettors the opportunity to search for the most profitable wager possible in the market. You know you’re going to bet the 49ers, but instead of just accepting the -380 that DraftKings sells you, check every other outlet to see if they will deal you a better price.
It may not seem like a huge deal to pay -380 versus -350. If you’re playing for $100, that’s a $30 difference. Sure, nobody would refuse $30 someone handed them, but it wouldn’t change most people’s lives.
But add that $30 up many times over hundreds to thousands of bets and you start to see the long-term difference it makes to your bottom line.
Should I bet the moneyline?
Generally speaking, the moneyline is a pretty good option for bettors. They are an intuitive and easy way to understand the market for novices. If your selected team or athlete wins, you win. Betting doesn’t get any easier to understand than that.
Perhaps most importantly, the bookmaker typically takes a fairly low vig, as noted above. Betting into low-vig markets is a best practice for sports bettors no matter whether they play for fun or for profit.
Second, it’s easy for bettors to figure out if a bet meets their value threshold. Simply convert the moneyline into the implied probability and use your judgment about how that number relates to your own estimate.
Finally, betting the moneyline aligns the team or athlete’s interest with your own interest. A very common NFL scenario illustrates this best.
Imagine a team trails 24-20 on the final drive of the game, but they’ve advanced to the opposing 20-yard line where it’s fourth down. They closed as +3 underdogs.
If the team’s goal was to cover the spread, they would obviously kick a field goal. But, the spread is irrelevant to the team’s goal. They want to win the game. They’re either going to score a touchdown and win the game, or they’re going to lose and fail to cover the spread.
In this case, having a wager on the moneyline would be far more appealing. If the team scores and wins, you get something like +140 on your money instead of having laid -110 to get three points that have ultimately wound up meaningless.
What about moneyline bet parlays?
Many fans love betting parlays. After all, they usually offer a much larger return than a straight bet.
And parlays can be fine. But, usually, they aren’t a great option. That’s because most bettors have a negative expected value (-EV) on their wagers. And for a parlay to have a +EV, most if not all of the bets in the parlay must have a +EV.
Makes sense, right? Link a bunch of winning bets together, and they win more money.
Most bettors can’t clear that bar, so parlays simply hand the house money at a faster rate since the bettor compounds their chance of losing. They should stay away from parlays until they gain more experience and become confident they have a positive expectation.
An exception comes from correlated parlays. These bets link two or more correlated events – that is, the likelihood of one leg of the parlay hitting increases the likelihood of another. The simplest example would be parlaying a favored, high-scoring team’s moneyline with the over on the game’s total. If the team performs well, they will likely score many points, which in turn increases their chances of winning the game.
Most sportsbooks have blocks in place to prevent bettors placing very obviously correlated parlays – something like Patrick Mahomes over 3.5 touchdowns with the Chiefs’ team total over.
However, same-game parlays have become something of a marketing gimmick at a few American sportsbooks. They have gained popularity thanks to huge winning bets going viral on social media. As long as the books allow them, bettors can take advantage of rare +EV parlays.
Moneylines and live betting
Live betting has become increasingly popular as technology has improved over the years. The increased speed of the bookmakers’ tech has enabled them to post in-game lines ever more quickly and efficiently. That gives the bettor more options to find value or even arbitrage and middling opportunities – that’s another post for another time.
Typically during breaks in the action, sportsbetting sites will post in-game lines. They usually include a moneyline among the markets.
Live betting can offer bettors a great opportunity because the sportsbook doesn’t have as much time or information to produce a sharp line. To compensate for this, they’ll often include more vig than usual in the lines. Be aware of this when looking for live betting value on the moneyline.
Why was my moneyline bet canceled?
Spread betting often results in the stake being returned to the bettor when the game lands exactly on the spread, known as a “push.” Of course, this only becomes possible on even spreads like +6 as opposed to +6.5.
With moneyline betting, this scenario is far less common, but it can happen sometimes that your bet pushes or gets canceled.
The most obvious example comes from tied games. In certain sports, like NFL football, ties are possible. A bet on the moneyline will be returned if a game ends tied.
Note that in soccer, where ties are quite common, books usually offer three-way markets – each team to win or a draw. If you bet into these three-way markets (which usually only include regulation), understand that your bet grades as a loss if the game draws.
Other scenarios can result in canceled bets. Most baseball bets default to “pitchers listed,” which means the bet get canceled if the listed pitchers don’t throw the first pitch for their teams. Late scratches are not unusual in baseball since pitchers tend to be fragile creatures and teams must look out for their health. If either team switches its starting pitcher late, your bet may be canceled.
Another situation that may lead to canceled bets is when games end early or don’t play on the scheduled day because of a weather disruption. Consult your sportsbook’s house rules, as there’s often a minimum inning threshold that will result in action. But, these situations very often lead to canceled bets.