Betting Underdogs: Take the Points or Bet the Moneyline?

by Hollywood Sports

When betting on an underdog, should you bet the moneyline with the expectation of the upset occurring or should you take the points for the value of the insurance of your team losing but staying inside the number? While there is a lower probability of the underdog winning the game, the oddsmakers account for this with progressively better payouts for those dogs that do pull the upset.

In a previous article, I argued that thinking about why you are making the sports bet can help guide the answer to questions like this. I identified three reasons to bet on sports: (1) To Have Fun; (2) To Make Money; (3) To Prove You are Right. I strongly approve of the first two reasons — but I am very worried about those motivated by the bettors looking for validation to prove something from their financial investment.

In this case, if you are betting simply to have fun, then the answer is simple: bet in a way that will maximize your enjoyment. Do you want the comfort of some insurance by taking the points? Then take the points! Do you just want to see if your underdog can pull the upset? Then bet the moneyline. If fun is your motivation, then there is not a wrong answer.

There is a wrong answer if your goal in betting is to make money. However, it can very tricky to determine the correct answer regarding which bet will be more profitable. The bettor needs to accurately assess the long-term odds and payouts from the situation. Let's look at two examples.

In Week 17 in the NFL, bettors have the option at BetOnline at the moment of taking the New York Giants as a +1 point underdog against the Dallas Cowboys at a -110 price or as moneyline underdog priced at +120. Let’s use $100 as the baseline bet. Moneyline bettors save $10 per bet if investing $100 as compared to point spread bettors investing $110 to win $100. However, what happens to the moneyline bettor if Dallas wins by a 17-16 score? Not only do they lose their $100 bet, but they also missed out on pushing the bet from which the point spread bettor benefited. For the moneyline bettor to be profitable in comparison to the point spread bettor, the final score would have to not end at +1 for the dog less than 20% of the time. The moneyline bettor is adding an extra $20 per bet versus the point spread bettor. However, it takes five straight winning bets to neutralize the dog losing by 1 point just once.

Let’s look at the Chicago Bears getting +5 points versus the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. BetOnline offers the Bears at the moneyline price of +195. Using $100 as the baseline, moneyline bettors save $10 per loss versus the Chicago backers investing $110 to win $100 taking the +5 points. Out of ten bets, let's say the Bears lose by at least 6 points five times. The point spread bettor is down $50 dollars to the moneyline bettor. But if Chicago covers the point spread the other five times but only pulls the upset twice, the point spread bettor is better off. The point spread bettor wins $500 from those five times the Bears cover. Subtract the $50 in juice the point spread better invested at $110 that moneyline bettor avoided with $100 bets. That is a net of $450. The moneyline bettor wins $390 when Chicago pulls the upset twice. But they still lose the three other $100 bets when the Bears cover the point spread without pulling the upset. Their $90 is dwarfed by the point spread bettor’s $450 for a net loss in all ten bets of -$360. Not even a third Bears upset makes up for the net discrepancy since the $585 in winning tickets get reduced by $200 in the two Chicago point spread covers where they did not win the game as well. It would take two more Bears’ upset victories to turn the tables with the moneyline bettor generating $780 from those four winning tickets minus only one $100 losing ticket where Chicago covered the point spread for a net of $680 and a nice $230 profit over the point spread bettor.

Got all that? It gets complicated. And the complexity is magnified because even the most technical sports gambler and handicapper are reduced to making estimated guesses regarding the probability of an upset. At least poker players have the benefit of more precise math when making decisions regarding implied pot odds. 

Frankly, if a sports bettor thinks they have something close to precise odds on the likelihood of an upset (versus a point spread cover), I would be very skeptical of that person. This sounds like someone trying to prove they are right about the dog being good (or the favorite being bad). I would not trust their math. 

One of the reasons I do not like the motivation to “prove oneself right” as the reason to make a sports bet is that emotions are involved. I consider emotions as a threat to making sound decisions. This is the reason I always prefer taking the point spread with underdog bets rather than taking the dog with the moneyline. 

I can live with not making even more money on my underdog bets. However, I am much more likely to go tilt if my underdog loses the game outright on a bad beat or buzzer-beater. I want to avoid negative emotions. And winning feels much better than losing. I will take more winning tickets even if some of them are not as rewarding as the occasional underdog winning outright. Winning promotes momentum and good cheer — and those are emotional conditions that help lead to better decisions for the next bet. For me, that is the route for more fun and to make more money.

Best of luck for us — Frank.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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