What is Sports Handicapping?

by Big Al Staff

What is sports handicapping?

Sports fans worldwide find joy in getting together to watch their favorite team.  You might have watched your first game when you were a little kid, but when you grow older, that fascination turns into a genuine passion.  You start to go to the games more often and decide it's time to get familiar with everything behind the sports.

You get familiar with the statistics and see the business side behind each club.  Simultaneously, you get familiar with the sports betting industry, and all of a sudden, you're hooked.  Any sports fan out there must be intrigued by the possibility to earn money through his sports knowledge.  It must be exciting to know that, the more you watch sports, the more you read about the leagues, and the more research you do, the more money you can make.  That's how sports bettors are born.

After wagering with some small bets here and there, you'll immediately notice there's more to it than just trying your luck.  When you want to become a serious bettor, it's necessary to develop a sustainable strategy which doesn't entirely depend on luck.  One term that's familiar to those who bet on sports is handicapping.  Handicapping is the method to calculate a team’s scoring advantage (or disadvantage) in order to project by how much a team might win (or lose).  Once the scoring differential is calculated, then one can assess the point spread and/or moneyline odds to determine whether a side has value.

In this betting guide, we'll take you through everything there is to handicapping.  It's possible to become a handicapper yourself, and we'll have a look at some of the expert handicappers out there.  Whatever you do, stick to your plan and never wager more than you're comfortable losing.

How to get started with handicapping

To get your handicapping career started, it's essential to paint a clear picture of handicapping.  The definition as given by multiple sources is the following:  "the practice of assigning advantage through scoring compensation, or other advantage given to different contestants, to equalize the chances of winning."

It should be clear that handicapping is a widespread term that's thrown around the industry a lot.  You have handicappers, handicapping services, 'cappers, you name it.  Indeed, you’ve probably heard the term “handicap” in sports as disparate as horse racing and golf.  In horse racing, a “handicap race” is a race in which horses carry different weights, allocated by the handicapper.  A better horse will carry a heavier weight, to give it a disadvantage when racing against slower horses.  Thus, the chances of the horses are equalized.  Likewise, in golf, a handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer's potential which is used to level the playing field so lesser golfers can compete against better players.  As you can see, there's a lot to explain about handicapping, but we'll focus merely on sports handicapping.

Handicapping is done by oddsmakers in many sports:  the professional sports leagues like the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, but also college football, college basketball, horse racing, golf, bowling, and many other sports.  Indeed, in any sport where one contestant has an advantage over another, oddsmakers will come up with a solution to give bettors on both sides a relatively equal chance to win.

Handicapping example

When referring to handicapping in sports betting, we're usually referring to handicappers who focus on major sports like the NFL or the NBA.  After the oddsmakers assign a point spread, handicappers will research the matchup to determine on which (if any) side the value lies, with respect to the point spread, or moneyline.  In theory, each team will have a relatively equal chance to cover the point spread.  But, based on one’s handicapping, that might not be the case.

Let's take an example of an NFL match between the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys.  This sporting event was supposed to be a close contest, but let's say the Cowboys lost their two most talented players to an injury.  You're now sure the Patriots will win the game in a blowout, but the -450 moneyline odds are prohibitive, so you don’t want to lay the big number.   It doesn't make sense to bet on the Patriots, straight-up.  But there’s another option offered by the bookmakers, and that’s the point spread bet.  Here, the Patriots are the favorite, while the Cowboys are the underdog.  Your betting lines could look something like this:

  • New England Patriots -10
  • Dallas Cowboys +10

With a point spread bet, the chance to win is relatively equal on both ends.  Since the -450 moneyline odds would have been too risky, it might make sense to lay 10 points with the Patriots, at -110 odds.  That's where handicapping comes in. 

How to become a sports handicapper

When you're serious about sports betting and want to go beyond betting moneyline wagers or trying an occasional parlay wager, you're up for handicapping.  It takes a while to become a professional handicapper, but it's certainly possible.  To get you started the right way, here are a few steps you can take;

Dive into the statistics

The most critical factor in handicapping is to immerse yourself in statistics.  When you're predicting which team will win a specific game, you can always make a proper guess, and get lucky.  With handicapping, however, a lot more skill and effort is required.  In essence, the handicapping industry is all about the bettors against the sportsbooks.  Note that sportsbooks are often referred to as 'Las Vegas' since there's a large concentration of different sportsbooks located in that city.

When you start with your research, it might feel a bit overwhelming at first.  To give you a better handle, try to review some of the following statistics first:

  • Team stats for the season
  • Player stats for the season
  • Home and away records
  • Matchup history
  • Against the spread records
  • Recent form
  • Individual positional matchups
  • Scheduling advantage/disadvantage
  • Coaching changes and strategy for the game

This is a great starting point to making your analysis for any sporting event.  By doing all of this research, your goal is to find something the oddsmakers might have overlooked, in order to get an edge.

Understand what value is when you see it

When handicapping, you're betting against Las Vegas, which means you are against the sportsbooks.  With any matchup, there could be a difference between how you view it and how the sportsbooks see it.  There are a lot of games every single week.  On a Saturday in November, you might have eight NBA games, 9 in the NHL, 55 in College Football, and over 100 in College Basketball.  When you're not bound to one specific sport, there are an awful lot of possibilities.  And that's why you don't want to settle for the first matchup you come across.

When you’re a serious handicapper, you’re looking for the best bets only.  Of course, anyone wants the best bets, but not everyone finds them.  You're here to manage your bankroll the right way and go for a sustainable betting career, so don't settle for the first bet you see.  Scroll through the statistics, and wait until you see a perfect fit.  Keep track of all the data, and wait for the perfect moment to dive in.  It might require some patience but, to keep a healthy bankroll and stay at this for a long time, it's essential only to bet the best bets. 

Shop around for the best lines

When you're an experienced gambler, you fully understand you're betting against the house, and that the house -- via the standard -110 odds -- has a built-in advantage.  But there are ways to chip away at the disadvantage conferred by the -110 odds.  The easiest way to do this is to bet at an online sportsbook which offers reduced juice.  Our current #1-rated sportsbook is BetAnySports, which offers -105 odds on football and basketball games, rather than -110.  That is a huge advantage for a gambler.  You might ask why BetAnySports chooses to reduce its juice (and, thus, its profit).  It’s because there are hundreds of sportsbooks that are out there.  And all of these sportsbooks compete with each other to attract you as a bettor.  So, you can use this competitive behavior to get the best odds.  Similarly, sportsbooks also offer different lines on a game.  One might have the Steelers favored by 7 points over the Browns, while another sportsbook might set the line at minus 6.  When you’re a professional gambler, it’s imperative to have accounts at multiple (at least three) sportsbooks to shop for the best number, which increases your profit.  In addition to BetAnySports, other sportsbooks that have unique odds, and are great for shopping lines include BetNow and Bovada.

What is a handicapping service?

When you're betting on sports, you'll likely come across professional handicappers.  These are people who research sports events, and publish their advice.  These publications are called sports picks, and they are sold all across the internet.  It might seem appealing since you don't have to put in the long hours of doing the research yourself, but be careful to only work with a reputable handicapper. 

How to select a handicapping service

When considering working with a handicapping service or trying out an expert's picks, be smart and do your research.  There are many things to consider, of course, but here are some of the most important:

  • How long has the handicapper been in business?  The longer, the better.
  • Does the handicapper have bona fides?  Are his career achievements noteworthy?
  • Is the handicapper’s analysis logical and sound?  Or is his reasoning faulty?
  • Does the handicapper admit to having a losing day?  Honesty is paramount.

The bottom line is that it’s important to work with the best people in any field.  And when you find a handicapper you can trust, it will be worth a fortune. 
After reading this article, you now know anything there is to handicapping.  The one thing that's left is for you to gain experience.  We're here to provide you with any tips and advice you might need when it comes to sports betting, but it's you that needs to dive in to start wagering.  Have fun and enjoy the ride, because it can be a fun and profitable one!

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

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