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Betting 101

How to Understand Line Movement in Sports Betting

Every sports bettor worth his (or her) salt is always looking for a slight edge over an oddsmaker or sportsbook.  Where many bettors find these cues for an edge comes in simply observing the movement of the lines themselves.

Line movement can not only help a bettor get the best possible price on a wager before it begins, but it can also give you very valuable information on how to bet.

Inside this guide, we will discuss how line movements relate to sports betting and what exactly line movement is, why it happens, and what all you can take from a line changing.  After reading through this guide you should have a much better grasp on what all to pay attention to when making your sports bets.

What is Line Movement?

Before peeling back the many layers of what line movement shows it’s best to understand what line movement even is.

The term lines is a very commonly used term in sports betting and is often interchangeable when discussing the odds on a bet or the specific number on the point spread or total.

In defining line movement we are essentially talking about any change in the original number as set by oddsmakers at a given sportsbook.  This could be a total moving up or down a certain amount of points, a moneyline changing from +200 to +180, or a point spread adjusting from -3 to -3.5.  Anything that adjusts from the first number that was set on by oddsmakers to receive action on is considered line movement.

Unlike a lot of concepts in sports betting, this is as straightforward as it gets.

Sports Betting Line Movement Examples

Generally speaking, nearly all games available to wager on will have some degree of line movement.  Once the betting lines are opened and posted by sportsbooks there is a flurry of bets from the betting public which immediately serves as a tell to what side of the bet your casual regular Joe bettor favors the most.

We hypothesize most of these bettors to be of the more “casual” variety because of the time they make the bets.  Sharper, more “professional” type bettors are considered to be those players who jump into the action at the last possible moment as opposed to right out of the gate, but in all sincerity you likely have sharp bettors jumping into the fray early as well if there is a favorite they are particularly keen on.

With that being said, an example of how a typical line in the NFL might move would look like so:

Opening Line:

  • New York Jets +5.5 (-110)
  • New England Patriots -5.5 (-110)

The same matchup, only 48 hours after the original line was posted:

  • New York Jets +8 (-110)
  • New England Patriots -8 (-110)

In this example, the public betting side, and potentially some bettors that bet higher amounts of money, have jumped all over the Patriots and have moved the line from 5.5 to 8.  This demonstrates that the public believes the line was off and that the Patriots should surely be favored.

However, in football betting one of the key numbers is considered to be 7.  If the line would move to 8 points, you could then see those aforementioned sharp bettors take the Jets to cover the 8 points, and if enough money and action moved to the Jets at that number, the line could again be moved to adjust for that.

Another way to monitor line movement comes via the moneyline.  Moneyline odds could show line movement like so:

Opening Line:

  • Miami Dolphins +150
  • Jacksonville Jaguars -180

That same line 48 hours later:

  • Miami Dolphins +120
  • Jacksonville Jaguars -150

We can decipher that slightly more money went on the Dolphins, leading oddsmakers to adjust the money line payout for the Dolphins from +150 to +120.  This would likely indicate slight movement to the point spread as well, with the Jaguars likely being favored by roughly a field goal from what was likely a 4 to 4.5-point spread before that.

Why Do Betting Lines Move?

There are several reasons that a line can change, but you can trace every reason back to the bottom line for the goal of every sportsbook in existence.

When media pundits or fans say that “Vegas really must want (insert team to win)!” the very fact of the matter is every sportsbook is rooting for a 50/50 split in their betting.  If they can accomplish this, they have already won before the game has even begun.

You see, sportsbooks profit no matter what side happens to be the winner when the betting is split down the middle.  The bigger the matchup with the closest betting split of 50/50, the happier your online sportsbook will be.

Because of this, the overarching reason for any line movement is to try to make a given point spread appealing to both sides.  If there is an overwhelming amount of money and action on one side, you will likely see a line adjustment to try to even out that distribution.  After all, sportsbooks don’t make a lot of profit when everyone is on the winning side.

Take for example the game we outlined above between the Jets and the Patriots.  With the line opening at 5.5, many initial bettors jumped at the opportunity to grab the Patriots within the key area of anything under 7.  By moving the line to 8, oddsmakers would very likely begin to see a lot more action on the Jets, and as the week would go on and late action and money would come late, eventually you could see a virtual even distribution in money and bets.  Just how the sportsbook likes it.

More often than not line movement will indicate who the public is backing in a big way and the side that oddsmakers are hoping people bite on as a means to even out the handle on a given bet.

What is Reverse Line Movement?

Where your most common instance of line movement comes in adjusting the line based on the amount of money and how many bets are on a given side, reverse line movement is an often-used tell as a means to identify games where sharp (see: professional, big money) bettors are going.

For example, if this hypothetical matchup took place:

  • Dallas Cowboys +2.5 (-110)
  • Green Bay Packers -2.5 (-110)

And you used a tracking tool that told you 80% of the bets were on the Packers but the line moved from -2.5 to -2, that would essentially tell you that while four out of every five tickets are on the Packers to win by 2.5, that 20% of the betting handle on the Cowboys is at such a proportion that the sportsbook feels like it can afford to pull in even more bets on the Packers.

Again, remember the sportsbooks end goal is to have as close to an even distribution in the betting handle as possible, if there’s a lot of money backing a side that’s getting a fraction of the betting action, that’s usually a strong indicator that professional bettors are either taking the contrarian “fade the betting public” approach, or they happen to like the opposing side.

Where reverse line movement falls short however is it’s anyone’s guess how truly accurate those betting splits are.  They are taken in a snapshot in time, and sportsbooks are taking bets all the time, particularly on a night where there isn’t a lot of action to choose from.

Additionally, just because a lot of money is backing one side doesn’t necessarily mean that bettor is “sharp” or a “professional”.  There could simply not be a huge handle on that particular game and one bettor with a high bankroll that thinks they’re on the right side.  Or there could be a few bettors with deep pockets that are just on the wrong side for no other reason than that.  The data does not reveal the entire scope of the information and could be misleading, leading to false belief into an already somewhat flimsy theory in itself.

The right approach with incorporating reverse line movement is to still use it in conjunction with your own handicapping.  Do not rely solely on reverse line movement as your betting method of choice because you will ultimately end up on the losing side of things.  However, it has proven positives when used in addition to researching and analyzing the matchups as they are.

Other Reasons for Betting Line Movement

Lines can suddenly alter if news arrives that a key player has been injured, traded/released, or suspended.  While this is rare, it does happen on occasion.

A dramatic change in weather can also alter lines, particularly totals in the event of a snow game or game with a lot of rain or wind.

Should You Wait for a Line to Move?

Simply put, the best way to use line movement to your advantage is to wait to get the line at the number you feel the most comfortable with.

If you love a certain favorite, it’s widely believed that you should jump on them early as the general betting public will also gravitate towards betting favorites.  However, if you like the underdog in a certain matchup and you’re going against the grain with that pick, you will often find that it pays off to wait for the initial wave of bets to come in and then to bet closer to the start of the game itself.  This is a notorious methodology used by professional bettors from across the globe.

Analyzing the Different Kinds of Betting Line Movement

Line movement can be monitored across each of the three traditional means of betting on any given game or event.  Depending on the type of bet, line movement will look different.  Here’s how line movement will be indicated across the most common forms of sports betting.

Point Spread Line Movement

Monitoring line movement along the point spread is probably the most common means that bettors track how a line has changed from when it opened to the point they are going to make their wager.

More often than not, line movement from the original opening line will adjust relatively quickly as many wagers pour in the moment the lines are first posted.

A typical opening point spread line will look something like this:

  • Detroit Lions +4.5 (-110)
  • Minnesota Vikings -4.5 (-110)

If you were a bettor that liked the Vikings as a favorite, taking them at the opening line of -4.5 would likely be your best course of action.  After the initial line is released and a few days have passed, the same line could look like this:

  • Detroit Lions +6 (-110)
  • Minnesota Vikings -6 (-110)

Here you see that the line has moved by 1.5 points, meaning had you liked the Lions at +4.5, you’d probably really like them at +6.  Conversely, if you liked the Vikings at -4.5 but waited, the line has since moved to -6, which is not as alluring as the original line.

At first glance, one would look at this movement and hypothesize that the majority of the bets and the money are on the Vikings to win by 5 points and oddsmakers have since moved that line to try to entice more bets on the Lions by moving the number to -6.

Moneyline Line Movement

Moneyline betting is the simplest form of betting, as all that you are concerned about is the side who you believe will win the game.

Monitoring line movement by watching the moneyline odds is equally as simple to follow.  While you can utilize this in any of the major sports, it comes in particular handy in regards to baseball and hockey where moneyline betting is the traditional means to bet on each sport.

Here’s how a typical opening moneyline may look:

  • New York Yankees -120
  • Tampa Bay Rays +105

In this opening line, oddsmakers have the matchup with the Yankees slightly favored, indicated they have the game as a virtual toss-up with the Rays priced at an enticing +105.  But because the Yankees are a popular public team, twelve hours of betting has changed the odds to the following:

  • New York Yankees -140
  • Tampa Bay Rays +120

As is often the case, if you liked the favorite Yankees you would have been better served betting on them immediately, and if you liked the underdog Rays you would have been rewarded for your patience with the juicy price of +120 on the moneyline.

What this line movement tells us is that a lot of money backed the favored Yankees so oddsmakers raised the price on the Yankees to -140.  The +120 price on a team of the Rays caliber is very good value and would be gobbled up by sharp bettors in a hurry, giving your neighborhood sportsbook a practically even spread on money and action.

Totals Line Movement

When two high-scoring teams are matched up against each other, the most immediate line movement comes in teams pounding the over.  Conversely, when two teams that are low-scoring, defensive-oriented, or are playing in poor weather, that trends towards bettors taking the under.

Here’s an example of what an opening totals line would possibly look like:

  • Houston Rockets U231.5 (-110)
  • Golden State Warriors O231.5 (-110)

After several hours of getting bets ahead of tip-off, the public believes these two teams will have a high-scoring affair and take the over.  The line adjusts accordingly:

  • Houston Rockets U234 (-110)
  • Golden State Warriors O234 (-110)

As we can see, as the public flocked to the over, oddsmakers adjusted the total to try to encourage more bettors to take the under.  If bets continue to pour in on the over, the total will be adjusted again until the bets and money start flowing the other way.   This is again another tell to how the public is approaching betting on a particular matchup.

Middling the Point Spread

On occasion throughout any professional sports season, there will be enough line movement in a given matchup to open up a small window to where a bettor could potentially win bets on both sides of a matchup.

For example, let’s say in this opening line between the Raiders and Chiefs, the point spread was as follows:

  • Las Vegas Raiders +9.5 (-110)
  • Kansas City Chiefs -9.5 (-110)

Then after a few days of betting, the line has moved to this:

  • Las Vegas Raiders +12 (-110)
  • Kansas City Chiefs -12 (-110)

A bettor may think that the Chiefs win by 10 or 11, but not by 12 or more.  Thus they could be inclined to bet on the Raiders +12 after initially taking the Chiefs opening line of -9.5.  If the Chiefs went on to win 31-20, the bettor would win both a bet on the Chiefs and the bet on the Raiders.

This is known as middling the point spread, and while it does prove difficult to pull off, it does potentially offer the opportunity to profit in multiple ways.

Live Betting Line Movement

Another way a bettor could potentially middle a point spread is by using live betting for your line movement.

For example, if you did take the Chiefs at -9.5 and they opened up the game with 10 quick points to take an early 10-0 lead, in all likelihood you will get the Raiders at a very attractive number, giving you that same opportunity of “middling” a point spread by waiting to see how the line moves.

Conversely, another methodology that could yield successful results is waiting to bet the game to then bet on the game live when the original line shifts in a manner that offers a lot of value to making a bet.

As another example, let’s say that the same Chiefs team you loved at -9.5 starts the game slowly and gives up 10 quick points to fall behind 10-0.  Because of this, their live line has been adjusted to Kansas City -2.5.  Yes, the Chiefs are down 10, but now they only have to win by 3 instead of 10.  There’s a very good chance they do enough to cover both lines.  This is how you use live betting to your advantage.

Applying Line Movement Strategies to Your Betting

Understanding line movement and why lines are moving in a certain direction will make you a more knowledgeable sports bettor in the long run.

What separates the casual bettors from the pros aren’t just their enormous bankrolls (though that certainly is a factor) it’s their ability to snuff out a line that’s not right and to take the bet at the correct time at its maximum value.

Remember these key bullet points about live movement when you’re ready to make your next wager:

  • If you like a favorite, particularly one that will be a heavy public favorite, take them early as the line is almost guaranteed to change.
  • If you love an underdog at their opening number, sit back and wait. The vast majority of the time the underdog you love will get an even better number than what they opened up with.  However, if your underdog is a public darling, you may consider jumping in a little early.
  • Line movement is primarily meant to draw in equal amounts of money and action on both sides of a given matchup. If the line moves a good amount of points in one direction, it almost always means that the majority of the money and action is on that side.
  • Dramatic changes in a short amount of time almost always indicate sharp (e.g. professional) bettor money. Gradual changes in either direction generally indicate public betting money.

Understanding all of this will go a long way to ensuring you have a profitable betting experience.  Good luck in all your playing!

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