Sports Betting 101: Totals for games, half, teams and players


Now let's get back to our Betting 101 series. In yesterday's newsletter, we discussed the moneyline. Next up: the total!

Betting on favorites and underdogs to win or cover the spread isn't the only way to bet on a game. In addition to setting the line for favorites and underdogs, oddsmakers also set a line on the cumulative amount of points, goals or runs scored in the game by both teams combined. This is called the total, which is more popularly referred to as the “over/under” or simply the “O/U.” 


Oddsmakers set the total based on the same high-level algorithms and formulas they use when determining the spread and moneyline, but in this case they are leaning more heavily into specific offense vs defense matchups, pace and style of play, coaching philosophies, referee or umpire tendencies and even the weather. 

For example, if both teams are struggling on offense and posses great defenses, the oddsmakers will set a low total for the game. On the flip side, if both teams possesses high-scoring offenses and play porous defense, the total will be set higher. Or maybe a basketball game features two teams who play a slow and deliberate style who chew up the shot clock. That would lean to a lower total. On the flip side, if two teams really push the pace, get up and down the court quickly and take a lot of shots, the total would be set higher.

The weather can also have a big affect on totals. One of the biggest factors is the wind. Let's say the Cubs are hosting the Brewers and the wind is howling out to dead-center field at 15 MPH at Wrigley Field. This would lead to oddsmakers setting a higher total than usual because a warning track fly ball could be pushed over the fence and become a home run thanks to the wind, leading to more runs being scored. 

Or maybe a football game between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs features swirling 15 MPH crosswinds. This makes it harder to throw the ball and kick field goals, which would force the oddsmakers to set a lower end total. Meanwhile, if a game is being played indoors inside a dome or closed roof stadium, the total would be set higher due to the perfect conditions.

Once a total is set, bettors can then wager on whether the amount of points scored will be above or below the total. This is popularly referred to as a betting the "over" or betting the "under." Just like for spreads, totals can also involve not just whole numbers but half points as well.

Betting on totals is a completely different way of betting compared to spreads and moneylines. Instead of rooting for one time to win the game or cover the spread, you are rooting for both teams. If you bet the over, you are cheering on both offenses and rooting for both teams to score a lot of points. If you bet the under, you are cheering on both defenses and rooting for both teams to score a low amount of points.

Totals are available in all sports but are most popular in basketball and football where there are a higher number of total points scored. An average total in the NFL is roughly 45 points. In the NBA it’s usually between 210 and 220 points. MLB totals are typically 8.5 runs and NHL totals are typically 5.5 goals.

For example, let’s say the Chicago Bulls are playing the Los Angeles Lakers and the oddsmakers set the total at 215.5. If you wanted to bet the over, you would need both teams to combine to score 216 points or more. It doesn't matter which team wins the game. If the Lakers win 110-106 or the Bulls win 110-106, you win your over bet. If you bet the under, they would need both teams to combine to score 215 points or less.

It’s important to note that bets on the total are based on the full game results, not the regulation results. So if a game goes to overtime that counts toward the total. Overtime can be a blessing or a curse depending on what side you’re on. If it’s late in the game and you’re losing your over bet, bettors will hope and pray the game goes to overtime so there is extra time to score more points. On the flip side, if a bettor has an under and the score remains low late in the game, bettors will cross their fingers that the game doesn’t go to overtime, which would lead to more points being scored and potentially sink their under bet.

Anytime you have a bet that is winning for much of the game and looses in heartbreaking fashion at the very end, that is referred to as a "bad beat." 

The most popular total bet is on the full game. However, sportsbooks also offer totals for the first half and the first quarter. These are abbreviated by 1H and 1Q. Once the first half is over, the second half line is released, abbreviated as 2H. You would have to act quickly and bet the second half line before halftime ends and the third quarter begins. Sportsbooks also offer a live-line total for in-game wagering. 

In baseball, the first half line is called the "first five," short for the first five innings and abbreviated as F5. It can be a popular bet among sharp bettors, especially if there is a stellar pitching matchup. For example, let's say the Los Angeles Dodgers are playing the Washington Nationals with aces Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg facing off. The full game total might be set at 8 and the first five total might be set at 4. With two of the best pitchers in baseball on the mound, you might want to take the first five under 3.5, thinking that both aces will shut down the opposing offenses and maybe it's 1-0, 1-1, 2-0, 2-1 or scoreless game after the first five innings. However, you bypass the full game under 8 because both teams possess poor bullpens and could give up several runs in the last four innings to sink the full game under 8.

In additional to the full game total for both teams combined, you can also bet on how many points a specific team will score during a game. This is referred to as a team total, abbreviated at "TT." So while the Bulls-Lakers game might have a full game total of 215.5, the Bulls team total might be set at 107.5. Maybe you are worried about the full game total going over because the Lakers have a potent offense but see value on the Bulls team total under because Los Angeles has a stellar defense that the Bulls don't match up well against.

Books also offer win totals for each team prior to each season. These are season-long bets based on how many games a given team will win over the course of a year. Then they get adjusted throughout the year based on how each team is performing. For instance, before the season starts, the Atlanta Falcons might have a win total of 8.5. If you think the Falcons will win 9 or more games in the upcoming year you could bet the over. If you think Atlanta will win 8 games or less you could bet the under. You would then have to wait the entire year to cash your ticket if it wins.

Totals also exist for individual players. This could be tied to specific individual games and also season-long performance. These types of bets are popularly referred to as prop bets, which is short for “propositional bets," also known as exotics. A prop bet, or "prop" for short, is any kind of bet outside of the traditional spread, moneyline and over/under that isn’t tied to the final score. Props for individual player over/unders are referred to as "player props" and have grown in popularity in recent years.

For example, say the Baltimore Ravens are facing the Pittsburgh Steelers. The oddsmakers might set Lamar Jackson's passing yard over/under at 298.5. You could then bet on either the over or the under. Other popular NFL prop bets would include over/under receiving yards, rushing yards and touchdowns for specific players. In the NBA, you can bet on specific players going over or under a certain amount of points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and minutes. LeBron James might have point total prop of 25.5. You could then bet on either the over or the under.

Player prop over/unders can also be season long bets. For instance, popular MLB props include how many home runs, hits, RBI's or steal a player will hit in a season, along with how many wins, strikeouts or saves a pitcher will have. For example, maybe the oddsmakers set Mike Trout's home run total at 35.5 for the year. You could then bet the over or under. 

Player props are a way to bet on a game in which you don't see value on either team winning or cover, or the total going over or under, but instead identify value on a specific player's performance. Instead of betting on a team, you are betting on a player.