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Soccer Wagering: Point Spread or Money Line?

We are often asked whether the handicap is a smarter play than the money line. While we generally feel the handicap (spread) offers better value, this article will examine both wager types in detail. For decades, soccer has traditionally been bet using a money line. Also known as 1X2, there are three options to choose from: home win (1), away win (2) and draw (X). For example, the odds on an upcoming Premiership match would look like this:

Everton: 2.50
Liverpool: 2.50
Draw: 3.10

To win his wager, a punter must correctly pick either the winning team or the draw. If he backs Liverpool and the game ends in a 2-2 draw, for example, the wager loses. Since nearly 30% of soccer games end in a draw, it can become frustrating to bet this way.

North Americans are generally uncomfortable with the idea of losing their wager if a game ends in a tie. Fewer people would play blackjack if the dealer won on a push. Soccer is no different. In Asia, where millions of dollars in soccer bets change hands every week, they shared that sentiment. In response, street bookies invented a form of wagering called Hang Cheng, or Asian Handicap, which eliminated the draw option. Although slightly more complicated in its Asian form, this was essentially a point spread. On the spread, our sample match would look like this:

Everton +0 1.909
Liverpool +0 1.909

This is the same game as listed in the example above with one significant difference: the Draw is removed from the equation. If the game ends in a draw, the wager will be graded a 'push' and stakes refunded. But with smaller risk comes a smaller reward. With the draw no longer a losing wager, the odds on the home and away teams are shortened. But for many soccer bettors fed up with losing money on a draw, that's a small price to pay. (Note that the propositions are listed with the spread accompanying the money line, even when there is none, as is the case here, '+0')

In recent years, point spread betting has exploded in popularity. Many industry observers, ourselves included, believe it will become the predominant form of soccer wagering in the next five years. Why has it become so popular? The principal reason is value. For a sportsbook, three-line European money lines have bigger profit margins than two-line point spreads. Offering three options allows the bookmaker to extract more 'juice' from each line. When creating lines, a sportsbook will offer odds on each team that give it a slight edge, ensuring a profit no matter how the game turns out. This is called the Theoretical Hold and is expressed as a percentage. It represents the combined amount of customers' bets that the bookmaker expects to keep. (It's called theoretical because in reality a book rarely has balanced action on all sides).

The table below shows traditional money lines offered by three British sportsbooks on an upcoming Premiership match. Although each book offers different odds, their theoretical hold ranges from 9.09-11.36%. No matter who wins the game, the book can expect to keep at least 9% of all the money wagered on this match.

Aston Villa vs. Birmingham

Aston Villa Draw Birmingham Theoretical Hold
UK Sportsbook A 1.909 3.30 3.40 10.79%
UK Sportsbook B 1.80 3.110 4.00 11.36%
UK Sportsbook C 2.00 3.00 3.75 9.09%

Compared to the North American sports, soccer money lines give the bookmaker a much bigger theoretical hold. The following table shows the point spread odds offered by two US-oriented sportsbooks on an upcoming NFL game. With only two betting options, each side at 1.909, most books have a theoretical hold of only 4.55% -- less than half the hold of a soccer money line. Some US-oriented sportsbooks offering 'reduced juice' allow a bettor to lay -105 (1.95) on each side. That works out to a theoretical hold of only 2.38%! For us as bettors and handicappers, the smaller the house edge, the better.

Miami vs. Denver
Miami Draw Denver Theoretical Hold
US Sportsbook 1.909 NA 2.00 4.55%
Reduced Juice Sportsbook 1.95 NA 1.95 2.38%

When asked why they aren't keener to expand into the North American market, many European sportsbooks will say it's simply not as profitable, since most sports bets have only two options: home and away win. Because they are used to higher hold percentages, some British sportsbooks offer NFL football sides at -120 (1.83). As a result of increased competition, some European books are reducing their theoretical hold on traditional moneylines. But the money line remains the most lucrative betting format from a sportsbook's perspective.

Another drawback with money lines is away wins are much rarer in soccer than in other sports. Because visiting teams will often draw rather than win outright, it can be frustrating to play on the away team. In the Premiership 48% of games are home wins, 27% are draws and 25% are away wins. With the home team winning roughly half the time, a point spread of +0.5 is perfectly suited to soccer.

Our earlier example of Aston Villa vs. Birmingham illustrates this point. What if you felt strongly that Aston Villa wouldn't win that match? Before handicap bets were available, bettors seeking to back Birmingham at the equivalent handicap of +0.5 had to place two separate bets: one on Birmingham and the other on the draw:

Birmingham 4.00 -- Risk $58.51 to win $175.53
Draw 3.10 -- Risk $75.49 to win $158.52

If the game results in either a Birmingham win or a draw, there is a profit of $100. Even using the best odds available, the bettor would still have to risk $134 to win $100. On the spread, backing Birmingham at +0.5 would cost only $110 (see table below). But the two separate bets are not just poor value; they also require inconvenient calculations to ensure an equal win amount on both sides. Wagering amounts like $58.51 and $75.49 are messy and awkward.

The point spread offers much better value because of a lower theoretical hold. We can risk -110 instead of -134 on Birmingham because the house edge is 4.55% instead of 11.36%. Intense competition among sportsbooks in recent years has allowed us to secure even better odds. Most Asian bookmakers offer reduced juice on soccer. Pinnacle Sportsbook recently began posting lines as low as four-cents on soccer spreads (1.98 on both sides), with a theoretical hold of only 0.98%!
Aston Villa -0.5 Draw Birmingham +0.5 Theoretical Hold
US Sportsbook 1.909 NA 1.909 4.55%
Asian Sportsbook 1.95 NA 1.95 2.38%
Pinnacle Reduced 1.98 NA 1.98 0.98%

Unlike the major North American sports, soccer is a very low scoring game. Many hockey fans complain that the NHL averages only about 5 goals per game. The average European soccer game will have about 2.5 goals. From a handicapping perspective, this is huge. Since goals are at a premium, a half point on the spread will often make the difference between a winning and losing wager. In NFL football a half point is usually worth 5-10 cents. But in soccer, it can cost as much as 100. In the Aston Villa vs. Birmingham match, you can back Birmingham +0.5 on the spread at 1.909, or on the money line (-0.5) at roughly +300 (3/1). The following table is a rough guide between money line prices and their handicap equivalents:
Money Line Spread (Handicap)
-300 (1.33) -1.5
-200 (1.50) -1
+100 (2.00) -0.5
+170 (2.70) pk
+300 (4.00) +0.5
+500 (6.00) +1
+900 (10.00) +1.5

Just like puck lines in hockey, or run lines in baseball, the soccer point spread makes wagering more flexible. Those who are uncomfortable backing an odds-on favourite at 1.33 can play it at -1.5 on the handicap (1.909 odds). Likewise, taking an underdog at +1.5 is a winning wager if the favourite wins by only one goal. Unlike our earlier example of backing Birmingham +0.5, it is impossible to replicate a +1.5 line using a combination on money line plays. In the Super Bowl, seven point favourites New England beat Carolina 32-29. If the money line were the only wagering option, it would have been impossible to bet Carolina +7.

English soccer has the sharpest lines of any sport in the world. It is a tougher nut to crack than even the NFL. With close to a billion fans watching the Premiership across Europe, Asia and North America, linesmakers cannot afford to be careless. As a handicapper, you must exploit every edge possible to have a profitable season. While point spreads generally have better value, money lines will sometimes be a smarter play. Both wager types can complement each other, but each situation is unique and it's up to the bettor to decide which one to use. We release all our soccer plays with the point spread included with the line. So next time you place a soccer bet, consider all your options.

Other Articles About Soccer Betting:

 Soccer Wagering: Point Spread or Money Line?
 UEFA Champions League Prediction: Group Stage
 World Cup Qualifiers 2006: European Zone
 Carling Cup Prediction: Second Round Preview
 Italian Soccer Prediction: Serie A Preview 2004/2005
 French Soccer Prediction: Singing Les Bleus
 Spanish Soccer Prediction: Primera Liga Preview 2004
 German Soccer Prediction: Bundesliga Preview 2004
 English Premier League Prediction 2004/2005
 Olympics Soccer: Redemption Time
 Copa America Prediction: Samba or Last Tango in Peru?
 Asian Cup Prediction: Here We Go Again
 Copa America Betting: At the Copa...
 Betting Euro 2004: The Final Four
 Euro 2004 Gambling: Propaholics and Rooney-Mania
 Euro 2004 Predictions: Handicapping Secrets Revealed
 Euro 2004 Tips: Props - Part 1
 Euro 2004 Bets: Props - Part 2
 International Friendlies: How to Cash In
 Road Dogs and Big Profits: How to Find Both
 Uefa Champions League Betting Tips: The Final Four
 Man Utd v Arsenal Prediction: Clash of the Titans
 Premiership Predictions: EPL Roundup
 UK Bookmakers: Where the Action Is
 Legal Betting: A Gambler's Paradise
 Cup Competitions: Where the Money is
 Profit from Home Field Advantage

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