What is Handicap Betting? – Handicap Betting Explained

Handicap betting, also referred to as the “spread,” is another popular betting market with all major online sportsbooks. It’s a concept that allows betting sites to add or remove goals/points to manipulate one team’s advantage or disadvantage over the other.

In this article, we’re going to be looking at how handicap betting works, what is handicap betting, examples of the bet type, strategies to help you win more, and the best online betting sites for handicap betting markets.

What is a Handicap Bet?

The concept of a handicap bet is to add or remove points from a team to give them an advantage or disadvantage for that game. The betting site is trying to create a market where any advantage for one team over the other is removed to create as close to an even money shot for both teams.

The favorite on the moneyline would have points removed from the final score and the underdog would have points added. The gap between the two teams will determine the handicap applied and in turn, create a level playing field.

Let’s look at a real-world example to see how this might work.

handicap betting guide

We’re going to work with an upcoming NBA game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers. The first thing to note here is the moneyline odds, which shows that the 76ers are strong favorites to win the game at odds of -500 compared to the Nets at odds of +375.

It’s the handicapper’s job to determine the number of points that the Nets would need to be added to their score (pre-game) for the bet to be as even as possible. As we can see, BetOnline has decided the spread is 10.5 points, where these points are added to the final score of the Nets and removed from the final score of the 76ers.

But what does this mean for our bets?

Well, in laymen’s terms, the Nets need to win or lose by 10 or fewer points. The 76ers need to win by 11 points or more. As you can see the odds are very close for both results, with -115 on the Nets at +10.5 and -105 on the 76ers at -105.

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Why Do We Have Handicap Bets?

The handicap bet is designed to level the playing field in games where there is a strong favorite. In American sports, the gulf between the best and worst teams in the division can be huge, so the moneyline betting market can offer little value.

If we refer back to our NBA game above, the chances of the Nets beating the 76ers are slim, so betting on them at these odds will lose a lot more than it wins. The handicap closes this gap and makes the market much more competitive.

How are Handicap Lines Calculated?

Handicap lines are calculated based on the advantage that one team has over the other. Betting sites will start by considering their research for the moneyline odds, which is where the base of all bets for that game starts.

The larger the gap in odds on the moneyline, the bigger the spread will be for the handicap. There is no set rule about what the handicap will be, but the example used about is typical in sports like the NBA.

If we include another upcoming NBA game between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, this will give us a good idea of how the handicap can differ.

handicap betting (1)

As we can see, the Warriors v Kings game is much closer on the moneyline. In fact, it’s as close as you’re going to get with BetOnline making it almost a coin flip. Therefore, the handicap (spread) is set as low as it will go at just 1.5 points. All this does for this game is flip the moneyline odds around, with the Warriors moving from -115 to -105 and the Kings moving from -105 to -115.

Handicap Bet Types

There are two general bet types when it comes to handicap betting, and these are linked to different sports. We’ve outlined these below and given examples of how they work.

2-Way Handicap Bets

A 2-way handicap is the most common and this is where there are only two outcomes in a home or away win. In US sports there are no ties, so this market makes a lot of sense and is very simple to follow.

angels v red sox

As an example, we’ve used an MLB game between the LA Angels and Boston Red Sox. The handicap is set at 1.5 runs (common for baseball) and you need to choose either the Angels at -1.5 or the Red Sox at +1.5. These runs get added or subtracted from the final score.

3-Way Handicap Bets

A 3-way handicap bet is less common, but still accessible and worth noting how it works. It’s linked to sports like soccer, where ties are a part of the game.

The process is the same, but instead of simply betting on one of the two teams to win, you can also back the draw as part of the handicap bet. Let’s run through a quick example.

soccer handicap bet

This is a Premier League game between Leeds United and Liverpool. As you can see, there are three options for the handicap market. Leeds United at +1, Handicap Tie – Leeds United +1 and Liverpool -1.

The handicaps for Leeds and Liverpool are self-explanatory in that 1 goal is added for Leeds and 1 goal removed for Liverpool. The draw (tie) indicates that a goal will be added to the Leeds score to create the tie.

For example, if Leeds were to lose 2-1, then a +1 goal would be added to their score to make the handicap score 2-2 and the bet would win. Basically, any result where Leeds loses by 1 goal will see this bet win. Any other result would see this bet lose.

Whole Number Handicaps

The example above brings us nicely into whole number handicap bets. As the name would suggest, this is where whole numbers are used for the handicap which means that there is a potential for a tie.

hockey handicap bet

The example above is from an international hockey game between Sweden and Germany. As you can see, the line is set at +/- 2 goals.

So, if you bet on Germany at +2 and they lost the game 4-2, then the handicap-adjusted score would be 4-4. Seen as though this is a 2-way handicap bet, there are no ties, so in this scenario, the bet would be a push and the stake would be returned.

Half-Number Handicaps

Half-number handicaps (decimals) are the most common handicap bet type. This allows there to always be a result and removes the need to push any bets.

islanders v hurricanes

The example we’ve used for this is about as typical as you can get and is a game between the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes. The handicap (spread) is set at +/- 1.5 goals for each team. Obviously, there are no half points in sports, which is why there will always be a result.

So, if you’d back the Islands at +1.5 on the spread and the score ended 3-2 to the Hurricanes, then the adjusted score would then 3-3.5 in favor of the Islanders, so your bet would win.

How to Beat the Handicap Spread

The handicapper’s role is to try and balance the books. They create a handicap that will allow them to offer odds of near even-money and they do this by predicting the outcome of the game. The handicap is essentially the difference in class between each team.

However, there are times when the spread will not necessarily reflect the true advantage or disadvantage one team has over the other. This occurs when a substantial amount of money has been wagered on one side and they need to balance the books. To do this, they adjust the spread.

To beat the handicap spread you need to track lines as soon as they are released. There are sites that do this for you, but one of the easiest ways is to use betting exchanges. If you’re in the US then accessibility to an exchange is limited to place a bet, but you can use them to track odds.

If the spread moves, then you know that a lot of money has been wagered and that it’s no longer the true odds for that bet. For example, if a team was initially -3.5 and is now -2.5 the spread betting has moved and will offer less value given you’ve fewer points to play with.

This means that betting on the other side will offer greater value, with a “fair” line of +2.5, now boasting an inflated line of +3.5 for the same odds.

Handicap Bets by Sports

In this section, we wanted to break down how handicap bets work with different sports. The basics of how the bets work are the same, but there are nuances that you need to be aware of for each sport before placing a bet.

NFL Handicap Bet Example

The NFL handicap is a popular bet and is based on the number of points scored by each team. Given that scores can be quite high, you get a relatively wide range of handicaps applied.

The example above is taken from the 2023 Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. As you can see, the handicap spread was +/- 1.5 points, both priced at -110.

This is as close as you will get for an NFL game, let alone a Super Bowl matchup. The example means that the Chiefs needed to win or lose by less than 2 points and the Eagles needed to win by 2 or more points.

Without going into too much detail here, when the handicaps are so close, it’s usually better to take the higher price on the moneyline for the underdog and the handicap for the favorite.

NBA Handicap Bet Example

NBA games have the biggest margin for error when it comes to handicapping, simply because of the volume of points scored per game. Games average around 210 points, so being able to predict the spread is far tougher than almost any sport.

nicks v cavs handicap

The example above is taken from a game between the New York Nicks and Cleveland Cavaliers. The spread is set at +/- 4.5 points, meaning that if you backed the Knicks, you need them to not lose by 5 or more points. If you backed the Cavs, then you need to win by 5 or more points.

NHL Handicap Bet Example

NHL handicap betting is different from most sports as the spread is usually the same for each game. The line is set at +/- 1.5 goals and then odds are reflective of this. The reasoning for this is that the average number of goals per game is a little over 6, making any bigger handicap spreads too unrealistic.

wild v stars handicap

Above is a great example of how the spread changes based on a very close game between the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars. Note the moneyline odds of -120 and -145 respectively, highlighting that this will be a very close game regardless of any handicap.

Once the 1.5 handicap is applied, the odds start to move massively. The Wild are now huge favorites at -250 and the Stars are a massive underdog at +190.

MLB Handicap Bet Example

MLB handicaps follow a similar trend to the NHL in that, the number of runs scored is relatively low, with an average per game of around 9. As a result, the handicap follows the same process where almost all games are at +/- 1.5 runs.

rangers v royals MLB

The example above is from the Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals game. So, the Rangers on the moneyline are strong favorites here which means that the 1.5 spread is relatively fair compared to most games, priced at +100 for the Royals and -120 for the Rangers.

With markets like this, the spread won’t move, but the odds will. Odds that have significantly shortened from the time they were released are ones that you want to fade and instead, take the higher price for the alternative line.

For example, let’s assume that come the first pitch the odds for the Rangers were now at -150 and the Royals at +150. We know from the image above that for the same line we’re getting $50 more per $100 staked when bet on the Royals at +1.5.

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Soccer Handicap Bet Example

Soccer is an important sport to include as it covers a lot of the 3-way handicap markets that we outlined earlier in the article. There are multiple handicap types that come with the sport, such as Asian handicaps, which are also very popular.

soccer handicap

We’re going to use an example from an upcoming Premier League game between Arsenal and Southampton. The bet above shows a 2-way handicap bet where the handicap is placed as a decimal. In this case, that would be 1.5 goals.

This market shows us that 1.5 goals are removed from the Arsenal score, or 1.5 goals are added to the Southampton score. So, Arsenal needs to win by two or more goals or Southampton needs to not lose by 1 or fewer (draw).

soccer 3 way handicap

The next example from the game is the 3-way handicap. But this includes both -2 and -1 goals to highlight how they would differ. The 3-way brings in the options to bet on the tie. So, the “Handicap Tie – Arsenal (-2)” bet means that if Arsenal win by exactly 2 goals, it would be a tie and your bet would win.

How to Place a Handicap Bet

Using one of the best online sportsbooks, BetOnline, we’ve walked you through the process of not only creating an account but also placing a handicap bet. While the process will differ slightly from sportsbook to sportsbook, the principles will be the same.

1.   Open an Account

You need to start with an active BetOnline account. To do this click on the “Join” button at the top of the page and fill in the boxes as required. You will need to verify your account at some point (usually before you can withdraw), so take the time to make sure this information is accurate.

Sign up forms at BetOnline

2.   Make a Deposit and Claim Welcome Offer

Once the account has been created, head to the cashier to make a deposit. Use any of the payment methods offered to you and deposit an amount you can afford.

Deposit and bonus entering screen at BetOnline.

3.   Head to the Sportsbook and Choose a Sport

Use the navigation panel to find a sport to bet on. You can bet live if you wish, but if you’re new, we recommend starting with a sport or league that you’re familiar with. For this example, we’re going to find a game in the NFL to bet on.

BetOnline NFL markets

4.   Make Your Pick

Choose the game that you want to bet on. The handicap (spread) will be apparent as an overview of BetOnline, but it’s worth clicking on the game to see more markets as there could be alternatives that offer better value.

5.   Place Your Bet

Add the bet to your bet slip by clicking on the odds. Once there, choose the amount you want to wager and then confirm the bet. Live bets can be found within the bet slip once the bet has been confirmed.

Bet slip with spread bet.

Handicap Betting Strategies

In this section, we’ve included a range of betting strategies that you can apply to handicap markets. By utilizing these you will increase your chances of consistently making a profit from the market and limit any losses.

  1. Watch the lines – An easy place to start is to simply watch the initial betting line (odds) as they go live and then react as/if they move. What you tend to find is that as money goes in one side, the other drifts which in turn creates more value from the bet.
  2. Home advantage – You need to note how a team performs both at home and away. For example, teams tend to perform better at home than they do on the road, so when home teams are underdogs, the lines tend to be closer than if you were to remove the home advantage.
  3. Against the spread – Some teams cover the spread more than others. For example, since 2018, Cincinnati Bengals have covered the spread 59.3% of the time (1st) compared with the New York Jets who have covered it just 39.5% (last). Target bets that fit with trends about covering and failing to cover spreads.
  4. Team news – Starting rosters can make a huge difference in terms of the handicap. For example, if the start QB is not playing, then the likelihood is that the team will score fewer points as a result. Be aware of the players that are missing and factor in how that will affect the score.
  5. Create plausible score lines – Handicap betting is not necessarily about working out who will win, but more about how points can be scored compared to the opponent. Create a plausible score for the game and see how that reflects the spreads set out by the betting sites.

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Alternative Handicap Bets

To understand what is handicap betting, we need also need to know what alternative handicap bets are. These different handicaps that the sportsbook allows you to use with odds that reflect each.

We know that NHL betting sets a standard line of +/- 1.5 goals for most games, but as you can see, there are handicaps that range from +/- 3.5 goals for both teams. These bets are handy for taking a larger risk as to how the game might play out.

It’s also possible to bet on alternative handicap markets for different periods. Again, looking at the example above, you can see there are spreads for the full game, 1st period, 2nd period, and 3rd period. The score is taken from those periods only and will reset for each. So, for the start of the 2nd period, the game will begin as 0-0 for the purpose of this bet.

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Jonathan Askew
Sports Betting and Casino Expert

Jonathan is a freelance writer working with Techopedia. He has been working within the gambling sector for over 15 years and has been fortunate enough to work with brands that include Gambling.com, CheekyPunter.com, BasketballInsiders.com and Betfair. He specializes in US and UK-based sports and casino content for Techopedia.