Totals – How to Bet the Over/Under

If you log onto a sportsbook app in Ontario or elsewhere in Canada, you will see a wager called a “totals” bet listed for most of the games. Furthermore, the over/under is nowhere to be found. What is going on?

The short answer to this conundrum is that the two bets are one and the same. This wager is officially called a totals bet, but it is more commonly known as the “over/under.” 

Because it is a nearly-ubiquitous type of wager, you need to know how it works. So, this page is designed to be your resource for understanding how to bet knowledgeably (and hopefully, profitably) on the over/under.

What are totals wagers?

No matter what you call this type of bet, its mechanics are the same. It is a bet regarding the eventual total number of points that two teams in a given game will combine to score. The exact division of the points between the two teams is irrelevant to the bet, as is the outcome of the game. What matters is their combined offensive output.

In general, a totals bet is pretty simple. The sportsbook estimates the total that the game will produce, and you bet whether the estimate is too high or too low. Incidentally, this estimate is, in fact, the “over/under.” 

If it’s too high, then you’re betting the “under.” If it’s too low, then you’re betting the “over.”

How do I recognize a totals bet?

The first step to betting on totals is to recognize a totals listing. Most sportsbooks have three main types of wagers that are on the “front page,” so to speak, of each game or match. Those three wager types are point spreads, moneylines, and totals. Generally, they are displayed from left to right in that order. So, for the most part, you’ll find a totals bet in the right-hand column of bet listings.

Structurally, a totals bet listing bears more aesthetic similarities to point spread listings than it does to moneyline listings. You’re unlikely to mistake a moneyline for a totals bet. Instead, here’s the general format to spot:

  • Team A O 36.5 -110
  • Team B U 36.5 -110

So, in this case, the sportsbook is estimating that the teams will combine to score 36.5 points in the game. The placement of the two options next to the teams – the over with A and the under with B – is purely coincidental, so don’t get confused and think that only Team A can go over or something.

You may be a bit confused, as it is patently impossible for the teams to score a total with a half-point. Sportsbooks commonly set this estimate and the one for point spreads in a half-point in order to avoid the possibility of a tie. In other words, you have to make a choice – there’s no “safe” option or way to agree with the sportsbook’s oddsmakers.

The -110s are the payout ratios for a successful wager on each side of the bet. They work exactly like the payouts in point spreads and use the moneyline format. In essence, you are betting $110 to win $100 (or to get a $210 payout, if that makes it easier to visualize). 

Most totals payouts are going to hover around -110, as a 10% vig is the standard charge for most sportsbooks. You may see a bit of variation if the book wants to encourage wagering on one side or the other. However, if you see payouts on both sides of the bet that are quite negative – say, -115 or worse – then you should probably find a different sportsbook to play altogether.

Tips for betting on totals

Now that we’ve discussed how totals work, here are a few strategic tips for how to approach your first totals wager or, for that matter, most subsequent totals bets..

Watch and examine any over/under movement

The first time you visit a sportsbook and observe an over/under listing, you should make a note about the mark at which the estimate sits. Then, if you notice that the over/under changes as the game approaches, you should research the reasons behind the movement as best you can.

Generally speaking, movement of any oddsmakers’ estimates is driven by betting on one side of the bet or the other. That influential betting, in turn, comes from the so-called “smart money” – the professional sports betting sharks with winning track records and excellent techniques for pricing bets. 

Those sharks are hammering one side of the bet or the other because they have judged the payout to be adequate compensation for the risk. They may have discovered a bit of news about the game itself or its players that may be influencing their decision. For instance, if a star player who scores many points is injured in the days leading up to the game, it may be more likely that the total points for the game will be lower than the initial estimate.

As best as you can, you should investigate the reasons for the movement. Then, you should make your own determination about whether or not the “smart money” is making the right decision or not. For instance, the aforementioned star player injury might indicate that you should take the “under,” but perhaps you have deep knowledge of the star’s backup player and his/her potential. So, you might be able to find value in going against the grain.

Look for patterns in previous games

Teams evolve or devolve as the season wears on. A low-scoring team might catch fire. A high-scoring team might have a slump. So, don’t just look at the average points per game for each team as a gauge of the over/under’s accuracy.

Instead, look at more recent performances for information. A team that seems to be uniting behind some new personnel or “figuring things out” might produce a higher score and resulting total than its average might suggest. Conversely, a key injury (like the one mentioned above) might severely hamper a good team’s ability to produce.

If you want to look deeper, you can also look at how the teams have been scoring their points, and with which athletes they are doing so. You may want to look at the teams’ performances against similar opponents to the one in their upcoming game. No one piece of information is gospel, but appropriate research can begin to build a cohesive understanding in your head.

Look at both offensive and defensive prowess

Scoring is not a one-way street. A high-powered offence only works if it can avoid the efforts of the defence while it is executing its gameplan. 

So, don’t neglect an examination of the defensive capabilities of both teams in the game, either. If one or both of the teams are particularly stingy in surrendering points, a total going “over” might be less likely than the alternative.

As is the case with looking at overall patterns, it might behoove you to look at how well the offences match up with the particular defensive schemes that the opponent plans to use. Particular matchups might be good or bad for one or both teams’ offensive identities. If one of the defences has struggled to contain similar offences to the upcoming opponent’s strengths, an “under” bet might be harder to fathom.

Shop your bets and/or use the information

Once you’ve made a decision about a totals bet you like, make sure you compare the listing to the ones you can find on other apps. You may be able to find a better deal at one of them. 

For instance, if you’ve determined you’re going to bet the over on a game, it’s worth looking to see if another book has an even lower over/under than the one you’re currently using. After all, the lower the over/under, the easier it is for the total to go over. So, you may want to put your bet with the latter sportsbook, all else being equal.

Even if you don’t want to move your bet, you can also let the over/unders at other sportsbooks help to guide your decision-making. If you’re seeing major discrepancies and disagreements between the books about how the game will go, you may want to dig deeper and find out where the points of contention lie. 

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