How Sports Handicaps Work

sports handicappingCanadian citizens have a great deal more freedom to bet on sports than those in the United States. In Canada it’s perfectly legal to bet on sports using government-sanctioned betting websites, and it’s also legal for Canadian citizens to use foreign-based sports betting sites.

Whether an individual wants to bet on a local game of hockey or lacrosse, or the bettor prefers American football or the World Cup, the options are wide open.
Before someone chooses to start betting on sports though, it’s important to understand what a sports handicap is and how it’s used to set the odds.

What is a Handicap?

A sports handicap is the method used by sports betting websites to decide what the odds are on a particular event. Let’s say, for example, that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going head-to-head with Montreal Canadiens. A sportsbook might look at this and decide that this particular season the Maple Leafs are doing well, but only just a little better than their foes. So the book decides that the Leafs are at a 1-goal advantage based on skill. If the match is happening at the Air Canada Centre, then that’s also seen as an advantage (typically worth maybe a goal). So in this instance Toronto would have a 2-goal advantage over Montreal.

Picture a line, with zero in the middle. Every goal, positive or negative, moves a team away from the line into either the position of a favorite or an underdog. In the above example Montreal is the underdog, and they would need to lose by 1 goal or actually win the game to cancel out the +2 the team starts out at. If that happens then those who bet on them win, and typically win big because underdogs pay out more. If someone bets on Toronto though they must win by 3 clear goals to win the bet. If there is a win of exactly two goals by Toronto then it’s considered a push and both sides of the bet get their money back. This is why there may occasionally be an extra 1/2 goal in the spread; it eliminates the push.

Once the handicap has been established and a book has given the odds on a game, bettors know which side is favored to win, by how many goals, and what the odds are. Once the odds have been calculated and payouts have been figured, gamblers can then put their money on whichever side they feel is most likely to come away a winner.

What is The Goal of a Sports Handicap?

From a gambler’s perspective the purpose of a sports handicap is to let bettors know what their odds are. From a book’s perspective (the people who are deciding what the odds are in the first place, after all), the purpose of a sports handicap is to try and even out the odds so the casino doesn’t end up making a bad bet.
How can a sportsbook make a bad bet? The book is the one covering the bets, isn’t it?

Yes and no. Let’s say there was a lacrosse match, but the red team had been dominating the season while the blue team hadn’t won a single match yet. If a bookie gave even odds on the match (saying essentially that both teams had an even chance of winning) then most people would bet on the red team. Assuming there isn’t a major upset the red would wipe the field with the blue, and come away clear winners. If that happened then the casino would have to pay out a huge amount of money because no one bet on blue.

This is where the sports handicap comes in. By setting odds a sportsbook alters what it pays for a bet, and it tries to even out its own risk. If one team is at a clear advantage then the handicap will show it and point out that because that is a surer bet that the payout will be less. The goal, once the handicap is calculated, is to make sure that roughly fifty percent of the money put down is on either side. If a casino manages to do that, then it will make a profit from every game. Only in situations where too many bettors choose the winner will the casino take a loss.

Different Sites, Different Handicaps

A sports handicap is not a fact; it’s an interpretation of the odds. As any sports fan well knows upsets happen, and they happen rather frequently. An underdog comes out swinging in the second half, and manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. There is no way to accurately predict what is going to happen when two teams come together, just as there’s no way to know for certain what’s going to happen on the stock market. The best someone can do is look at what has happened in the past, and try to judge the likely future reactions off of that.

Just as different stock brokers will make different recommendations based off the same sets of facts, so too will different casinos offer different sports handicaps on the exact same match. That’s why it’s so often a good idea for Canadian bettors to use the variety of options available to them and to see which sites offer the best odds for the games they want to bet on. By examining the different spreads and taking a little bit of time to compare and contrast the odds offered by domestic betting sites versus those on foreign sites bettors can find the odds that best favor the teams they expect will win.
While there is no guarantee that a given team will win, no matter what the odds and the experts on the sport happen to say about the match, there’s no reason to simply take a single sports handicap at face value. Once bettors understand how sports handicaps work they’ll recognize them as a guideline, more than a fact of the game.