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The Basics of Sports Handicapping

As the legal and regulated wagering environment continues to evolve across the United States, interest in sports betting is surging, including here in Indiana.

Along with the rising interest comes a spike in a common question: How do I win at sports betting? While there’s no magic answer to that question, there is a way you can enhance your chances of finding success.

Handicapping can help point you in the right direction with your choices. While the practice of handicapping alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll pick exclusively winners, it can lead you on the path to winning more often than losing.

For those who have designs on making sports betting a profitable venture, that strategy is key. In the long run, profits come by hitting a percentage of bets that allow you to beat the oddsmakers and the vig (short for the Yiddish term “vigorish”), which is their charge for facilitating the action.

To a newcomer, the art of handicapping can seem a bit intimidating, but we’re here to tell you it’s not so tough once you understand the basics. From there, you’ll be able to devise a system that works best for you and your overall wagering strategy.

Let’s get to it.

What is sports handicapping?

There are two basic parts to sports handicapping. First, sportsbooks release odds and lines for contests, which are always weighted based on most likely outcomes and are a handicap in their own right. It’s then up to the bettors to dig even deeper and further handicap the games for themselves.

We’ll be focusing on the latter.

There are a plethora of theories on the best way to handicap games. None of them are fail proof, or the be-all and end-all of sports handicapping.

The reality is there are several different ways to break down games which will all help you get to the same endpoint. For bettors, it’s a matter of finding the approach that works best for you.

As long as you are getting positive results, that’s the bottom line, regardless of whether it takes you a little or a lot of time. Hours and hours of research is great if that works for you, but there’s also nothing wrong with formulating a quicker process.

When handicapping games and contests, sports bettors look at a number of different factors. We’ll touch on some of those in this article. At the end of the day, all the information they have gathered points them to a final decision on which bets to place.

The simple goal of sports handicapping is to help you pick more winners than losers. At its surface, the practice can seem a bit on the complex side, but the good news is you can customize your own process to be quite simple.

Basic sports handicapping

When examining matchups, it’s not uncommon to have a hunch on which way a contest will play out. While you can certainly trust your instincts, long-term and sustained success in sports betting takes more effort than that.

Sports handicapping can help you take those gut instincts and translate them into something more meaningful and actionable. For example, let’s say you examine a slate of 10 games and quickly decide you have strong feelings about half of them.

You decide to focus on those games and handicap them. After doing so, you’re not so sure about two of your initial instincts. You have also flipped the script on one of them, but handicapping has confirmed your initial thoughts on two of the games.

Armed with the new information, you can now place your bets with much more confidence. As opposed to winging it, you now have real and verifiable reasons for why you’re placing the bets. Afterward, it’s a matter of letting the chips fall where they may.

That’s one of the other benefits of handicapping. Once you have devised a system that works for you and leads you to more wins than losses, you’ll find the games you fall flat on aren’t as tough to swallow.

After all, you’ve made the best possible decision you can thanks to handicapping. So how can you get to the point where you create your own system? For starters, you’ll want to keep it straightforward and start with a few simple pieces of intel.

Let’s walk through each of them.

Understanding the odds board

Before getting started with sports handicapping, you’ll want to have a full understanding of what sportsbook odds are telling you. Here’s what you need to know about three of the most popular bet types and an example of each.


This is perhaps the most simple and straightforward bet you can make. The goal of moneyline betting is to simply pick the winner of a game. Favorites will have negative odds attached, while the odds are positive for the underdog.

  • Jacksonville Jaguars +155
  • Indianapolis Colts -175

As the wide range of odds indicates, the Colts are pretty big favorites. When you begin handicapping, you’ll be aiming to verify if that’s a fair take or if there’s a scenario in which the Jaguars could pull out the upset.

Point Spread

A point spread bet is one in which bookmakers handicap the contest by essentially assigning an estimated margin of victory. You can bet on the favorite minus the points, or take the underdog plus the points.

  • Cleveland Cavaliers +4.5 (-110)
  • Indiana Pacers -4.5 (-110)

For handicapping purposes, you’re trying to figure out which side will cover the spread. Can the Cavaliers keep the game closer than 4.5 points or win outright? Or will the Pacers win by a margin greater than 4.5 points?


These are wagers you can place on the estimated points scored in a contest. Oddsmakers will set a benchmark, and bettors then decide if they like the number to go over or under that total. Here’s what the total might look like for a random NFL game.

  • Over 49.5 (-110)
  • Under 49.5 (-110)

The job for a handicapper is to determine which of the two outcomes is more likely. Do you think the game will be higher-scoring than 49.5 points or under that mark? The handicapping process will provide you with clues to answer that question.

Once you get familiar with sports betting odds, you’ll begin to get a feel for appealing opportunities just by glancing at what the sportsbook has to say. From there, it’s a matter of breaking down the games you find intriguing in more detail.

Researching the matchup

After you have identified the games you want to bet on, it’s time to dig into each of them individually. That process begins by examining the matchup from top to bottom while looking for edges that can be applied to either side.

Here are the main points you’ll want to look at, all of which are applicable to the major team sports.

  • Home vs. Away: Unless it’s a neutral-site game, you’ll want to factor in the importance of homefield advantage. To do so, you need to look at how the two squads perform in their respective roles. Is the away team a strong or poor road performer? What’s the record for the other side when they’re at home?
  • Offense vs. Defense: Each team has their strengths and weaknesses. There are squads that can put points on the board in buckets, and others that struggle to do so. By looking at the strength of the respective offenses and thinking through how they may fare versus the defense they’ll be facing, you may be able to spot some noticeable edges.
  • Defense vs. Offense: The same applies in reverse. There are shutdown defenses, those that resemble a sieve, and plenty of teams that fall in between those two extremes. Consider the overall strengths of the two defenses and how that may translate when they face off with the offenses for the game at hand.
  • Previous Results: Each game on the docket is an individual event and should be treated as such. That said, opponents do have track records against each other that are worth considering. Take a look and see if either team has had lots of success versus their opponent, or if the matchup has proved to be a toss-up more often than not.
  • Game News and Notes: There’s always plenty of sports news to digest, but you’ll want to keep an eye out for items that really move the needle on the games you’re interested in. Among the big notes to watch out for are injuries or playing concerns for key contributors, or coach comments which point to a potential strategy shift.

For each step of the research process, you are basically building the case for and against both sides. As you look at each of the above fivefactors, you may find edges or categories that are too close to call. In the end, each piece of intel you ascertain helps you to form the complete picture of the game at hand.

Key stats to look for

We’ll begin with a note of caution: It’s very easy to get lost down the rabbit hole with sports stats. There are tons of metrics to consider. In the interest of time, it’s best to focus on the ones that really make a noticeable difference.

Regardless of the sport in question, the objective remains the same: Score more points than your opponent while limiting their scoring opportunities. When you start looking at stats, keep the big picture in mind and start here.

  • Points For: You’ll want to look at the average points a team scores per game as well as any recent trends. The average for the season as a whole gives you a good idea of overall team offensive strength, while recent results tell you how well things are clicking of late.
  • Points Against: Do the exact same thing for the defensive side and see how many points a team allows on average per game for both the season and recently. It’s a quick snapshot on defensive strength and how well the team has been performing on that side of the ball.

Once you have this down, it’s time to get more specific. Naturally, what you want to look for is going to vary by sport. Here are some of the most important metrics to keep in mind for the major sports, each of which can help point out clear advantages or weaknesses.

  • Football: Yards for and against (both run and pass). Sacks for and against. Turnover margin. Penalty yards allowed per game.
  • Basketball: True shooting percentage. Assist to turnover ratio. Defensive efficiency. Depth of rotation and minutes played.
  • Baseball: Batters – On-base plus slugging percentage. Weighted on base average. Strikeout Percentage. Pitchers – Earned run average. Walks plus hits by inning pitched. Strikeouts per nine innings.
  • Hockey: Shots for and against. Power play percentage. Penalty kill Percentage. Corsi for and against.

Remember each of the stats you dig into should get you that much closer to the bottom line. Do your best to avoid stats that may look advanced at first glance but really don’t tell you all that much information overall.

Historical data to consider

We’ll reiterate that each of the games you want to wager on are individual events and should be treated as such. However, that doesn’t mean we should completely dismiss historical information that may provide some clues.

The main factor you’ll want to consider here is the overall record when the two teams square off. For the most relevance for the current matchup, you’ll want to look at the record for the last three, five, or 10 games.

You can certainly go back and look at the all-time records, but keep in mind that personnel changes, as do offensive and defensive schemes. That said, when you come across a situation in which a team has historically dominated the other, be sure to factor that into the equation.

Examining recent form

Just like the rest of us, athletes go through ups and downs. By extension, teams will go on hot and cold streaks. Examining the overall strength of two teams facing off is a crucial step, but so too is looking at the current situation.

For a quick example, let’s consider an NFL team that has an overall record of 8-4. That’s impressive at first glance, but it becomes less so if it turns out that the team has lost three of their last four.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, an NFL team with a mark of 5-7 may not look that great. However, if they’ve won three in a row then this could be a team on the ascent and poised to do some damage down the stretch.

For a quick snapshot on recent form, it’s just a matter of looking at their overall results over the last three, five, or 10 games. You can do the same for other key metrics on the sports you plan to wager on.

Sports handicapping resources

While handicapping may seem like a lot of work, the good news is a lot of the legwork has already been done. There are tremendous resources to be found on the internet which do things such as compile stats, power rank teams, and consolidate news and notes into an easily digestible form.

These resources can be a huge time saver, so don’t be shy about leaning on a few that you like and trust. Beyond general information, there are also websites which will walk through the handicapping of games and provide analysis and picks.

A number of resources in this category are completely free to use, and some are actually quite good. There are others which fall into the paid category if you prefer to go that route. If you plan on investing your hard-earned dollars with the intent on relying on the advice of others, then we would advise for you to stick with those with a verifiable and documented successful track record.

Regardless of which types of resources you ultimately decide to lean on, remember the answers you seek for your handicapping questions are out there to be found if you just do a little digging.

Key takeaways on sports handicapping

Sports handicapping can help you make more confident decisions on your wagering choices. While there is simply no way to guarantee what will happen once athletes step foot on the field of play, handicapping can point you in the direction of winning more often than you lose.

There are plenty of theories on ways to handicap successfully, but no one-size-fits-all strategy that works for everyone. For some bettors, an incredibly in-depth approach is the ticket, while others prefer things to be simpler.

There’s no right or wrong answer on which approach to choose. The bottom line is results, so the handicapping approach that helps get you there is the one that works for you.

We’ve outlined a simple starting point that you can use to formulate your own handicapping strategy. Once you have the basic steps down, you can add and tweak certain steps to customize them further to your liking.

After you have a system you can call your own, you’ll be in a much better position to make informed choices. In a perfect world, that will lead you on the path towards long-term and sustained success with sports betting.