Your Guide To Betting Total Points and How To Improve Your Odds

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Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) passes against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first quarter in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Betting total points, or the over/under, is one of the most suspenseful betting markets in all of sports gambling. It makes every possession important, as a single score or stop can change the entire trajectory of the bet, even when the outcome of a game has already been decided. That constant excitement has made betting total points one of the most popular forms of sports betting available today.

In this guide to betting total points, bettors will learn what the total is and how it works. You will also gain insight into what causes the total to move leading up to a game, and the different types of over/under betting that you can utilize to get an edge on the bookmakers.

What is betting total points?

Unlike spread and moneyline betting (you can read our guides to point spread betting here and moneyline betting here), in betting total points (or over/under betting) which team wins and by how much is completely irrelevant to the outcome of each wager. Instead, the goal of betting the total is to accurately predict how much scoring will take place during a game, regardless of who does that scoring.

Bookmakers will set a number of total points for each game, and it is up to bettors to determine whether the amount of scoring that takes place will be over or under that amount.

Can you bet total points for only full games?

No. Betting total points is often available for full games, but you can bet smaller segments of each game such as individual halves and quarters as well.

Totals for smaller segments of a game are useful in cases where bettors have identified that teams are better or worse in specific parts of games such as the first half or first quarter. These markets are almost always available in major sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA, as well as many smaller leagues, depending on the sportsbook being used.

Of course, totals bets look very different from one sport to the next, as the amount of scoring in each sport is vastly different. In basketball, there is the potential for hundreds of points to be scored in each game, while a soccer game may not have any scoring take place at all. It is important to properly adjust expectations from sport to sport when betting on totals, as obvious as that may sound to more seasoned sports bettors.

What determines the total points?

Offensive and defensive metrics impact total points

Totals are determined using several factors, all of which play a role in the score projections that bookmakers use to post their numbers. At its core, the over/under market is one that relies on the offensive and defensive metrics for each team, along with how those units match up with each other going into a game. But there are other situational factors that can result in the total being higher or lower than usual when the market opens.

Injuries impact total points

Injuries are one such factor that can have a massive impact in determining where a total stands. If a team is missing its most important offensive player, such as a starting quarterback in football, the total for that game would be lower than usual. The same logic applies to the loss of key defensive players, as the total may be higher than normal without those key defenders available.

Team tendencies impact total points

Team tendencies such as tempo also have an impact on totals going into each game. In football and basketball, there are teams that play faster and slower than others, based on the players on each side and the philosophies of each coach. How the tempo of each side meshes with one another, and which tempo is expected to win out has a hand in shaping totals, as teams that generate more plays and more shot attempts have the potential to play higher scoring games.

Betting total points odds: how much can I win?

The betting odds for totals wagers are relatively consistent, as most over/under bets come with odds in the neighborhood of -110. At -110 odds, bettors would risk $110 to win $100, or they can risk higher or lower amounts to earn payouts of a proportional size. These odds can fluctuate slightly depending on the prices offered at each sportsbook and the bets that are coming in on each side of the total.

For the most part, though, the amount that can be won on totals wagers remains consistent from one sportsbook to the next. The pricing structure of this betting market at around -110 odds makes it so that bettors know they will not earn a large payout without a large stake amount. But at odds of around -110 odds, bettors also know that they have a perfectly good chance of winning any over/under bet they place.

An example of betting total points

In this example of an over/under bet, let’s say that Team A and Team B are competing in a basketball game. The total for the game is set at 212.5, with the over and under both at -110 odds for the contest. At -110 odds, bettors on both the over and under would be risking $110 to win $100 or the proportional equivalent on both sides of this betting market.

With the total set at 212.5, there is no possibility for a tie or a push on this wager, as no basketball team in recorded history has ever scored a half-point. Instead, bettors are wagering on whether they think the combined score of both teams will be over 212.5 or under 212.5. If the combined score of these teams ended up being 212 or fewer points, the under would be the winning side, while 213 or more combined points would result in a win for those who bet the over.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after a play during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics in game six of the 2022 NBA Finals at TD Garden.
Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Half-points: What is the “hook”?

In our example of a totals wager above, the point total for our hypothetical basketball game was 212.5. As we mentioned, it is not possible to score a half-point in basketball or any other sport that is commonly wagered on. Many bettors may be wondering why that half-point exists in some point totals, and how it can impact betting.

Half-points, often referred to as hooks, are used in some over/under betting markets for a number of reasons. The first reason is that not all score projections come in the form of whole numbers. Teams have scoring averages and statistical averages that come down to a number of decimal places, resulting in score projections that also feature fractions of a point. Therefore, half-points can provide a number to bet on that is closer to the projected total than a whole number in some instances.

Half-points also ensure that there are no pushes on that particular bet, as no team is going to score a half of a point to equal such totals exactly. Some sportsbooks only post totals that feature half-points, allowing bettors to guarantee that their wagers will see a definitive outcome one way or the other.

Which side is better to bet on?

Different bettors have different philosophies on how to bet on totals. You may hear some bettors say something along the lines of life being “too short” to bet the under, in support of betting overs. Other bettors, meanwhile, will bet on unders primarily to go against the more popular choice in the over.

The answer as to whether it is better to take the over or under is much more nuanced than that, though. Instead of blindly taking one side of this market, bettors must evaluate each game on an individual basis to make the best possible over/under betting decision. The over/under market is too precise to turn a profit by blindly taking overs or unders in the long run.

Dissecting the data: The past over/under market of the NFL

To illustrate just how tight the over/under market can be on each side, let’s look at the results of the over/under market in the NFL over the last five seasons:

Dissecting the data: The past over/under market of the NBA

In a similar vein, the over/under data for the NBA over the last five seasons showcases just how tight things are between overs and unders over a large number of games:

It is important to remember that the odds for over/under wagers are roughly -110 at all times. At -110 odds, a win percentage of 52.38% is required to break even. As you can see, the over and under both fail to reach that threshold over the last five seasons in the NBA and NFL. While there may be individual seasons that reach that mark, only betting overs or unders is not a long-term winning strategy, as each game must be handicapped individually.

Changes in the total points

When looking at over/under numbers at sportsbooks, bettors may notice the total changing prior to the start of each game. This is not uncommon and could be the result of a few factors. The most common factors that contribute to the changing of a total are injuries to one or both teams, along with the bets that are coming in on either side of the total.

The most important thing a bettor can do when it comes to line movements within the total is to understand why they are happening.

If a key player or multiple players at one position group are out with an injury, it can have a huge impact on whether scoring is likely to increase or decrease in a game. That, of course, is very different from a total moving up or down due to the influence of bettors impacting a bookmaker’s liability on either side of the over/under.

The importance of line shopping in over/under betting

Line shopping is a very important piece of successful over/under betting, as the slightest difference in betting odds can have an impact on a bettor’s profitability in this market. The act of line shopping consists of looking at several sportsbooks to find the best odds and best totals available for each game. While this does not sound important, it is an integral part of any successful bettor’s long-term plan.

The actual odds for an over/under bet are usually around -110, but getting the same total at -105 rather than -110 can lower a bettor’s risk by a slight amount. Over time, those slight savings can add up over the course of many wagers, helping bettors to keep more money in their bankroll longer.

Additionally, bettors can look at different sportsbooks to find the most favorable total possible based on the bet they want to make.

For example, if a bettor is looking to bet on the over in a football game, they would want to find the lowest total they could without having to risk more money. Doing so would make it easier to clear the total points threshold needed for that over bet to win.

How Elias Insights can help with over/under betting

The Elias Game Plan app can help sports bettors identify opportunities where there is value in the over/under market. Using the research and data of the Elias Sports Bureau, the Elias Game Plan app provides insights on which teams have been going over or under the total consistently. Bettors can also find impactful situational data that pertains to the total of each game.

Life may not be too short to bet the under, as you can see from the data above, but it is too short to bet on totals without the insights provided by Elias Game Plan.