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What is a Total or Over/Under?

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A guide to Over/Under betting

One of the three primary types of wagers you can make in sports betting on a single game is the Over/Under. Listed by bookmakers to the right of the point spread and moneyline respectively, the Over/Under is simply a number that represents how many total points or goals will be scored between the two teams in that particular matchup.

It's as easy as that. Sportsbooks decide what the number will be based on a multitude of factors, and welcome bets on both sides. You'll also see Over/Under occasionally referred to as "Total." Don't let this be a point of confusion, because it's merely an alternate term to describe the same thing. Betting on the combined score of a game is a tricky proposition, with perhaps the least margin for error among the three core betting types.

We'll further explain what Over/Under betting is below, provide examples to help put it into context and ultimately advise bettors on how to bet with these numbers.

Key facts for Over/Under lines

Since we've rather clearly defined what an Over/Under is in the introduction, there's little need to stall in getting to the point. Instead of padding this entry by explaining it in different terms, it's easiest to just clarify a few elements before launching into examples.

If you see a ".5" value tacked on to the end of an Over/Under, it may be baffling, because the total number of points or goals scored by both teams must be whole numbers. All the sportsbook is doing here is ensuring that the line won't result in a "push" outcome. That is, say the Over/Under for a baseball game is eight runs, and the teams combine for that exact total. Instead of winning the bet, you'd get your money back from your initial wager. Adding the extra ".5" on to the Total averts such scenarios.

As far as how to read the Over/Under, that varies by sport, but all you need to know is that it reflects the combined score of both teams involved in the game. To better understand this, it's easiest to examine Over/Under cases in all the major sports.

NFL Over/Under

Obviously, the same principle applies to college football, but we'll stick with the pro leagues on the gridiron and in basketball later just for the sake of continuity.

Football is unique in that the point total will be listed in double digits, often somewhere in the 40s or 50s. Rarely does a final score reach the triple digits or remain in the single digits, and in the NFL, all you're betting on is the total points the two teams score in a given game.

Here's a look at an NFL line from Week 4 on abe, in a matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions:

As you can see, the Total is listed at 51, so in this instance, a push is possible if, say, the Cardinals won 27-24 (51 combined points scored). The "-110" on the Over side of the Total is standard across all sports, and all that means is you need to bet $110 to win $100, or $55 to win $50, and so on. It doesn't deviate too much from there, but sportsbooks will make tweaks as kickoff draws closer based on how many bets are placed on each side.

This Cardinals-Panthers total number is a little higher than most you'll see in the NFL. It makes sense, because Arizona has a dynamic dual-threat quarterback in Kyler Murray, and Carolina gave up 65 points across the prior two contests. Arizona's defense is star-studded either, so it's quite clear why oddsmakers believe this will be a shootout.

NBA Over/Under

Now, let's turn our attention to basketball, where the Total is always going to be in triple digits, often somewhere between 190 and 240. High scores are increasingly common in the modern NBA, as teams are playing faster and shooting more 3-pointers than ever before. More possessions and additional attempts from beyond the arc often translate to higher scores, unless either team has an off shooting night.

At the time of this writing, the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat are gearing up for Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Their expected total points is 216.5, so we're avoiding the "push" possibility here:

The Over/Under here falls within our aforementioned range, and it's up to bettors to weigh all the factors before deciding which side to bet on. Those odds for the Under (-107) give users a slightly higher payout if they go on that side.

Especially if teams are playing against each other in a playoff series, keep an eye out for what's happened in the prior meetings. If it's the first game of a postseason battle, look for how they fared against each other in the regular season if they squared off then. In lieu of that, another useful area to look is their performance against opponents with a winning record. These splits aren't always indicative of what will happen in terms of Over/Under betting, but the more knowledge you have, the better.

NHL Over/Under

Hockey keeps things relatively simple, with Over/Under totals rarely skewing beyond the five- to six-goal range. The line you'll most often see is 5.5, as bookmakers, once again, seek to avoid the "push" scenario. However, if it's a matchup between two solid defensive clubs, it's likely the line will be five. If it's two higher-scoring adversaries, expect to see six or even 6.5.

The Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning showed the standard 5.5 goal total ahead of Game 4. Those who bet the Over had to sit through overtime knowing their bet wouldn't hit, as Dallas pulled off a 3-2 victory in extra time, but went on to lose the series 4-2.

More often than any other team in the regular season, the Stars hit the Under. However, during the postseason, their offense really got going, which was a big reason for their Cinderella-esque run to the grand finale. Although Dallas came back to Earth a bit in the previous couple series, its 2.92 playoff goals per game average at that time was way up from its 2.58 regular-season mark. Alas, the Stars regressed below their paltry regular-season average through three periods.

Odds on the Under in this example were far less rewarding than going in on the Over, which ultimately proved to be correct. Since a bet on a goals total is essentially a 50-50 shot of being right anyway, though, look for bargains like this and ride them if it makes sense to. We'll go a little more into hockey in a short while.

MLB Over/Under

Finally, we have baseball, and in this example, it's an NL Wild Card showdown between the Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs, where the projected run total is set at 6.5:

Odds are evenly split around the Over/Under, so either side can make its case. Probably the most important factor in wagering on such things in America's pastime is pitching. Hitters can be hot and cold on any given day, yet a starting pitcher's performance is easier to count on, particularly in the case of a true ace.

For this one, the Total is about a full run below the standard MLB line. Playoffs are often defined by pitching especially, so it's not surprising to see the projected score to be so low. Plus, the Marlins defeated the Cubs 5-1 in the first game of their series, which also had an influence on this Over/Under.

In addition to those factors, it's worth checking out any given team's season numbers against the Over/Under before you place a wager. If the two teams have played against each other during the season, you can glimpse how the prior head-to-head showdowns have gone in terms of total number of runs, too.

Pre-game vs. live Over/Under betting

Odds won't typically move much from -110 to +100 or thereabouts around the Total before a game, but that changes when you're betting live. The advantage to live betting with the Over/Under is you can see how the game is playing out for a while before placing a wager. It could be that the start of the game goes completely against what oddsmakers had forecast, which causes you to bet differently than you otherwise would have.

The flip side of this is that while the odds are generally further apart on the spread during live situations, the Total is in constant flux based on what's happening. You have to be an experienced and opportunistic bettor who's an expert at understanding the particular sport and game you're betting on to feel like your live Over/Under bet isn't more or less a shot in the dark.

Whether it's one late basketball run, a meaningless touchdown, a massive inning or an empty-net goal or two on the ice, all the major sports present the potential to make or break your bets late. So, in other words, be wary of live betting on the Over/Under at least when you're starting out as a bettor. It can be a slippery slope and a tempting way to "chase losses" — aka make up for a series of bets that didn't go your way.

We mentioned the importance of pitching in baseball earlier. If an MLB game is late and there's a chance to take the Over at the right odds, you might consider it if one or both of the teams involved has a bad bullpen and their starting pitchers have left the mound.

It's hard to debate that the best value for Total live bets is in the NHL, though. With up to approximately five minutes left in a game, especially if one team is leading by a goal, oddsmakers will balloon the odds on the Over to lure bettors in. This is a dangerous proposition, yet the payoff can be absolutely massive if you play it right. Teams trailing by one, or even two in the playoffs, will pull their goalies for an extra attacker in search of a late goal.

The chances of the underdogs scoring late go up with the man advantage, yet they're also extremely vulnerable to letting in a late goal or two into their vacant net.

Should you bet the Over or the Under?

Bettors must make this determination on a purely case-by-case basis. The most important detail to check for is how teams fare against the Over/Under on the season. If there's a limited sample size for the current year, do your due diligence and check back to what happened the previous season.

Even if the teams' rosters have drastically changed, you can at least take that into account and get some context for where the current Over/Under line rests. While you're doing this, you'll probably find some interesting trends or unexpected revelations that could give you an edge and help you win more often than not. A prime example of this is the NBA's Houston Rockets.

Houston shoots a ton of 3-pointers, to the point where its games are essentially decided on whether the squad is connecting from deep. Combine that with the aforementioned fast-pace game the NBA plays today, and it's easy to see why oddsmakers set Rockets games' Over/Under lines super high. But in glimpsing the numbers from TeamRankings.com, you find that Houston actually hit the Under 59.5% of the time during the 2019-20 campaign, which was the highest rate in the NBA.

Many bettors would likely take the Rockets' aggressive, high-volume offensive style at face value and assume their Over will net a winning bet. Those who dig deeper may be rewarded with an Under bet that seemingly goes against the grain, yet the data shows, at least from this past season, that you could've made a pretty good profit if you'd bet that side of the Total in every contest Houston played in.

To sum up Over/Under betting, it's like with anything in this industry: stick to what you know, weigh all the factors and be disciplined and responsible by not sinking too much of your bankroll into a select few bets. Keep an eye on how the lines are moving and what could be causing it leading up to the game. Even if your initial few bets on the Total go awry due to confirmation bias in your research, you can at least formulate how to gather data in a reliable way and know what you're betting for or against in the future.

For more tips and insights on sports betting, visit abe's "How to Bet" hub, and take advantage of our odds comparison engine to find the best odds across all major sportsbooks for free.

- Betting 101
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Betting 101
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About AbePrivacy PolicyTerms of Service
© 2020 PopOdds inc. Reserved
If you or someone you know has a gambling problem and wants help, call 1-800-Gambler. You must be 21 years or older to place a bet.