In the 1940s, Charles McNeil, a Connecticut math teacher turned Chicago bookmaker, revolutionized American sports betting. McNeil is credited with inventing the point spread, which has been the preeminent way to bet on football for 80 years.
The point spread represents the margin of victory of the perceived favorite in a game. A 7-point favorite, for example, must win by more than seven points to cover the spread. The spread can make outclassed underdogs more attractive to bettors and add intrigue to lackluster matchups. Academic studies have shown spreads can even boost TV ratings, including lopsided affairs when the result of the game has been determined but who will cover is still up in the air.
Point spreads for football games have appeared daily in newspapers since the early 1950s, even though betting was only legal in Nevada up until very recently. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 launched a massive expansion of legal betting. Now, with leagues, teams, media outlets and more than 30 states getting into the bookmaking business, the point spread is more visible than ever. But its days as America's favorite way to bet on football appear numbered.
Young bettors, many of whom got their comeuppance in daily fantasy sports, are gravitating to player props -- bets based on individual player performance -- rather than traditional offerings like the point spread, over/under total or money-line. Soon, it's expected that more money will be riding on Tom Brady's passing yardage, for example, than the final score.
"This is the future," Jay Croucher, head of trading for sportsbook PointsBet, said.
Betting players not teams
In 2019, PointsBet's first year in the U.S. market, 80% of NFL bets at the sportsbook were on the three core markets -- point spread, over/under total points score and money line odds on the straight-up winner -- while only 20% were on player props. Croucher says the divide is evening rapidly, and he expects it will soon be a "50/50" split.
Other sportsbooks are seeing similar trends. FanDuel, which began as a daily fantasy company, said its younger customers (ages 21-34) tend to bet on "the player narrative" rather than teams, especially in the increasingly popular same-game parlays (SGPs), where bettors build multi-leg wagers on events in a single contest. In the NFL, the point spread, over/under total and money-line account for only 11% of legs on SGPs at FanDuel.
"It's the popularity of professional and college players and their own story arcs leading into a game," Kevin Hennessey, a FanDuel spokesman, told ESPN. "It's not just in sports betting, the focus on players over team can be seen in news coverage prior to games. You also see it in fantasy football."
For decades, in most states, fantasy contests were practically the only legal ways to risk money on sports predictions. It created generations of fans that often had more invested in individual player performances than teams. Now, fans that grew up competing in fantasy leagues are finding more opportunities with legal sportsbooks and are driving the increasing popularity of player props with the expanded legalization of sports betting.
"I took my knowledge from daily fantasy sports and pretty much took it over to sports betting," Grant Neiffer, a 33-year-old bettor based in Colorado Springs and contributor to Scoresandodds.com, said. "Now, I'd say 90% of my work is sports betting instead of daily fantasy sports."
Sportsbooks and odds providers are racing to meet the demand for player props by launching new products and expanding their offerings. PointsBet is planning to provide updating odds on player statistics during games and allow bettors to place live parlay bets that include the props. Huddle Gaming, a company headquartered in Las Vegas that provides odds to domestic and international sportsbooks is aiming to send its clients 100 player props for each NFL game.
"The next generation of the sportsbook is going to include consistent same game parlays during games with player props," Matthew Davidow, CTO for Huddle Gaming, told ESPN. "To do that, you need very deep simulations and models to provide real-time pricing. Everything we're doing at Huddle is aimed at that next generation. In my mind, a customer should always be able to click on any sportsbook offering and put it on a parlay ticket. And that's where we're at."
The modern prop bet market
Player props include over/under on passing, receiving or rushing yards, odds on a player scoring a touchdown and an array of other statistics-based wagers. They are not new, but until the last decade, were typically reserved for the Super Bowl. The Las Vegas odds on Bears defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry to score a touchdown in Super Bowl XX in 1986 was the first player prop to draw national media attention. Offshore sportsbooks have been offering individual NFL player props for the past several years, but normally waited until Sunday to post them and restricted betting limits to only a few hundred dollars, bettors say.
Now, the first batch of weekly NFL player props are typically posted at sportsbooks on Tuesdays. More props are added throughout the week, with bettors eagerly waiting for each new offering. Some bettors even have created computer programs that alert them when a new player prop has been posted.
Sportsbooks still protect themselves on player props with smaller betting limits and by charging more juice to bet props than on a bet on the point spread. Generally, bettors must risk $110 to win $100 on a point spread bet, while it may cost them $120 or more to win $100 on a player prop. However, the limits and the edges that exist in the prop market are large enough to make it worthwhile for high-level bettors, who say they can comfortably get down $3,000 to $5,000 on an individual player prop when spread across multiple sportsbooks. The vast majority of prop bets aren't nearly that big, but there are lots of them.
"The legals [U.S. sportsbooks] changed everything," said a prop bettor based in Los Angeles who goes by Joey Isaks on Twitter. "They are easier to beat and they're softer."
The props market has matured in some ways. Porter, a 36-year-old props bettor also located in Los Angeles, says up until just a few years ago "99.9%" of his plays were on the under, when the over/under passing yards, for example, appeared to be heavily based on season averages.
"If the matchup was bad, you could just hit under," Porter, who goes by @MLBksPYSCHIC on Twitter, said with a chuckle. "When I would have one over a month, I'd look back and be like, how did this happen?"
Searching the betting market for the highest yardage totals and auto-betting the under used to be a successful strategy, Porter said, but the market has caught up, and his prop bets these days are much more evenly divided between overs and unders.
"Here's the most beautiful part of sports betting," Porter added, "things changed. So the old guard was continuing to do this. They would see someone against Jalen Ramsey, when he was elite a few years back, and bet the under on the receiver against him. And you know what? That worked for half a decade, honestly. And here's what happened: It stopped working and those guys aren't in the business anymore, because they didn't adjust.
"It still makes me feel weird every time to this day when I bet the over, just because of how I started."
King of player props: touchdowns
The stars generate the most betting interest, with public bettors routinely flocking to bet over Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes' passing yards. But bookmakers say it's often the obscure backup tight end or running back that can cause them the biggest headache on what's emerged as the most popular player prop market offered -- odds to score a touchdown.
"That's how popular that type of bet has become," Croucher said.
Sportsbooks regularly post odds on 20 or more players and each team's defense to score a touchdown, sometimes going far down the depth chart to see if they can attract a bet on a third-teamer at 100-1 odds. Bettors love it. FanDuel says its anytime touchdown market is "king" among the book's NFL prop offerings and other companies echoed the sentiment.
"That's actually been a major focus," Davidow of Huddle Gaming said regarding touchdown odds.
He recently spent time adjusting his models on touchdown odds and is aiming to have odds on not only which player will score the first touchdown of a game but also updating prices on who will score the next touchdown throughout every NFL game this season. He says formulating the odds around touchdowns is centered on usage: "What are the chances of each player getting the ball on each play and in each situation and what are the chances of a touchdown being scored on that play?"
Pregame injuries and players being ruled out can cause havoc on all player prop markets. If a starter is ruled out Sunday morning, bettors are ready to pounce.
"All of a sudden we see all these bets coming through the ticker on some guy I've never heard of," Croucher said.
It happened last season in a Week 15 game between the Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills. Roughly an hour before kickoff, pregame broadcasts showed Panthers kicker Zane Gonzalez hobbling after a warm-up kick. Gonzalez, the only kicker on the roster, would need to be helped off the field. For prop bettors, the late injury produced an opportunity.
"I think they had the quarterback trying to kick and the punt returner," Porter, the Los Angeles-based prop bettor, said. "I was like, 'wait, they can't kick a field goal. So, I literally hit a [same-game parlay] for some combination of under field goals, under distance and unders to kick."
Player props are still not the main attraction, especially at retail Las Vegas sportsbooks, where Vinny Magliulo has worked for four decades.
Magliulo says when he first started posting prop odds, he looked at them similar to complementary bets on a craps table.
"I'm trying to create more action on the games within the game," Magliulo, now a vice president for the Vegas Sports Information Network (VSiN) and part of the oddsmaking team for Gaughan Gaming sportsbooks, said. "Props are great handle-generators and also good for marketing any money management. They give you an opportunity to have action no matter what the score is."
For now, though, the point spread remains king in Las Vegas and around the nation, but odds are that will likely be coming to an end soon.