In professional sports betting, bookmakers offer odds on the various outcomes of a game. Based on these odds and other factors, such as player injuries and weather, bettors must decide:

  1. If they think the team will win or lose; and
  2. How much to wager based on their prediction.

The key to success for bettors is finding sportsbooks that set precise lines and establish a relationship with one or more that consistently do so. Bettors may then take advantage of these “sharp” sportsbooks and bet on their games as often as possible. 

It’s an ambitious goal, but researchers at sports betting sites on used it as theirs in analyzing nearly 7,000 NFL regular-season games. They sought to determine if sharp bettors can beat the point spread by placing bets against casual bettors betting on team performance rather than game outcomes during play. The study found no evidence to support this hypothesis.

The research concluded that bettors lost an average of $1.92 for every $100 they wagered on games from 2003 to 2012. Bettors fared slightly better – losing an average of $1.37 for each wager. But not by enough to claim that sharp bettors can beat the point spread in the NFL even when controlling for factors such as home-field advantage and team strength. We should expect a loss closer to $0 (and not statistically significant) if these factors were truly irrelevant and sharp bettors could consistently predict game outcomes during play:

“Sharp bettors place their bets after adjusting for key information such as injuries, weather, and motivation that affect game outcomes without changing the point spread if these bettors could predict game outcomes during play.”

Researchers examined previous studies on NFL betting and agreed with one conclusion: it is improbable that bettors can consistently predict game outcomes during play. Researchers didn’t deem this conclusion definitive, but couldn’t find any flaws after reviewing its method. They then went about testing their hypothesis with statistics and regression analysis. They concluded that there was evidence that sharp bettors beat the spread by 1.3 points per game. Also, they found out that every $100 bet on the favorite resulted in a $6.76 loss for bettors. In contrast, every wager of $100 on the underdog resulted in a $7.64 gain. Researchers also ruled out other factors such as point-shaving; it is still possible, but much more unlikely than their hypothesis:

“Given our findings, we conclude there is no evidence that sharp bettors beat the NFL Point Spread over this period (2003-2012). They also cannot reject the null hypothesis that all bettors (sharp and square) experience similar average returns net of vigorish.”

We can’t know for sure what will happen if we expand this study to include more recent games from 2013-present. However, the evidence provided doesn’t support sharp bettors beating the point spread in the NFL. There are documented cases of sportsbooks losing money on NFL games every season, suggesting too many variables involved in predicting an outcome during play. The result includes injuries, weather, and motivation – for anyone entity (let alone a single bettor) to do so successfully. It makes it impossible to beat the point spreads set by sportsbooks when betting on NFL games.