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How the Total Began and Other Interesting Facts About Betting the O/U

Now that millions of Americans will have a chance to legally bet on NFL football for the first time, you’re likely going to see a lot more sports betting analysis, here and elsewhere. And while the lion’s share of that analysis will probably continue to focus on point spreads, we have to make an effort to pay more attention to the spread’s less popular little brother, the total.

On a weekly basis throughout the 2018 NFL season, National Football Post will be covering and breaking down totals by identifying overs and unders that appear to be potential moneymakers. But first, a primer on that second, less-heralded number you see listed on betting cards...

Totals aren’t as old as point spreads.

Spreads have been a fixture in the world of sports betting since the 1940s, but the first total bet wasn’t taken until the late Bill Dark got crafty at the Del Mar Sports and Race Book in 1964.

“In April of 1964 Dark accepted a wager from a customer who wanted to bet that a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers would result in a shutout,” explained Richard O. Davies and Richard G. Abram in their book “Betting the Line: Sports Wagering in American Life.” “Dark reframed the bet by offering to accept a wager on whether the total runs scored in the game would be over or under 3.5.”

Dark’s book lost the bet when the Dodgers beat the Reds 3-0, but the idea slowly spread. Not quite fast enough for there to be a total for the first Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs in January of 1967, but fast enough that Super Bowl II had the first-ever football total (Green Bay and the Oakland Raiders went over the total of 43 in a 33-14 game), and NFL totals really took off when they started being offered on parlay cards in the 1980s.

Now, sportsbooks provide totals for every pro and college football game. Most games even have first-half totals for even more action. Here are some interesting facts about totals:

Sportsbooks typically fare worse with totals than they do with point spreads. US Bookmaking sportsbook director Robert Walker tells us that professional bettors usually perform better with totals than point spreads and that totals are more volatile.

But totals still aren’t nearly as popular as point spreads. Walker figures about 15-20 percent of the bets his book receives are on totals. But it can be tough to gauge the popularity of totals because they are often tacked onto a parlay bet.

Totals are particularly popular on Sunday and Monday night because that’s often the only option for a parlay when the rest of the league is idle.

You can’t bet as much on totals as you can on point spreads. When Walker ran the MGM Grand Mirage Race and Sports Book, they’d take bets as high as $50,000 against the spread, but the limit was usually $10,000 on the total.

“The limits are lower on totals,” said Walker, “because historically we don’t do as well.”

The under isn’t as fun, but it’s often a better bet. "There's inherent value going with the underdog and going with the under,” Walker said. “Most people would rather bet the over. You wanna see a high-scoring game, you wanna see a lot of action. So because of that we shade favorites and overs a little bit."

In other words, early totals are inflated.

"We want to put the total up as high as we can before the pros bet it,” Walker added, “because we know most of the public is going to be on the overs."

Since the start of 2016, 50 percent of NFL games have gone over and 50 percent have gone under. More specifically, 252 games have gone over, 257 games have gone under and three have pushed.

So while Walker admits that some professionals get the best of the sportsbooks on totals, I wouldn’t recommend spending your life savings on overs and/or unders in 2018. We’re still talking about at least a semi-crapshoot. Also this is another testament for just how good oddsmakers are at their jobs.

Don’t jump on the under just because it’s cold, snowy or rainy. Books aren’t going to overlook that stuff, dude.

"Weather is more or less adjusted these days,” Vegas bookmaking legend Roxy Roxborough told us this week. “It used to be a big issue but the way they do the stadiums now and with the heating under the field, it's not anymore."

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. He was a lead contributor to an earlier incarnation of NationalFootballPost.com and was happy to return when new management revived the brand in 2020. Based in Toronto, he's covered the NFL since 2008 and has been a national NFL writer at Bleacher Report since 2012. He despises all 32 NFL teams equally but remains a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Raptors. He can be reached at Brad@NationalFootballPost.com

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