What percentage of bets should a handicapper expect to win, against the spread (ATS), during an NFL season? When I first started out 20 years ago on ProgsPicks.com I asked friends and family that question. The answers I got most typically were around 70-75%. Even to this day when I ask people that’s about the response I get. That’s way too high of course. In fact 60% is too high, which surprises most people. 60% is very hard to achieve on a regular basis. In all my years of handicapping, I’ve hit over 60% ATS twice. The truth is, if a handicapper is winning at a rate of 60% ATS, he’s probably not winning enough. That may sound confusing, but I should be able to clear it up by the end of this article.
There are two ways to judge how someone is doing with their picks. The first is win percentage and the second is how many units they’re ahead. Units are used as a measure and not money because people have different bet sizes and it’s difficult to compare directly with different amounts of money in play. When calculating units won, add 1 for every pick won and subtract 1.1 for every losing pick.
Let’s look at two gamblers and see how they did. The first person goes 4-2 has a fantastic win percentage of 66.7%. Another person goes 7-4, which is a 63.6% winning rate. A very good winning percentage, but not as good as the first one. Of course the fact the second person won almost 50% more units gets lost in the shuffle. 4-2 wins 1.8 units versus 7-4 which wins 2.6 units.
With that in mind, which of the two gamblers above did better? It depends on how you look at it. The first had a higher win rate. The second won more units. It may not be that the first person was better at picking winners, it might be that the second person bet on every game he thought he could win. If the goal is to make money, and that’s my goal, then it’s clear to see the second gambler did better.
The breakeven point on betting in the NFL is 52.38% (You have to win 11 games for every 10 you lose. 11 divided by 21 equals 52.38 %.) If you’re presented with two games to bet on, one that wins at a rate of 60% and another that wins at a rate of 55%, how should you bet? If you’re trying to play it safe and minimize your risks, you’d go with the 60% bet. However, the best play to win money is to bet on both games. While we’d all like to have a 60% chance of winning all our bets, those situations don’t come around all the time. To really make money in NFL betting you need to bet every game you have an advantage on. Any game, above say 54%, makes you money in the long run and if winning money is the goal, you should be taking advantage of every winning situation you can find.
If someone told you that they won $10,000 on betting football, are they a great handicapper? You'd have to ask a few questions. Like, how did they do it? If it turns out that this guy took all the money he had in the world and bet it on one game and won, I'd congratulate him. And then I'd walk away thinking this guy's an idiot. But note, he won $10,000 and hit 100% of his bets! Does that make him a knowledgeable and great handicapper? Not in the least. It makes him lucky, very lucky, in the short run. Short run as in 1 bet.
So what’s the answer to what should a handicappers win rate be? It depends on the amount of bets. If he is making just one bet he has to hit 100% to make money. If he’s making 200 bets, 55% makes him a nice profit. As a general rule, the more bets you make the lower your win rate, but even a small winning rate can win given enough bets. A reasonable win rate to shoot for is 57.5%. Hitting 60% can be done, but if your win rate is that high you’re probably leaving too much money on the table by not betting all the profitable games that win at a lower rate. That costs you money to inflate your win rate. It can be a tricky balance.
If someone tells you they can hit 70% ATS winners, run from that person as fast as possible! I’m not saying it’s impossible to do it for a season, however unlikely that is, but there’s no way to do it long term or to guarantee to be able to do it for the upcoming season.