What Is Sports Handicapping?

What Is Sports Handicapping?

If you spend enough time at the sportsbook or the racetrack, you will invariably hear a reference to handicapping or someone being a handicapper. Although anyone can bet on sports, the handicapper has some sort of secret alchemy that he or she can use to know just what to bet.

However, since sports betting is soon to be a reality of life in Virginia, it’s time to demystify exactly what makes someone a handicapper, and how sports betting transforms into handicapping.

What is handicapping in sports betting?

To start with, let’s define what handicapping is. Handicapping is using available information to make sports bets. In other words, any sports betting based upon more than random guessing is, by definition, handicapping.

After reading that definition, you may think that you’re already a handicapper. The truth is that you probably are.

There’s a difference, though, between having a vague notion about what to do before you bet and having a definite and concrete plan. The notion of a true handicapper is far closer to people who fall into the latter camp.

What is the purpose of handicapping in sports?

In truth, sportsbooks employ very smart people and have high-powered technology at their disposal.

However, the fact that they are good at what they do should not discourage you from making your best effort. If you’re just planning on handing your money to them without a fight, there are probably ways to get more enjoyment out of your entertainment dollar.

Instead, you should follow some of the guidance below and look for great opportunities to bet within a sportsbook’s offers. At the end of the day, the sportsbook is guessing, too.

How to handicap sports

If you’d like to be more of a handicapper than a bettor purely guessing, you’re going to need a way to manage all of the information at your disposal. Although all big-time handicappers have their own systems, they usually end up considering and using the same information.

When a handicapper wants to come to a decision about whether to make a bet, here are some of the elements that he or she considers:

1. Opening odds

Where most handicappers begin their process is with the element that most people see. The initially published odds are usually a great starting point for developing a feel for the betting opportunity.

However, while many sports bettors may end their analysis here, good handicappers use the opening odds as a baseline for the rest of their data collection. It is certainly telling where the odds open, but there is even more information contained within the movements that the odds make from that initial point.

2. Team strength

The comparison of the two teams in the game has to occur fairly early in the process. As a general rule, the better team is going to win the game, and you need to have a pretty good reason to think about betting the underdog.

However, the idea of team strength is not confined to the teams’ records. It is important to dive into how they won and lost their previous games and to whom.

3. Matchup advantages

While considering the two teams’ records and other statistics, it’s also a good idea to look at how the two match up with one another. Even teams that were historically great have seen their seasons hit road bumps if they happen to play the “wrong” opponent.

For this kind of analysis, it is even more important to look at how the team fared against similar teams to the current opponent. Even undefeated teams have ups and downs, and a struggle to pick up a win might signal some kind of structural weakness.

Matchups are also affected by the personnel involved. If one of the teams has suffered a key injury, it may not perform as well as it has in the past. It’s important to look at how critical the injured player was to the team’s past performances and how much the team relies on the player’s contribution.

4. Recent play

It’s also a good idea to look at each team’s recent performances as an indicator of how well things are coming together. An underdog that appears to be heating up or a favorite that appears to be slumping might be a sign that the odds and wisdom surrounding the game might be suspect.

Injuries might also play a role in this factor, too. Some players are simply too integral to a team’s identity and success to be replaced on short notice, and a recent injury might equate to recent downswings for a team.

5. Home-field advantage

The advantage that one team will have over the other due to the site of the game is also worthy of your consideration. There’s no denying the effect that home-field advantage or the lack thereof can have on a team’s outlook.

However, of the factors mentioned so far, home-field advantage is probably the weakest indicator. Tread quite carefully about making a decision based upon home advantage. Many teams do not behave with any kind of consistency regarding the venues for their games. Moreover, during the pandemic, empty stadiums completely change the dynamic of the game.

Don’t stop handicapping there

So, now you know what to look for when figuring out which team might be the one to prevail or perform well. However, don’t make the mistake of believing that the elements listed above are the only ones worthy of your attention.

The truth of the matter is that you have to be willing to put in some time and gain some experience in order to make a successful handicapping mix. In other words, you may use these, not use these, or add to the list in coming up with your preferred manner to analyze a betting situation. So, even though these will get you started, don’t stop with them alone.

Where to find sports handicapping information

So, now that you have some ideas about what you need to study before you bet, you may be wondering where to track down the information that you need. Truthfully, the problem these days is not finding information, but parsing out the information that you need from the constant flow of it.

However, as long as you have a game plan for what you’re trying to find, it’s not that big of a deal. So, here are the best places to look for relevant tidbits about that next betting opportunity.

1. Sports media

The most obvious place to start looking for statistics and information about upcoming games is with the people whose job it is to report those very things — sports media. Of course, you can always try ESPN or FOX Sports, but those are certainly not the only game in town, so to speak.

The important thing about whatever source you choose is its accuracy. Make sure to double-check the information that you’re getting from a particular source if it’s your first time to use it.

2. Better bettors

Another group of sources for information about handicapping is more experienced handicappers than yourself. It would be unusual for a new handicapper to outperform or have better instincts and systems than handicappers with decades of experience and knowledge.

One way that you can glean information from experienced handicappers is to watch how they spend their money, and what happens to the odds as a result. Professional sports bettors are not known for making impulsive decisions, so if you detect that they are hammering a particular bet, it might be a good idea for you to do so too.

However, don’t throw the rest of your analysis out of the window just because it conflicts with what the experienced crowd is doing. Experience is important, but it’s not the only factor. If you can sniff out an opportunity that goes against the conventional wisdom, you might be able to get a big payday out of it.

3. General news and weather

As we mentioned above, there are external factors that can contribute to the outcome of a match. So, you should make sure to take note of any news or weather elements that might play into your targeted game(s).

In particular, pay attention to how the weather might affect the teams. A team that normally plays in warm climates or a domed stadium might not perform as well in a snowy or icy scenario. Conversely, a team from a cool climate might struggle in a warmer game. You should also take note of altitude changes as they affect athletic events; a team that resides at sea level like New York, Los Angeles, or Houston might have trouble catching its breath in Denver.

You should also take a look at any major news events affecting the entire team or players on the team. Even though it’s a bit heartless, there’s no denying that an athlete playing through grief or illness is going to play differently than normal.

What kind of handicapper are you?

Another piece of the puzzle when it comes to sports handicapping is figuring out what type of handicapper you’d like to be. Although professional handicappers have their own systems, they generally fall into one of three categories.

  • Researchers: Researchers like to crunch the data as hard as they can in order to generate meaningful indicators for themselves. It’s not unusual for this category of handicapper to devise an algorithm in order to speed their data synthesis process. You will find both old-school and technically minded people in this category, but both groups will be quite comfortable with statistics and number-crunching.
  • Globalists: At the other end of the spectrum are the globalists. Rather than diving deeply into the data and stats, globalists prefer to look at a few composite statistics or measures and make their decisions. They are content to live with the results they get with this approach, reasoning that the more detail-driven bettors are not getting the returns to justify the extra amount of time that they’re spending.
  • Opinion gatherers: Both of the first two categories have, at the very least, a working relationship with statistics. However, not everyone who wants to bet on sports seriously has the training or inclination to dig into the minutiae of the data. So, the opinion gatherers let other people do it for them, using the consensus of the experts to formulate their opinions.

Most of us probably identify with one of the categories above. You may even believe that one approach is empirically better than the others.

You may also find that you fall into multiple camps. You may want to crunch some numbers but rely upon consensus for others. Or you may want to adhere to your few key indicators, but do a deep dive into those indicators as hard as you can.

The truth is that the journey in sports betting is far less important than the result. The creation of a successful system, no matter how you do so, is the most important thing about making your handicapping worthwhile.

If you’re not sure whether it’s working, look at your bottom line. Money’s great for spending, but it’s also the way that gamblers keep score.

Handicapping sports systems for beginners

At this point, you may have some ideas about how you’d like to start handicapping. However, pulling everything together into a cohesive plan might seem a bit overwhelming. So here is a sample handicapping system that you can use and modify if you need a push to start the process.

However, before you begin checking out our handicap betting tips, there is one key thing that you should do: Clear your mind of any prejudices, biases, or preconceived notions about the outcome of the game you’re considering.

Step 1: Look at the odds, and keep looking at them

One of the easiest things to do in order to begin forming your opinion about which way to go is to look at the odds on the game. The sportsbook certainly has its own motives in its listings, but it also has a vested interest in making its lines as accurate as possible.

Furthermore, once you’ve looked at the lines on a game, watch out for any movement on them. Those movements could be evidence that other handicappers have figured something out or, conversely, that there is a bias driving the action and you can take advantage.

Step 2: See where the crowd is going

You should also take a look at the public betting action that the game is generating. You can often get a feeling for the way the smart money is headed by looking at the percentage of wagers each side of the bet is hosting. A major discrepancy between the two percentages might indicate that there’s an underlying cause.

Of course, don’t just blindly follow the crowd. Factor it into your consideration, but don’t make your mind up just yet. After all, pros get things wrong too.

Step 3: Look at who exactly is playing

This step is probably the most important thing to do, and is likely part of any system, regardless of the handicapper’s approach. You need to consider the two opponents as clearly and dispassionately as you can. Evaluate the two players or teams for the athletes they are at that moment, not based upon reputation or historical successes.

In other words, look at the recent performances of both teams or opponents. How they played last week is far more important than how they played last month or last year. A football team that finally jells together in the middle of the season is an entirely different proposition from the group of misfiring parts that began play a few months prior.

One quick place to look for a rough estimate about recent performances is the power rankings published at major sports media sites. These are not always the most accurate, but they can capture the surge or decline of a team and give you a heads-up about the direction in which things are proceeding.

Step 4: Look at where they’re playing

Make sure that you take a look at the venue for the contest. If you’re looking at a team sport, then the home team likely has some measure of advantage. Check both teams’ records to see how they do at home and away.

For individual sports like golf or tennis, consider the setting for the event. Tennis players play considerably different depending on the surface, for instance. Golfers tend to have courses that fit their games better than others.

The right location can make all the difference for the outcome of a contest. Be sure to add it to the mix.

Step 5: Check the news — the more recent, the better

Do as many web searches as you can imagine with the players or teams involved in the match. Look for any relevant and recent news about them that might affect the performance. Pay special attention to the injury reports for both sides of the bet. Even events that seem tangential to gameplay can have a profound effect, so make sure that you’ve researched both sides thoroughly. Also, make sure that you look at the prediction for the game-time weather and consider its effects.

Example of our handicap betting system in action

Since you now have a system that you can use, let’s walk through an actual basketball handicapping example so you can see how the plan works. The following game was an actual offer on DraftKings Sportsbook.

Let’s say we want to bet the point spread on the Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers game. Here’s how that line appears on DraftKings:

  • Houston Rockets: -4 @ -113
  • Portland Trail Blazers: +4 @ -108

Step 1: Look at the odds, and keep looking at them

In this case, the Rockets are expected to win the game by four points. However, some Googling reveals that the odds on this game began with the Rockets as five-point favorites.

So, at this point, the indication is that bettors do not believe that the Rockets are as decisive a favorite as the opening line. The game is likely to be closer than those initial bettors anticipated.

The moneylines also indicate that DraftKings is trying to drive betting onto the Trail Blazers. The standard payout for spread bets is -110, so anything lower than that (like the Blazers at -108) means that the book likely wants a bet on that side of the equation to look more attractive.

Step 2: See where the crowd is going

The public betting action on this game tells a different story, however. The sources we found indicate that the Blazers are receiving a bigger chunk of the number of bets than the Rockets. In fact, 54% of wagers on this spread have been for Portland.

The lines are a bit curious, however, because they indicate that DraftKings wants more action on the Blazers’ side. So it could be that even though there are more bettors taking Portland, there is more money following the Rockets.

Step 3: Look at who exactly is playing

Since the return of NBA action from the COVID-19 layoff, both the Rockets and the Trail Blazers have played two games. The Rockets have won both of theirs, while the Blazers have won one and lost one.

However, the Rockets are generally considered to be one of the better teams in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers went into the suspension of play in March with a less-than-stellar 29-37 record.

In terms of injuries heading into that game, the only significant loss is Houston’s Eric Gordon. The guard is a rotation player for the Rockets, and the loss of his production is likely one of the reasons that the spread on this game is closer than you might expect.

Step 4: Look at where they’re playing

In this case, the “where” is an easier question to answer. Since the NBA restarted amid COVID-19 concerns, all games have been taking place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. So there’s no real home and away advantage for any team, especially since all the players are under quarantine at the facility.

In usual times, arenas and travel could play into your handicapping.

Step 5: Check the news

Of course, for basketball games, weather is rarely a concern. The only time it might come into play is during travel to and from the arena. Given that all the players have been quarantining together in Florida for weeks now, there’s no issue there.

The big issue is that every team is having to deal with the severe alteration and stress that comes with this disrupted season. The quarantining, the precautions, and the change of venue have a different effect on everyone playing.

The long story short, however, is that there’s no real news to report for either team.

The pick

Even with the injury of a key player (Gordon) and the weirdness of the season, the Rockets are probably still the better team. They have more depth and their last two games suggest that they have come back from the break without too much of a drop-off. Four points is really not that much of a margin to overcome, so we’d probably choose the Rockets here.


Of course, we were wrong. The Trail Blazers beat the Rockets by eight points, 110-102. In fact, the Blazers had the Rockets at a disadvantage for most of the game. Aside from a brief moment in the first quarter, Portland never trailed.

Even though Houston managed to tie the game three times in the final period, it was never enough to overcome the Blazers for long. Furthermore, the Rockets never held a lead that would’ve beaten the spread at any point throughout the game.


Even though our analysis proved incorrect for this game, it doesn’t mean that we throw out the entire model. In fact, most expert professional sports bettors lose almost as often as they win. There are simply too many variables in sporting events that contribute to the outcome of a game for the sports bettor to control.

So, even though this one didn’t work out for us, we should continue to use the model and get some real data about how it is performing before we consider any tweaks or wholesale changes to it.

Handicapping is smart sports betting

Handicapping is smart sports betting. As sports betting descends upon Virginia, you may decide that you’d like to take it more seriously than the average Joe.

The good news is that we live in an age of copious information, so you can make a go of things if you proceed systematically. Hopefully, you have some good ideas about how to do so now.