The WNBA playoffs are right around the corner, which means the spotlight on the league is growing. It also means it’s a great time to enter the growing betting landscape.
After all, what better way to — in the words of Nneka Ogwumike — “bet on women” than to literally bet on women?
The first step is to learn to read the odds and lines (or what odds and lines even are!). All the numbers, pluses and minuses can make your head spin, and for a rookie bettor, staring at them can feel like a rookie player staring at their new team’s playbook.
That’s where this primer comes in. If you’re new to the party and looking for the 101 course, we’ve got you covered. And if you’re not sure whether WNBA betting is for you, we’ve got you covered there, too.
There are three common types of bets you can place on a WNBA game. These aren’t the only available options, but if you’re new to betting, then they’re probably the only ones you need to care about.
When you click on a game on an online sportsbook’s website, the first thing you’ll see are the lines and odds for each of these three options — spread, total and moneyline. We’ll get to what those mean in a minute, but here’s an example from PointsBet Sportsbook for the game between Phoenix and Atlanta on Sept. 8.
In basketball, moneylines are the least common of the three — they are much more common in lower-scoring sports such as soccer or hockey — but they are also the most important to understand first. That’s because the way the odds work for moneylines also applies to almost all other types of bets.
The odds are just those pluses and minus you see in a sportsbook. In our example game, the Mercury had odds of -221 while the Dream’s odds were +175. While the numbers themselves may seem complicated at first, the concept of moneyline bets is simple: Who will win the game?
A minus number means that you have to bet that amount to win $100. A $221 bet on Phoenix to win the game would earn you $100 if the Mercury win. (Some books will tell you that the bet “returns” $321, which just means you get your original $221 back plus the $100 you won.)
Plus odds work the opposite way — you have to bet $100 to win that amount. If the Dream were to win, a $100 bet on them would win $175 (or return $275 including the original bet).
These odds work proportionally, so you don’t need to bet that exact amount. Instead of betting $100 on Atlanta to win $175, for example, you can bet $1 to win $1.75 or $1,000 to win $1,750.
Against the spread (ATS) bets are the most common form of basketball betting. These are bets on a certain team to win after a handicap is applied to their point total.
Sportsbooks will determine the amount by which the better team is favored, and you can then bet on that team to win either by more than that many points or fewer than that many (including to lose).
PointsBet favored the Mercury by 4.5 points in the Sept. 8 game, meaning Phoenix would have to win by five or more for that bet to win. An ATS bet on the Dream would win if Atlanta wins or if Atlanta loses by four or fewer points.
Put another way, if you subtract 4.5 points from Phoenix’s score (or add it to Atlanta’s) at the end of the game, then who won? That’s why that number — known as the spread or the line — is given a minus sign for the favorite and a plus sign for the underdog.
Sportsbooks generally try to set these lines at a mark where they believe each side has a 50 percent chance of winning, so unlike with moneylines, the odds are typically the same for both sides. Some sportsbooks deviate slightly from this norm, but the standard is -110. That number works the same way as the moneyline odds: Bet $110 to win $100.
The third common type of basketball bet is a totals (or over/under) bet. This is a bet on the total number of points scored between the two teams, so if you want to bet on buckets or bricks, this is where you’ll make your hay.
In our game, if the teams combine for 155 or more points, the over wins. If not, the under cashes out. The odds work the same way as before and, like with spreads, they are usually around -110 on each side.
The other important thing to know when it comes to totals and spread bets is what a “push” is. You’ll notice that in the Mercury versus Fever game, the spread and the over/under are each set at a half-point mark, so it would be impossible to hit the exact line. But that’s not always the case.
Sometimes those lines are set at whole numbers. Let’s say the spread was instead Phoenix -5. If the Mercury won by exactly five, that would be a push, which means you would get your money back but wouldn’t win anything extra. Whole number totals work the same way.
Betting isn’t for everyone. It’s a personal financial decision that you should never feel pressured into trying.
If you approach it responsibly, however, there are pros to betting on the WNBA that can outweigh the cons (even beyond the obvious opportunity to grow your bank account).
Growing the game
Pretty much everything you do to get involved with the WNBA will help the league grow, from attending games or buying gear to interacting with WNBA-related social media posts.
Betting is just another one on that long list. Sports betting in general is already a booming industry, and it continues to grow rapidly as more and more states legalize it. The higher the share of the money and the wagers that get placed on women’s sports, the more they’ll become part of that equation.
Even if you don’t want to risk your own money, which is certainly understandable, engaging in discussions about the betting markets can still have an impact. Plenty of people make their “against their spread” picks online but don’t actually put money on the pick.
However you wish to participate in the league, participate in the league. It will only move things forward.
Taking advantage of the sportsbooks
Sportsbooks make money when they are smarter than you (read: when they pay more attention than you do). Sports like the NFL or the NBA see such unfathomable sums of money wagered that the books have to devote as many resources as possible to making sure their lines are as accurate as possible. If they aren’t, the books stand to lose millions, if not billions.
That isn’t true to nearly the same extent in the WNBA. As a result, sportsbooks often neglect the league to the point where their lines and odds are inefficient and exploitable.
For instance, the Lynx entered the season on most books with the eighth-best odds to win the championship. For a top-four team a year ago that returned nearly everyone and added multiple key free agents, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
A more relevant example for those who are planning on betting on single games using the three options listed above is injury updates. In the NBA or the NFL, if a key player’s status changes, the lines and odds on their game change almost instantaneously. A team who is favored by 13 and then has its star player ruled out will be favored by 10 or 11 before you have time to bet on the spread of 13.
In the WNBA, it can take hours for sportsbooks to account for injury updates. Players as impactful as Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner, and Candace Parker have all had updates to their status at some point this year without the spread of their game changing for a good chunk of the day. This leaves you with a window to bet on their team if they are declared healthy or to bet on their opponent if they are ruled out.
This opportunity, while profitable, ideally isn’t around for too many more years. If sportsbooks pay more attention to the WNBA and we lose out on chances to make money, that’s a substantial net positive. But as long as those advantages linger, we might as well cash in on them.
Calvin Wetzel is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering basketball and betting. He also contributes to Her Hoop Stats and Bet Her. Follow him on Twitter at @cwetzel31.