Betting Basics

The Strategy of Betting on Underdogs

Everyone loves an underdog. But when does it make sense to bet on them?

February 1, 2024

Everyone loves an underdog, especially when they can make you good money on a bet. Wagering on dogs can net you a nice payout, but it does come with some risk — they’re underdogs for a reason, after all.

But if you choose your underdogs wisely and do your research on the teams involved, and bet with your brain and not necessarily your heart, you could win some nice payouts.

What is Underdog Betting?

What Constitutes an Underdog?

Let’s start with the basics. An underdog is the team that is expected to lose, whether it’s in team sports like the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL, or a Grand Slam tennis match.

Let’s take a snapshot from Tipico Sportsbook on Jan. 31, 2024, to see some favorites and underdogs:

  • The 49ers are favored to beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl (spread -2, moneyline -130)
  • The Celtics are favored to beat the Lakers (spread -10.5, moneyline -600)
  • The Hofstra men’s basketball team is favored to beat Stony Brook (spread -7.5, moneyline -310)
  • Manchester United is favored to beat West Ham United (moneyline -133)

These are your traditional Team A vs Team B scenarios, but underdogs can also include other athletes who — according to the odds — are expected to underperform relative to the favorites.

For instance, in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am 2024, Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler have the lowest odds to win, so theoretically everyone else are underdogs, meaning their odds are higher but also offer potentially bigger payouts. In this event, that includes Justin Thomas (+2000) and Collin Morikawa (+2000).

To set the odds, the sportsbooks basically are predicting which team or athlete is going to win and — for team sports — how many points, goals or runs they will win by. However, the books will also set the odds in a certain way as to incentivize bettors to wager a certain way.

One thing to remember is that the books ideally do not want a vast majority of bettors to be picking one team over another. If that happens, the books can suffer a big loss on payouts. So, to induce bettors to go the other way, the books will adjust the odds to influence that betting behavior.

Why Is Underdog Betting So Appealing

Aside from the fact that most of us love the underdog — whether it be Rocky or Cinderella or Butler — rooting for and betting on an underdog can yield a decent payout, especially if you combine one or more underdog bets with other bets in a multi-leg parlay that can increase the odds even more.

Underdog betting is also appealing because a little money can go a a long way. Imagine if you had wagered on Stanford (+40.5 points) to beat USC in 2007 or 15th-seeded Coppin State to defeat 2nd-seeded South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament last year. The results weren’t likely, but throwing down even a few bucks would have meant a nice payout.

Identifying Value in Underdog Betting

There’s an underdog in almost every wagering event, but the trick is to find those underdogs that will provide the best value — i.e. the ones that will be most likely to pull off an upset and net you some cash.

To identify those value dogs, you’ve got to do your research and go beyond what the books and the casual bettors will do. There are unlimited factors. Does an underdog have a player who’s on a roll, like Rams RB Kyren Williams, who strung together several 100-yard rushing games this season? Or the Texas Rangers’ Marcus Semien, who had a 25-game hitting streak in 2023? Do certain players seem to do better or worse in the postseason, like Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes or Ravens QB Lamar Jackson?

Weather can be a factor, too. The Miami Dolphins have lost 11 straight games by an average of 17 points when the temperature at kickoff was 40 degrees or below. Conversely, the Packers, Steelers and Patriots are among the teams that perform the best in cold weather.

Another factor is how well teams and athletes have done head-to-head. For years, the Steelers couldn’t beat the Patriots in the playoffs. Sean McVay’s Rams couldn’t beat Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers in the regular season. Jannik Sinner’s victory over Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final was an upset, but a little research would reveal that Sinner had won two of their three previous matchups.

Lamar Jackson is 20-1 against NFC teams in his six-year career. If you had known that, you could have strongly considered betting on the underdog Ravens to beat the 49ers on Christmas Day (which they did 33-19) either on the moneyline (+210) or the spread (+6).

Looking at the Super Bowl, your bets would be informed by knowing that Mahomes, after winning at Buffalo and Baltimore, is now 11-1-1 against the spread as an underdog in regular season and postseason games. And if you researched Mahomes vs Shanahan’s 49ers, you would discover that Mahomes is 3-0 and the Chiefs have averaged nearly 38 points per game. Is three games enough of a sample size to sway your bet?

Sometimes the data can get weird, albeit useful. For instance, future Hall of Fame guard Chris Paul is 2-17 in games refereed by Scott Foster, and those include playoff games.

Different Types of Underdog Bets

The two most basic forms of underdog bets are with the spread and moneyline. Look at a snapshot from Tipico for odds for a sample day in January:

In these examples, the 49ers are favored to beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl by 2 points or more – as denoted by -2 – and conversely the Chiefs are projected to lose by 2 points. The Ducks are favored to beat the Sharks by 1.5 goals or more, and vice versa.

The moneylines — listed on the right — do not involve points, and instead are simply “straight up” results. So, the odds have the 49ers and Ducks winning — the Chiefs and Sharks are the underdogs in these matchups.

If you bet on the Chiefs, you want them to lose by either only one point or win the game. If they lose by 2, that’s called a “push” and you get your wager amount back. Neither you nor the book win the bet. If the Chiefs lose by 3 or more, you lose the bet.

For the NHL example, if you bet on the Sharks, you want them to cover the +1.5-goal spread. So, if the Sharks lose by one goal or win the game, then your Sharks bet wins.

You can also place a moneyline bet on underdogs. In the above examples, you could wager on the Chiefs or the Sharks to win ‘straight up.’

You’ll notice that the odds are different for spread bets vs moneyline bets. The spread odds on the Chiefs are set at -110, meaning you need to wager $110 to get a $100 payout. The moneyline bet on the Chiefs is +110, meaning that a $100 bet nets you a $110 payout if the bet wins.

Historical Success of Underdogs

Underdog success can vary by league and sport. In the NFL during the 2023 regular season, underdogs won 34 percent of the time straight up (SU), according to Odds Shark, and had a 48.7 percent success rate ATS. NBA underdogs have won less straight up (30.5 percent) but about the same ATS (48.9). In MLB, underdogs won 42 percent SU and 57 percent ATS.

And you can get very granular with the data, with how dogs do on the road or at home, in day games or night games, coming off bye weeks (in the NFL), etc. There is no limit to the data you can dive into, so instead of being lazy and betting with your emotions, do your due diligence with some solid research and you’ll have a better chance of winning your wagers.

Case Studies: Memorable Underdog Victories

There have been several major upsets in sports history that, with some research, could have been foreseen. In the 2008 Super Bowl, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were favored by 12 points to beat the New York Giants. At first glance, that made sense — the Patriots were 18-0 and had stomped over virtually all of their competition, while the Giants were 11-7 and had eked out divisional and championship game victories to get to the Super Bowl.

But the Giants ranked seventh in defense, led the league in sacks and nearly ruined the Patriots’ perfect 16-0 record with a hard-fought 38-35 loss on the final game of the regular season. The Giants had also won three straight road games in the playoffs, a testament to their toughness. So, a bet on the Giants to cover a +12-point spread would have made some sense.

Managing Risks When Betting on Underdogs

Putting money down on underdogs can be very thrilling, especially as the game wears on and the prospect of an upset becomes more and more possible. But as with all your wagering, make sure you are being wise with your money. Check out our guide to Bankroll Management for Sports Betting for great tips and strategies to making sure you are betting within your budget.

Find Your Top Underdogs on Tipico

At Tipico, we’ve got tons of betting options across many sports, if you are in our active states of Ohio, New Jersey, Colorado and Iowa. Click here to register or log in, and check out our sports-specific pages here:

You can bet on underdogs, favorites, player props, futures and also create parlays with as many legs as you want. The betting world is your oyster, so dive in!

If you’ve ever asked how are UFC fights scored, or what is a teaser bet, be sure to read our guides!

Alex Valdes
Alex Valdes is Web Content Manager at Tipico North America. He has written, edited and performed user and site analysis at MoneyTalksNews, NBC Sports, MSN, Bing, MSNBC, as well as newspapers and magazines.