What Are Key Numbers in Sports Betting?

Written by: Richard Janvrin
20 min read

What if we told you there are certain numbers in certain sports that can dramatically improve your chances of making winning bets? They’re called key numbers and once you understand how they work, they can help your sports betting bottom line in a big way.

This page contains everything you need to know to start using key numbers to your advantage right now, including:

  • What key numbers are and how you can use them to bet on sports.
  • An in-depth look at the sports where key numbers are the most powerful. Spoiler: It’s football and basketball.
  • Tips and strategies to help you spot opportunities to use key numbers to your advantage.

To be a successful sports bettor, key numbers are something you need to be aware of. Once you learn to look at a bet with key numbers in mind, all kinds of interesting betting opportunities will start to reveal themselves.

Key numbers are different in different sports so before you make a bet, always be aware of the role that key numbers play in the specific sport you are betting on.

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Key Numbers: Quick Definition

Key numbers refer to the most common margin of victory in a game. The margin is heavily influenced by the scoring system in that specific sport. Key numbers always have to do with the increments in which points are scored.

In football, three and seven are the most important key numbers because points are scored in threes for field goals and sevens for converted touchdowns.

In sports with a single scoring system, like hockey or soccer where you can only ever score one goal at a time, key numbers are less important. However, in sports like football and basketball where you are awarded different numbers of points depending on the type of score, key numbers become very important, especially to gambling.

Key Numbers Explained in Detail

Like we mentioned before, key numbers are all about the most common margin of victory and they’re based on the increments players can score points in. These two numbers are closely related.

The value of the different scores in a sport tends to determine the most common margin of victory. If you know the most common margins of victory, you can place bets based around these numbers and better predict the game’s outcome.

Example: By far the most common margin of victory in the NFL is three points, the value of a field goal. Amazingly, around 15% of all NFL games have been decided by three points since 1996.

Each sport has different key numbers associated with it. They are often either the value of a certain type of score, a multiple of that value, or one number up or down from that value. This is because when games are close, one successful scoring opportunity is often enough to win the game. When an NFL game is close near the end, teams are more likely to try to win with a field goal, rather than run the risk of scoring a touchdown. This leads to statistics like the one above.

An important thing to note is that key numbers are most relevant for certain bets on the outcome of individual games, namely, point spreads and point totals. We’ll go into detail on each of those and how they relate specifically to the NFL and NBA in more detail.

Key numbers are not very useful for futures bets or other forms of sports betting.

So, now we know that key numbers are the most common margins of victory, determined by the scoring system. How can we use this information to our advantage in sports betting? Keep reading to find out.

How Do You Use Key Numbers to Bet on Sports?

The most popular bet in all of sports gambling is called the point spread. It involves a predicting not just which team will win the game, but what the margin of victory will be. If you’re new to point spreads, here’s an easy explanation.

What is a Point Spread?

A point spread is a way of leveling the playing field when betting on teams with differing abilities by helping the underdog and handicapping the favorite. The favorite team will be given a negative point value, while the underdog will be given a positive point value. It will look something like this:

  • New England Patriots -3 (-110)
  • Philadelphia Eagles +3 (-110)

This means that to win this bet on the Patriots, the Pats need to win by 3.5 points or more. If you bet on the Eagles here, you would win the bet if they either win the game or lose by less than 3 points or more.

The second set of numbers is the odds and it tells you how much the bet pays out. In this case, you have to bet $110 to win $100 in profit.

Check out our guide to reading betting lines and odds for more info on that.

Point Spreads and Key Numbers

So you know which key numbers are important for each sport. Unfortunately, so does the bookmaker. As you can see in the example above, the point spread is often placed around a key number. Bookmakers will be reluctant to move off key numbers in the point spread since they are the most common margin of victory.

However, there are still lots of ways to use key numbers to your advantage in point spread betting.

When you see a point spread that is just over or under a key number (for example, 3.5 in the NFL) it’s an opportunity. If you think the underdog has a good chance of covering the spread, +3.5 is a great number to have since so many games end with a margin of three points.

In this example, if the underdog loses by a field goal, you still win your bet.

The same concept can also be used for another really popular bet: Totals, also known as over/unders.

What is Point Total Betting?

Point total betting is quite simple. You are betting that the total number of points scored by both teams combined will be either higher or lower than a certain number chosen by the sportsbook. In football, a typical point total bet might look like this:

New England Patriots vs Philadelphia Eagles

  • Over 41 (-110)
  • Under 41 (-110)

In this case, the bookmaker has indicated that they believe the combined total scores in the game will be 41. If you think the final total will be higher, bet the over. If you think it will be lower, bet the under.

Key Numbers and Point Totals (Over/Unders)

Once again, the answer lies in the scoring system. The fact that points are scored in certain increments means that some points totals are much more likely than others. When you know the most common combinations, you can learn to spot when the point total is at a potentially valuable number depending on what you think the outcome of the game will be.

Some bookmakers will even allow you to bet on the exact total number of points scored, or offer point total betting in an individual quarter or half of a game. Key numbers are relevant for all of these.

Key numbers are most relevant for irregular, multi-point scoring sports. Now we’ll go a little more in-depth about specific key numbers in a couple of sports.

How to Use Key Numbers for Betting NFL Football

Football is undoubtedly the sport in which key numbers play the biggest role when betting. This is due to the scoring system.

  • The most important key numbers in NFL football are, in order of importance: 3, 7 and 10. 

The first key number is the value of a field goal, the second is the value of a converted touchdown, and the third is the value of the two scores together. Think about some of the more common sounding scores for NFL games – 17-14, 24-21, 24-17, 31-24, 31-21. All of these are decided by key numbers.

  • Focus on 3, 7 & 10

In tight games, teams often find themselves only separated by the lowest value score, the field goal. In fact, around 15% of all NFL games are determined by three points. Think about all the tight games you have seen over the years where a team is tactically trying to wind the clock down after a field goal.

A converted touchdown scores 7 points in NFL, and this is the second most common margin of victory. However, it is significantly less common than a 3 point margin, meaning that while certainly a key number, 7 is less significant in NFL than 3.

Games are decided by 7 points around 7% of the time.

Since it is also important to pay attention to score combinations, 10 is the next most important key number, the value of a field goal and a touchdown together.

As we have already seen, the two most relevant types of bet for key numbers are point spread betting and point total betting so let’s go into a bit more detail about how that relates specifically to betting on NFL football.

Key Numbers in Point Spread Betting in NFL Football

Let’s take a look at that example of a line for a typical NFL game:

  • New England Patriots -3 (-110)
  • Philadelphia Eagles +3 (-110)

The spread, in this case, is 3, which as we know is the most important key number in NFL. In this case, the bookmakers think the game will be fairly close, with the Patriots the favorite. 3 is a very common point spread in the NFL, and bookmakers tend to be reluctant to move from it.

Since the most common winning margin for a favorite by far is 3 points if they were to move the Patriots to -3.5, and the Patriots won by a single field goal, the bookmakers would likely take a big loss, since they would have to pay out on those who backed the Eagles.

In some cases, they will change the odds on each team rather than change the spread. That may look like this:

  • New England Patriots -3 (-100)
  • Philadelphia Eagles +3 (-120)

A good way to think about this is that the difference between -3 and -3.5, or -7 and -7.5 is much greater than the difference between, for example, -10.5 and -11, since they are not key numbers and much less likely to be the margin of victory.

Tips and Strategies for Key Numbers and Point Spreads

The thing to watch out for is when the point spread is either a key number or just over or under a key number. Once you get used to all the key numbers in NFL, you will automatically view the point spread through the lens of key numbers,

One important thing to remember is that key numbers are not some magic formula to winning sports bets. Bookmakers are well aware of key numbers too and set their lines accordingly.

Instead, we should think of key numbers as one of many important factors that we consider as smart sports bettors, like odds. They are not a cheat code, but understanding them will absolutely make you a more successful bettor. Here are some practical strategies involving key numbers:

Shop Around for Key Number Opportunities

Different bookmakers offer different prices. Good sports bettors don’t confine themselves to one bookmaker when possible, but instead, compare many to find the best value. Often, comparing the different odds available can give you more information. If you find four bookmakers offering the odds in our example bet:

  • New England Patriots -3 (-110)
  • Philadelphia Eagles +3 (-110)

And the fifth is offering the Eagles at +3.5, then that’s clearly a much better bet.

Key Numbers and Buying Points in NFL

Many bookmakers allow you to buy points on the spread. This effectively means you can choose your own point spread. This might look like this:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers -5 (-110)
  • Arizona Cardinals +5 (-110)

If you want to buy an extra point for the Steelers it could look like this:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers -4 (-130)

Notice that you’re getting worse odds in exchange for a more favorable spread.

Since you know how important key numbers are in the point spread, you can accept slightly worse odds to move the point spread on or off a key number. However, as always the bookmakers are aware of this. They will likely charge you higher odds to buy a point or half a point around a key number.

In our original example, buying half a point on the Eagles at +3 (-110) will probably cost you (-135) to move the spread to +3.5.

However, there are still plenty of occasions that buying the points around key numbers is worth it. It is up to you to spot the value. The important thing is that your predictions and bets are informed by the value of key numbers.

Key Numbers and Point Totals in NFL Football

In the NFL, key numbers in point total betting are also determined by the value of the scores and their various combinations. The most common total points scored, and therefore key numbers for point total betting, in order of importance are:

  • 41, 43, 37, 44, 51, 33, 47

Just like in the point spread, the key is to look for times when the point total line is a key number. Generally, point total betting is a simple way to bet. Do you think the total points will more or less than this number? Simple.

However, key numbers are still extremely relevant for these bets. Let’s see why.

Tips and Strategies for Using Key Numbers in Point Total Betting

Betting over/unders on point totals is a staple of sports betting and as we mentioned in the previous section, key numbers can guide your betting decisions. Here are some easy to follow tips for factoring key numbers into your totals bets.

Shop Around

It is worth repeating that key numbers are not a cheat code but they do give you another factor to compare when shopping for the best odds at different sportsbooks.

If you think it will be a high scoring game, it is as simple as checking which bookmaker has the lowest over/under point total bet available, along with the best odds. When one book’s total is just over a key number and you want the under, it’s a great opportunity.

  • When betting the under, look for totals lines that are just over a key number.
  • When betting the over, look for totals lines that are just under a key number.

This sounds simple but being a good sports bettor involves plenty of simple and methodical actions like actually doing the legwork of checking around for the best price.

Get On the Right Side of Key Totals Numbers

A slightly more complicated situation arises if you have a very specific prediction for your point total bet, maybe from predictive betting software. Take our example again:

New England Patriots vs Philadelphia Eagles

  • Over 41 (-110)
  • Under 41 (-110)

Say your model predicted that the total score will be 40.7. Without understanding key numbers, you might think that betting on the Under here is a good bet, according to your prediction. However, we know that of the seven most common point totals, five are over 41 and two are under. In light of that, the under doesn’t sound quite so good.

Now imagine your model predicted that the total score would be 41.3. Since you know about the key numbers, the Over 41 suddenly looks a very attractive bet based on the most common outcomes.

Without knowing the key numbers, the two bets above might be equally attractive.

Depending on the odds, it may be possible to buy a point total closer to a key number which makes sense for your prediction, which you would pay for with slightly worse odds. Or, perhaps you could simply find a better points total by shopping around. Either way, understanding key numbers in points totals gives you a much deeper understanding of when you should bet them.

Differences Between Key Numbers in NFL and College Football

In general, everything we have covered so far applies to college football as well as the NFL. The most common winning margins in college football are 3, 7 and 10, and the strategies for keeping an eye out for key numbers are the same.

There are some differences between the two, however.

One is that NFL is generally more competitive than college football, meaning that the games are often closer. College football is less predictable, meaning the key numbers are less reliable.

Since college football is less competitive, more points are scored on average. This means that the point totals tend to be higher. The most common total points scored in college football, and therefore key number for point total betting, in order of importance are:

  • 55, 51, 45, 59, 58, 52, 41.

These numbers are based on the last five years. The strategies to use these numbers are exactly the same as in the NFL, just be aware that the numbers are different.

Key Numbers in NBA Basketball

Since basketball has smaller increments for scoring, and there’s a lot more scoring overall, key numbers are significantly less useful in the NBA than the NFL. However, they still play a part and bettors should be aware of them.

The value of the scores available in basketball are 2 and 3 (and 1 for free throws). This is what determines the most likely winning margin in close games.

The most important key number in NBA betting is 7. This is because when there are 7 points between the teams, the game becomes a three possession game. If this is the case with close to a minute left, teams will frequently stop fouling and simply let the game run out. Basically, if there are seven points between the teams and the game is almost over, the losing team will just accept that the game is over, resulting in a 7-point margin of victory.

After 7, 2 is the next most important number. The reason for this is that for any differential in score from 0-5 with a minute left to play, the greatest number of scenarios leads to an outcome of a two-point differential.

The other most common margins are, in order:

  • 5, 6, 8, 3 and 4

However, it should be noted that the distribution of outcomes for all these numbers is very similar. Unlike 3 and 7 in NFL, key numbers in basketball don’t come up as often.

Tips and Strategies for Using Key Numbers in NBA Betting

The idea behind point spread betting and key numbers is exactly the same in the NFL and the NBA.

  • A point spread of 7 is the most valuable.
  • Shop around for this value or buy a point to move on or off 7 in favor of the team you’re betting on.
  • The same is true for a spread of 2, if you think the game will be especially tight.

To make it more attractive for bettors, bookmakers will typically not charge an extra premium to buy points around the number when you’re betting on basketball, since they are not as in the NFL.

Regarding point total bets, key numbers in basketball simply do not play a role in these predictions in the same way that they do for point total bets in the NFL. Making a good point total bet in the NBA relies way more on team, player and game factors.

Overall, while not as important in the NBA, key numbers are something all bettors should be aware of. Sports betting is a game of fine margins, and the more information available the more ready you will be to capitalize on those margins.

Key Numbers in Baseball and Hockey

Baseball and hockey both have much more straightforward scoring systems. You can only score one point at a time and they’re both very low-scoring sports compared to football and basketball. For these reasons, key numbers are much less important in betting on these sports. However, there are some minor exceptions.

Close games are frequently decided by a single score in these sports, either a run in baseball or a goal in hockey. Knowing this is essentially the same as being aware that NFL games are most likely to be decided by 3 points. You can find good value in handicap betting based around a single point margin.

For example, if you think an underdog is stronger than the bookmaker is suggesting, you can bet on them with a +1 spread. Since one goal is the most likely differential (a key number) this kind of bet can be valuable.

You can also look at the most common total points scored in the same way as in NFL. However, this number is not affected by the type of scores in the game, since all scores are worth the same.

For example, in the MLB the most common total runs scored in a game is 7, followed by 9. Although they are not as powerful as in the NFL, knowing information like this can help make you a more successful bettor.

Recapping Key Concepts for Key Numbers

There are a couple of important things to remember about key numbers in sports betting. The first is that they are a tool to become a winning bettor, not a magic spell. Think of key numbers as one of many important factors such as odds, team and player histories, trends and injuries. To make consistently smart bets you have to be aware of all of these factors and more.

  • Football betting is easily the most influenced by key numbers.
  • Key numbers are most relevant in point spread bets and totals (over/unders).

Any time you are betting on the spread in football, you should always consider the key number situation. Before too long, you will start to see 3’s, 7’s and 10’s everywhere. Football point total bets are similarly affected by key numbers. Remember to always keep them in mind.

Always remember to shop around for spreads and totals that land on key numbers, and remember to consider buying points around key numbers.

The same concepts apply to the NBA and to a lesser extent, MLB and NHL. Learning when to use these strategies will add more tools to your betting toolbox.

If you are living in state where sports betting is legal, check the spreads now to look for key number patterns. It won’t take you long to find a spot where you can put your new knowledge to work.

If you are living in a state where sports betting is not currently legal, don’t worry. All across the US, more and more states are relaxing their sports betting laws since the Supreme Court removed the federal ban on sports betting in May 2018.

The times are changing and chances are it won’t be long until you can bet on sports in your own home state. It could be sooner than you think, say 3 months, 7 weeks or 10 days.

If you want to put what you've learned to the test, try out any of the top-rated sports betting sites.

For the latest information on legal sports betting all over the United States, check our guides to legal sports betting in every US state.

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Richard Janvrin

Sports Betting Analyst

Online Sports Betting
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After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Journalism, Richard Janvrin has been covering iGaming and sports betting since December 2018. Richard has covered betting at Bleacher Report, Gambling.com, The Game Day, Forbes, and more.
Nationality: American
Education: Bachelor of English/ Journalism
Favourite Sportsbook: FanDuel Sportsbook
Favourite Casino: BetMGM Casino
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