What does "Betting Against the Spread" Mean?

by Big Al Staff

What does "betting against the spread" mean?

Sports betting continues to gain in popularity ever since it became legal in the United States.  There are thousands of new bettors arriving at the scene daily.  These bettors want to learn about strategy and gain a fuller understanding of how to win.  Sports betting is not for everyone, of course, but if you approach it the right way, you'll be in good shape for the long run!

One of the most popular bets is the point spread bet.  In this sports betting guide, we'll dive into the exact details of figuring out your spread betting strategy.  But first, let’s answer one central question:  What does "betting against the spread" mean?  It's certainly one of the most common gambling terms and, when reviewing statistics, it is abbreviated as ATS.  For beginners, a point spread is a number published by oddsmakers that represents an estimate of the number of points by which the favored team might outscore its opponent.  This number is expressed in both whole and half-numbers (e.g., 4, 4.5, 5).  The point spread was initially devised as a means to level the playing field between two unequal opponents such that each would have roughly the same chance to be a winner for its bettors.  When betting against the spread, a gambler has two choices.

Betting on the favorite

The bookmakers try to create an equal playing field by establishing a point spread which will be added to, or subtracted from the final scores of the two teams.  Unlike a moneyline wager, with ATS bets, the team which outscores its opponent at the end of the game is not necessarily the point spread winner.  When you're wagering against the spread, it's about trying to assess the value of the point spread.  Is the oddsmaker’s number too low, or too high?  The point spread is best explained by giving a couple of examples.  Let's take an NFL match between the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys. The betting lines might look like this:

  • New York Jets +3
  • Dallas Cowboys -3

In this example, the Cowboys are the point spread favorite, while the Jets are the underdog.  When you're betting on the favorite -- in this case, Dallas -- it would need to win by more than 3 points to cover the spread to allow you to cash your ticket.  And that’s because Dallas would have 3 points subtracted from its final score to determine the outcome of the wager.  So, if Dallas won the game by just two points, 16-14, then your wager on Dallas -3 would lose.  But if Dallas won by eight points, 21-13, then your wager on Dallas -3 would win.  If Dallas won by exactly three points, say, 17-14, then the bet would be a push (tie).

Betting on the underdog

The other possibility is to bet on the underdog.  Unlike moneyline betting, where a payout for taking the underdog might be rather large (e.g., 3-1), with point spread wagering, the odds are roughly -110.  This is because your underdog team no longer has to win the game, straight-up.  Instead, it now gets points added to its final score.  And the exact number of points depends on the relative strengths of the two teams.  The greater the difference, then the bigger the point spread.

To illustrate betting on the underdog ATS, let's take the example of Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers.  The betting lines at BookMaker sportsbook looked like this:

  • San Francisco 49ers -4.5
  • Baltimore Ravens +4.5

The 49ers were the pointspread favorite, while the Ravens were the underdog.  If you bet on the underdog Ravens against the spread, you needed them to either win the game outright, or lose by less than 4.5 points to cash your ticket.  In that game, Baltimore won straight-up, 34-31, to reward its bettors.

Calculating your payout when betting against the spread
Besides the point spread, the other important factor in ATS betting are the odds.  Because the point spread works to level out the playing field, the odds for each team are generally around -110.  But they don’t have to be.  Sometimes, you’ll see one team at -140 odds, while its opponent is at +120.  And some sportsbooks, like BetAnySports (our #1-rated sportsbook), have reduced juice, such that its customers only lay -105 rather than -110 on football and basketball games.  So, before you place your bet, you need to know what your wager will return should it win.  Let’s dive right in, and look at an example of another NFL match between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • ​Green Bay Packers -4.5 (-115)
  • Pittsburgh Steelers +4.5 (-105)

As we learned in previous examples, the Packers are the point spread favorite, while the Steelers are the underdog.  Here, however, the odds on each team are slightly different.  With Green Bay, bettors need to lay $115 to win $100, while backers of the Steelers only need to lay $105 to win $100.  So, if you bet $105 on the Steelers, and they win the game, your total payout would be $205, which comprises your $105 stake, and $100 of profit.

Point spread betting tips and tricks

The point spread bet is not complicated, and the basics are easy to understand.  Nevertheless, we want to give you some advice on how to develop your betting strategy.  All bettors have different ways to approach this, but we have a couple of useful tips for anyone, no matter their experience.

Point spread betting in other sports
As you can see by the couple of examples we used, the point spread bet is very popular when it comes to the NFL.  Nevertheless, there are more sports where you can bet the spread.  Another popular sport is the NBA, which works in the same manner as the NFL.

The NHL and MLB work slightly differently. They use run-lines and puck-lines.  In one sense, they are the same as other spreads, but the number is generally fixed at +/- 1.5.  With football and basketball point spreads, there’s often a large amount of movement in the marketplace.  An NCAA Basketball game might open at -11, but close at -14.5 if the favorite was steamed.  But if money comes in on the favorite in a baseball game, the run-line would remain fixed at -1.5 runs, but the odds might change from -110 to -135.  The reason for this is quite simple:  there’s a lot more scoring in football and basketball games than in baseball and hockey games, so there’s much more room for an oddsmaker to adjust a football or basketball point spread.

What are the best sportsbooks for point spread betting?
When sports betting first gained popularity, there weren't that many places to wager.  One could bet at brick-and-mortar sportsbooks in Nevada, or over the telephone with their local bookie.  Since the turn of the century, offshore sportsbooks have become commonplace.   Hundreds of betting sites now exist, so it can be somewhat hard to decide which sportsbook to choose.  We are here to help, and have some general rules you can use to determine if a betting site is the right place for you:

  • When you sign up with the sportsbook, do you receive a nice welcome bonus?  And are there reload bonuses?
  • How big are the wagering limits -- can it handle your wishes?
  • How easy is it to deposit your money, and how long does it take to withdraw your profits?
  • What do the odds look like?  Are they competitive when it comes to parlays, teasers, prop bets, and straight bets?

Depending on what you value most, your sportsbook of choice could be quite different.  If you’re looking to bet $50,000 on an NFL side, then BookMaker should be your pick, as it has the highest wagering limits.  But if you’re looking for a book which offers reduced juice, so you’ll lay just -105 odds on football and basketball games, then our #1-rated sportsbook, BetAnySports, is by far the best.  Or, if you’re a casual bettor who just wants the most modern and easy-to-use website, then Bovada would be your top choice.  But maybe you’re really into parlays.  If that’s the case, then go with BetAnySports since its parlay and teaser odds are unparalleled.  And if you want a nice welcome bonus, then BetNow is terrific.  Finally, it goes without saying that all sports bettors should have three to five sportsbooks so they can shop the lines.  One of the biggest mistakes gamblers make is that they only have one sportsbook, and are held hostage to that sportsbook’s number.

Point spread betting terminology
We want to finish this article with a couple of terms common when we're talking about point spread betting.

  • Pick'em:  Pick'em or PK, in short, means that the two opposing teams are so close to each other that there's not a favorite or an underdog.  In this case, it doesn't matter which team you pick.  If it wins straight-up, then it covers.
  • Push:  A push occurs when a game, after the point spread is applied, ends up in a tie.  Because neither team covers the spread, bettors are refunded their stake, and no money is made or lost.
  • Half-point:  Point spreads can be either whole or half-point numbers.  By using half-points, an oddsmaker can more easily balance the wagering action.  Additionally, a half-point removes any chance a game might push.
  • Line moves:  Very often, the spread or odds of any given match change when time passes.  That means that the odds you see on Monday night for an NFL game might be completely different from the odds three days previous.  Line moves are necessary for sportsbooks to attract action on a team in order to reduce their risk on a game.  It's on you as a bettor to keep a close eye on this occurrence and to use it to your advantage.
  • Cover the spread:  When a team successfully manages to win following the application of the point spread, it is said that the team covered the spread.
  • Against the spread (ATS):  A statistic used to show a team’s W/L record in games after the point spread was applied.

The above terms are the most common across spread betting.  When you successfully understand these terms, it's on you to start gaining the experience you need.  It's essential to find out how you want to approach developing your strategy.  Do you want the statistics and facts to take the lead, or do you prefer working on a trial and error basis?  Whatever you do, it's important to have a plan.

First, establish what amount of money is your bankroll.  That means the actual amount you can afford to lose.  Then, based on your bankroll dollar value, you can determine your average bet size. Most professional gamblers will put between 1% and 5% of their bankroll on any single play. Finally, decide on which sports and wager types you like the most.  Do you want to bet on regular season NFL, or just major events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four?  Whatever it might be, form a plan!

The most important rule we want to close this guide with is:  have fun!  Sports betting is great entertainment, and we're here to make it as rewarding as possible along the way.  So, happy betting!

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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