What is a Point Spread?

by Big Al Staff

What is a point spread?


The art of wagering and placing bets on events has been around for ages.  All the way back to the ancient Chinese empire, or the gladiatorial games in ancient Rome, people were wagering for entertainment purposes.  Nowadays, our sports look entirely different, and the betting landscape does too.  At first, you could only bet on your favorite team to win the game.  But that has drastically changed. 

Especially when the math teacher Charles McNeil from Chicago came up with the concept of the point spread.  Very rapidly, you could see the sports betting industry adapt to McNeil’s newly-created betting system.  What first started as an additional betting line available for the NFL is now available throughout many other sports.  These days, bettors can place a point spread bet on each football game, basketball game, the NHL (puck-line), and MLB (run-line). 

The point spread is one of the most popular forms of sports betting these days.  It might be a little hard to understand at first.  But in this article, we'll guide you through every single step of the process. 

How to start point spread betting
First and foremost, you have to understand the true definition of a point spread.  It means you are wagering on the scoring differential in the game.  The final score of the match consists of an individual score for each team.  With a point spread bet, you predict the difference in points between these two individual scores in favor of the team you chose.  To completely understand the point spread bet, let's have a look at an example of a historic NFL game:  Super Bowl 30.  The betting line for this match at the famed Stardust Casino looked like this:

  • Dallas Cowboys -13.5
  • Pittsburgh Steelers +13.5

As you can see here, the sportsbooks had the Cowboys as the point spread favorite and the Steelers as the point spread underdog.  Now, the Steelers had to not lose by more than 13.5 points to cover the spread.  The Cowboys, on the other hand, needed to win the game by more than 13.5 points to cover the spread.  The actual margin of victory would not matter, as long as you covered the +/- 13.5 points. 

Sometimes, when a game’s point spread is a whole number (as opposed to a half-point number), it’s possible for the game to push (i.e., tie).  This happens when the final score of the match has a margin of victory equivalent to the point spread.  In the NFL example above, that was not a possibility, since the line was 13.5.  But if the line was 10, then it would have been a push (since Dallas won, 27-17).  In that instance, sportsbooks would refund the wagers. 

This type of bet creates the opportunity for bettors to wager on the underdog or the favorite with roughly equal chances, as the oddsmakers try to select a number which will balance the betting action on each team in the matchup.  It does not necessarily mean that if a team wins, they cover the spread. That's the reason why the point spread bet was so revolutionary and has made the entire sports betting industry much more dynamic. 

How to read point spread betting odds
The odds for point spread bets tend to be near even-money.  Most of the time, the odds are set at -110, but the pricing can fluctuate per sportsbook.  The odds, of course, provide sportsbooks with the requisite edge to cover their risk of offering a point spread bet and is the basis for their profit. 

Nevertheless, we'll take a quick example of an NFL match between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets:

  • New England Patriots -3 (-105)
  • New York Jets +3 (-115)

As you can see in the example above, the Patriots are the point spread favorite because they hold the minus sign, while the Jets are the point spread underdog as they have the + sign.  One thing here that's different than the previous example is the spread number.  As you can see, it's a whole number.  Thus, it’s possible for the game to end up as a push should the Patriots win by exactly three points. 

How to calculate your point spread payout
You probably understand the basics of the point spread bet at this stage, but let's talk about the money now.  Let's find out how you can calculate your payout when it comes to point spread betting.  Because, let's be honest: as a sports bettor, it all comes down to making a profit. The potential payout is not as difficult to calculate as a multiple-legged parlay bet, but a short example hurts nobody.  Let's take the previous example:

  • New England Patriots -3 (-105)
  • New York Jets +3 (-115)

We now know the Patriots are the point spread favorite, and the Jets are the point spread underdog.  Your potential profit when betting on either two outcomes in this matchup would be:

  1. You are wagering on the New England Patriots to cover the spread. They win by more than 3 points, and successfully cover the spread.  You would have to bet $105 to win $100.  Your total payout would be $205.
  2. You are wagering on the New York Jets to cover the spread.  They don’t lose by 3 or more points, and successfully cover the spread.  You would have to bet $115 to win $100.  Your total payout would be $215.

One thing to keep in mind when calculating your payout with a point spread bet is the vigorish (or juice) which the bookmakers charge to place a bet.  Make sure you double-check the moneyline odds before placing your bet. 

How to implement point spread betting in your sports betting strategy
The real handicappers here already know how to make use of point spread betting, but for those who do not know yet, we have some quick tips and tricks.  The first thing you should know is that point spread betting is often referred to as handicapping, and a point spread bettor is a handicapper.  Besides that, this is what we want to share to make sure you start off the right way:

Be knowledgeable about the stats
We mention it in nearly every guide that we publish, but doing your research extensively is essential.  It's the key to making an informed decision and thus the key to becoming a profitable sports bettor.  When picking the team which covers the spread, there are various statistics to look at.  For example, each team has a ledger which tracks the Won/Loss record of the team against the spread.  It's called the ATS (against the spread) record. This is a good stat to look at, but it's far from all. 

You also have to consider the scoring capabilities against the opposing team -- for example, the offensive strength in comparison to the opponent’s defensive power.  Plus, you could have a look at the specific players who usually contribute to the scoring.  If any of these players are injured or are not starting, you have to consider it when handicapping. 

In general, the more research you do, the better.  So, always make sure you double-check every single stat and carefully make your decisions.  If you're in this for the long run, make sure you treat every single bet with a clear-headed mind. 

​Run-lines and puck-lines
Point spread betting is usually done for football or basketball games.   So, either the NBA, NFL, College basketball or College football games.  Because such sports involve a lot of scoring, these competitions go hand-in-hand with point spread betting.  Other competitions like MLB's baseball or NHL's hockey have much less scoring, and are known for being popular with moneyline bets.  But, to make spread betting more appealing to MLB and NHL bettors, the bookmakers came up with two terms:  run-lines and puck-lines.

They are essentially regular point spread bets, but they are designed solely for their sport.  Because scoring is much less frequent in games like baseball and hockey, the lines tend to be +/- 1.5 runs (or goals).  Keep in mind that it's basically the same as a basketball or football point spread bet, but the sportsbooks use slightly different terms.

Be careful when the line moves
One smart trick that most bookmakers use is making sure the line moves to keep equal money on both sides.  The sportsbook is in it to make as much money as possible, thus having equal money on both bets takes away their risk and guarantees their vigorish.  This is referred to as a 'line move,' where the betting lines move in a direction to make one bet look more appealing than the other.

You could have a point spread sitting at 3.5 points, with the odds at -110 for both teams.  Now, when the bookmaker notices that there's more money on the underdog, the line might change and have the spread be just 3 points to make the favorite more appealing. Alternatively, the vigorish might shift from -110 to -115 on the underdog, and from -110 to -105 on the favorite, to get more money on the favorite. 

Make sure you are aware of this factor before placing your bet.  The sportsbook might steer you in a specific direction, but that does not necessarily mean that direction is the right one.  Always make your own decision, no matter how appealing the odds might look.

The other important aspect of point spread betting is to shop around for the best line.  Because point spreads are always moving, you could have one sportsbook offer an NFL underdog at +3.5, while another book offers that same team at +4.5.  It is critical to always take the best number, so it’s advisable to have accounts at multiple sportsbooks.  And it’s also advisable to have accounts at the sportsbooks that have unique numbers (as opposed to the books that just copy the point spreads of the majority of operators).  With that in mind, we recommend joining sportsbooks like BetAnySports, Bovada, BetOnline and BetNow, as each of those sportbooks posts unique odds, and are great for line shopping.

With all this in mind, it's time to start getting ready to place your first bet.  Search for a matchup in your favorite sport and start digging into the research.  Take this article as your guideline and follow every single step.  Before you know it, you'll be a successful handicapper who can take on every point spread bet without hesitation. 

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

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