What is "the Spread" in Betting?

by JP Sio

What is "the spread" in betting?

When you start out as a sports bettor, you may first place moneyline bets, where you simply choose which team wins.  But after getting experience with these simple bets, you might want to broaden your gambling horizon.  Sports betting is very diverse and has many different bet types.  Along with the moneyline wager, the point spread bet is one of the most popular among bettors. 

The moneyline is used by oddsmakers to assign a favorite and an underdog.  Sometimes, the odds are near pk’em, but at other times, the two teams are not an even match, and the favorite might be -500, while the underdog might be +375.  That's one of the reasons point spread betting started to become popular.  No matter which team you are wagering on, the odds are close to even money.  Instead, as the talent disparity between the two teams increases, the point spread just gets larger.

In this betting guide, we'll take you through all there is to point spread betting.  After finishing this article, you'll be ready to place your first point spread bet!

<h2>What is the point spread?</h2>
A point spread refers to the number of points which gets applied to the final score in any matchup between two teams.  Bookmakers choose which team to install as the favorite and which as the underdog.  Then, both teams are given a set number of points which will be added to (or subtracted from) their final score to determine the point spread winner.  This might seem abstract, but a short example of an NFL game will clear things up:

  • Dallas Cowboys -3.5
  • New York Jets +3.5

As you can see by the minus and plus sign, the Cowboys are the favorite and the Jets are the underdog.  The Cowboys (at -3.5) need to win by at least 4 points to cover the spread.  The Jets (at +3.5), on the other hand, need to either win the game, or lose by 3 points or less, to cover the spread.  This gives you a short illustration of the point spread.  Basically, you are wagering on the margin of victory.  Now, let's dive into the betting part. 

<h2>How to get started with point spread betting</h2>
You probably have heard the term 'cover the spread' or you have seen the abbreviation 'ATS' (against the spread) when reading statistics about a certain team.  Cover the spread (or against the spread) simply means a team outscored its opponent after the sportsbook’s point spread was applied to the game’s final score.  Often, the abbreviation ATS is used in an overall record (e.g., the New Orleans Saints were 10-6 ATS last season).  Now, to paint a complete picture of point spread betting, we want to dive into the way sportsbooks display the betting odds and how you can calculate your payout.

Point spread betting odds
In the end, when placing a wager the odds are what matter.  You want to find the best odds to make sure you are not wasting any precious money.  With point spreads, the odds are generally -110, though the point spreads might differ by a point or half-point.  However, some books like BetAnySports offer reduced juice, so you can bet football and basketball games at -105 odds rather than -110.  That is a huge advantage for a bettor, and one of the reasons BetAnySports is our #1-rated sportsbook.  Whether -105 or -110 odds, the sportsbook still retains an edge because of the vigorish.  Of course, bookies need to have this edge to cover their operating costs. 

How to calculate your payout with spread betting
With simple odds, come simple calculations to see what your bet might payout.  To illustrate this, let's take the example of Super Bowl XLII, a great game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.  The betting line at BookMaker sportsbook looked like this:

  • New England Patriots -12.5 (-110)
  • New York Giants +12.5 (-110)

As you can see here, the Patriots were the point spread favorite, while the Giants were installed as the underdog.  There were two possible outcomes for this matchup.  Let's see how we can calculate the amount of money to be made from this bet:

  • You bet $110 on the New England Patriots to cover the spread.  The final score was 17-14 in favor of the Giants which means New England failed to cover as a 12.5-point favorite. You would have lost $110.
  • You bet $110 on the New York Giants to cover the spread.  The final score was 17-14 in favor of the Giants.  This means they covered the 12.5-point spread. You would have won $100 and your total payout would have been $210. 

One thing you should understand is the importance of the half-point in the spread.  This takes away the opportunity for the bet to push (tie), such that neither team covers the spread.  When a point spread bet pushes, bettors get a full refund of their initial stake.

Run-lines and puck-lines
Football and basketball games are the most popular for point spread bettors, while the moneyline bet is most commonly used in sports like baseball and hockey.  The primary reason for this is that scoring is much less in baseball or hockey games than in football or basketball games.  So, with much greater scoring, it’s easier to come up with a point spread for a football or basketball game, and keep the odds at -110 for both teams.  But, in an effort to increase handle in the less popular major sports like baseball and hockey, oddsmakers came up with run-lines and puck-lines.  In essence, they operate the same as regular point spreads, and are usually set at plus or minus 1.5 runs (or goals).  And they’re often used by gamblers to move the odds closer to -110 rather than, say, -180.

Tips and tricks for point spread betting
By now, you know what point spread betting is all about.  You probably know how to place your bet and that it is one of the most popular forms of wagering in general.  We don't like leaving you in the dark here and want to give you some extra information to make your point spread betting successful.  Thus, we have some tips and tricks to share.

NFL and College Football point spreads
The sport of football is by far the most popular when it comes to the point spread.  Whether it's a tiny spread of a single point, or as big as a 17-point spread, there are a lot of opportunities.  We did some digging and came up with a few statistics or tidbits that you can take into consideration when you first start wagering on the NFL or College Football:

  • The most common margin of victory is 3 points in any NFL game going back to 1980.  In fact, the chance of the winning team beating the opposing team by exactly 3 points is 15.0% (1498 of 9944 games).
  • After that, most NFL games end up in a 7-point margin of victory by the winning team, in 8.4% of all matches (836 of 9944 games).
  • In College Football, from 1995 through 2019, there were 753 overtime games, including 701 with point spreads.  Of those 701, the team which had covered the spread through regulation did not cover 138 games (19.68%) after the overtime session.
  • Usually, point spreads for a game are first published a week before the match occurs.  This leaves a lot of time for the lines to move, and the odds to change.  Keep an eye on point spread movement as your edge will change accordingly. 

Betting the middle
With point spread bets, the lines usually shift as time passes.  Oddsmakers first come up with a certain spread number, into which bettors place their wagers.  The sportsbook might notice there's a lot of action on Team A.  Thus, to shift some action to Team B, the sportsbook might change the betting lines to make Team B more appealing.  This could give you an opportunity to step in and bet the middle. 

Let's say the Dallas Cowboys are playing the Los Angeles Rams.  The Cowboys are initially installed as a 12.5-point favorite, and you decide to place your wager.  As game day approaches, you see the lines shift and the spread number is now -14.5 for the Cowboys.  To bet the middle, you can place a wager in an equal amount on the Rams to cover the spread at +14.5.  Now, if the final score lands on Dallas winning by 13 or 14, you would cash both wagers.  Otherwise, you would go 1-1, and lose only the juice.

Find the right sportsbook
As you can see in the description of betting the middle, the sportsbooks play a big role in the field of point spread betting.  It's very common for lines to move and odds to change according to the betting marketplace.  You can benefit from this by keeping notice of everything that's happening and exploit opportunities to bet the middle.  But, more important is picking the right sportsbook. 

No matter how big or small your wagers are, you need a sportsbook to provide the best odds.  Beyond that, it’s also important to take advantage of possible bonuses and promotions to rake in free money.  Some of our favorite sportsbooks include BetAnySports, which offers -105 reduced juice, Bovada, which offers unique odds, and BetNow, which offers a great sign-up bonus.

Since we're talking about point spread betting here, we also want to give you some small tips to take into consideration:

  • You should have accounts at multiple sportsbooks to be able to shop for the best lines.  Point spreads are always moving, so you want to take advantage of the best opportunities.
  • Check whether your current sportsbook publishes their own numbers or copies from the major operators.  This matters when shopping for the best lines since the more unique numbers you get, the better your chance will be to win your bet.
  • The reputation of the sportsbook has to be spotless.  That means they should have their proper licenses, and a perfect payout record.  Plus, a great sportsbook offers a full range of bet types, and in-game betting opportunities.

This is a quick list that does not cover each aspect of a proper sportsbook, but it gives you some basics for you to decide where to place your bets.  Regardless of where you are wagering, we want you to enjoy yourself.  The right mindset is important to any successful bettor, so make sure you're in the right state of mind before placing any type of wager!

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

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