What is a Point Spread?

Perhaps the most commonly used type of sports bet is the point spread, which helps even the playing field between two teams or players who are facing off against each other. The spread provides a cushion for the underdog team to be more competitive, or conversely, mandates that the favored team win the game by a set margin. Particularly in big-time sports like football and basketball, the point spread is an extremely popular form of sports betting.

Without the spread, betting would be a lot duller, and wagering on games between a heavy favorite and huge underdog wouldn’t be nearly as lucrative or suspenseful for bettors. Read on to find out how a point spread works, and why they’re so popular in all sports betting circles.

What is a point spread bet?

To see how this concept is put into practice, let's look at NFL point spreads. Tom Brady's departure notwithstanding, the New England Patriots have been an NFL dynasty for the better part of two decades. They've won six Super Bowls under coach Bill Belichick, and entered the 2020 season off of 11 consecutive division titles.

In this instance, we'll say they're at home against the rival Buffalo Bills, who are improving in recent years, but can't quite get over the hump against the Pats in the AFC East. Even with Cam Newton under center for New England in place of Brady, it's not a stretch to say the Patriots should be favored. In each of their past 11 seasons at home, they've posted a 6-2 record or better.

The moneyline would likely have short enough odds (e.g. -250 or so) to the point where it wouldn’t be worth betting on the Patriots — unless it were part of a larger parlay. It’d be risking too much money for too low of a payout. When there's a point spread involved, though, it becomes a little more difficult to bet on the Pats, because they have to defeat Buffalo by a certain amount to “cover the spread.”

How do I read a point spread betting line?

If you're looking at this spread, it's likely New England would be listed as one-touchdown favorites (plus the extra point), which is to say, the Pats are -7 favorites over the Bills — or, the Bills have a +7 spread as underdogs.

The minus sign next to the seven means that the Patriots need to win by more than that number of points to earn the bettor a victory. The plus sign in front of the Bills' seven-point spread means they must lose by less than that total in order to produce a winning betting ticket.

What does that "-110" next to the spread mean?

You might see a number like this tied to the point spread. These are the odds you'll get from betting on it. Check out the image below to see it in action on DraftKings, in this instance for a Thursday Night Football game between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals

That -110 is known as juice, which is essentially the tax the sportsbook hits you with to take your bet. Instead of betting at even money, or +100, the sportsbook takes a little off the top. So, instead of betting $100 to win $100 on the point spread, you need to bet $110 to win $100. It's a minor price to pay, as you're still getting the handicap of points to benefit your betting.

Point spread betting: Winning and Losing

To circle back to the Bills-Patriots example, we'll dive into all the possible outcomes, using made-up final scores for purposes of illustrating what happens to your prospective bet:

Outcome #1: If you took the Pats and they notch a “W” with a final of 24-20, you lose the bet, because the margin of victory was four points, which doesn’t cover the +7 spread. Winning bet: Bills (+7)

Outcome #2: The Patriots win 21-10, and congratulations — you win! Big time. Instead of having to bet $250 to win $100 on the hypothetical moneyline, you'd earn $227.50 on that same $250 wager. Or if you're not betting that much on a single game, you just extrapolate the numbers and calculate accordingly. Winning bet: Patriots (-7)

Outcome #3: Oh wow! Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen improbably lights up the New England defense, throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 21-13 Bills win! In this instance, you'd wish you bet on the Buffalo moneyline, which would be around +225 ($100 bet to win $225). Nevertheless, your point spread cover wager still holds up. Winning bet: Bills (+7).

What if the winning margin is the point spread?

Here's where things get, well, potentially a little heartbreaking: what if New England hits the nail on the head when it comes to the spread and beats Buffalo by a score of 27-20? Or maybe you took the Bills to cover, and that's the result? This is what’s known in betting as a “push.” All this means is you get back the money you initially wagered, but you don’t get the profits from the payout.

It seems like you should be rewarded for nailing the precise point spread, but it turns out to be a wash at the end of the day. This is where you tip your cap to the oddsmakers who came up with the exact point spread.

What does it mean when there's a ".5" in the spread?

This combats the potential for a push. Oddsmakers add in the .5 on the end of spread numbers to avoid pushes. A team can't score half of a point, so as a bettor, you know that when you go to place a bet on that point spread, you're going to win or lose. No refunds. No looking back. Just an old-fashioned, straight-up spread bet.

Point spread betting in other major sports

We've covered the NFL at length, but what about other big leagues? The same principles apply to the college gridiron, along with NCAA basketball, but let's go in for the NBA right now.

The concept is the same. If you want to bet on the Los Angeles Lakers-Miami Heat NBA Finals Game 2, you can take either team's moneyline, or simply use the spread on either side

Since these moneylines are so far apart and the spread is significant, you might be better served either waiting to see how the game starts and betting on the spread live. Another option is mining the prop bet section for alternative point spreads at longer odds. If you feel really strongly about the Heat to keep the game competitive, or believe L.A. will notch an even bigger blowout, that's another way to go.

Hockey is another big source of fun for spread betting. Also known as the "puck line", the NHL and other hockey fixtures give the favorites an expected -1.5 margin of victory. Even before the opening face-off, you can often get these at +200 or better odds. If you really feel strongly about the underdog winning by more than one goal instead, you can get their alternate spread at even greater odds and win a lot of money fast.

Baseball is the same way in terms of presenting a favored team with a -1.5 spread, or run line. In MLB, there are often "first five innings" props available for the run line, but before the first pitch, you can bet on this line and find odds often around even money, or between -175 and +175 generally. The spreads will move all over the place throughout MLB games, and if you get lucky, you can nab a team trailing for a monster plus spread, and reap the rewards if they rally with one big inning — or even score a single run from that point on.

Betting on a live point spread

Now for that aforementioned "live" bit: when it comes to basketball, you're often better served to wait until the game is live. You have the benefit of seeing the flow of the game, how certain players are faring, which team started with a big run. The great part about this is you can sit there for hours watching a matchup unfold, and then bet late. Often, bettors will reassess the action at halftime to see if it's worth taking the spread, or even an inflated moneyline.

When the Denver Nuggets trailed the Los Angeles Clippers in this year's conference semis by double digits at halftime of Game 5 and Game 6, not only was Denver's moneyline super profitable, but the spread was likely somewhere around +10. Imagine taking a flier on the Nuggets to rally on both occasions. What a payout that'd be. To keep it strictly to the spread, though, you can see how a game like basketball, often defined by big point runs, can cause the lines to fluctuate drastically. Bettors can take advantage if they're paying close attention.

Hockey presents a fun live spread betting scene. If a team is trailing by one goal late, they'll pull the goalie in favor of an extra attacker, hoping to get the equalizer to force overtime. Odds are, they won't succeed, and not having a netminder guarding the crease means the defense can quickly strike the empty net.

This can sometimes result in multiple late goals in the NHL, so keep an eye on the leading team's spread in the third period. You'll usually have until about five minutes remaining in regulation to get the -1.5 spread at supremely inflated odds if the team is up by one.

What is a teaser?

This is a little more advanced, but whenever you get around to teasers, they can be a fun way to either shorten or lengthen your odds, depending on how you feel about your bets that day. Instead of relying on the oddsmakers' lines, it's you who's controlling the spreads.

However many teams are on your betting ticket, you apply a certain spread to all of them relative to the spreads set by the sportsbook. You can either swallow more points for longer odds and a higher payout, or you can have extra insurance by gathering additional spread points to increase your chances of covering in all the games, albeit for a lesser reward.

Check out these examples on an NFL point spread teaser, beginning with what happens if you gave yourself another six points for each game in a four-team NFL Week 2 teaser on DraftKings. The lines were altered as follows: Denver (+7 to +13) vs. Pittsburgh; Jacksonville (+9 to +15) vs. Tennessee; San Francisco (-7 to -1) vs. the Jets; Cincinnati (+6 to +12) vs. Cleveland

That $10 bet's winnings shrink to a $31.75 payout — far less than what you'd earn on a normal parlay, but you can see the benefit of the inflated spreads nonetheless. Now, what if you felt great about the 49ers blowing out the Jets, the Jaguars giving the Titans all they can handle, the Bengals upsetting the Browns and the Broncos scaring the Steelers? Do the reverse and subtract six points from each spread, and what do you get?

New spreads: Denver (+1), Jacksonville (+3), San Francisco (-13), Cincinnati (0), and these amount to +10170 odds. So, a $10 bet would've won you $1,027. With hindsight, we know it didn't play out this way, yet that's the kind of upside that exists.

It's fun to try this out, as a smaller bet can result in a massive, instant payday, or you can bet a similar amount on a couple or a few different contests and bundle them together with extra spread cushion and still win more than you would when betting on a single-game spread. Of course, you're assuming more risk by going this route, and at least to begin, make sure you're being a responsible bettor and not getting your plate too full. That's a recipe for racking up losses and hoping for the best on long-shot parlays or teasers.

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