What Is Point Spread Betting and How Does It Work?
Point spread betting is a way for casinos to handicap the favored team and it’s a really exciting way to bet on all kinds of sports from football to baseball to basketball.
On this page we’ll explain step by step what point spread bets are and how to place them at online sportsbooks and casinos. We’ll go into detail about how they work in all the major sports and, most importantly, how to find teams that are the most likely to cover the spread.
Point Spread Bets Explained in Detail
When two teams face off, one side typically has better odds of winning than the other. That’s the favorite, and it’s the team that most people want to bet on. However, if everyone bet on the same team to win, sportsbooks risk massive losses.
That’s why bookmakers try to get an equal amount of action on both sides of every bet. That way they’re guaranteed to make a profit from the vig they charge regardless of which team wins. One way sportsbooks make both teams equally appealing to bettors is by offering what’s called point spread betting.
Point spreads require the dominant team to win by a certain number of points or goals, while also allowing the underdogs to lose by that same number of points or goals and still pay out if you bet on them. That way, choosing between both teams is more like a 50/50 coin toss. This popular form of betting has been used with sports since the 1940s and is common with all sorts of leagues, including NHL, NFL, NBA, MLB and soccer.
How Does Point Spread Betting Work?
The goal of the point spread is to even the playing field between two teams in a game. When both teams attract an equal amount of betting action, sportsbooks are able to offer higher payouts, especially with games that feature lopsided opponents.
In order to do that, handicappers establish a margin of victory (and loss) that both teams must cover in order to win the bet. Represented as a number, the point spread acts in two ways:
- It adds points/goals to the final score of the underdog.
- It deducts points/goals from the final score of the favorite.
If the team you picked still wins after the point modification, your spread bet wins.
Common Example of Point Spreads in Action
For example, with a 4-point spread, the favorite must win by more than 4 points for bettors to get paid. Conversely, the underdogs can lose by 1, 2, or 3 points (or win the game outright) and still win the bet. However, if the underdogs lose by more than 4 points, the bet is a loss.
Let’s look at a specific example to see how sportsbooks advertise point spreads and how they work:
- Los Angeles Rams -7
- Minnesota Vikings +7
In this example the Rams must win by more than seven points to cover the spread while the Vikings can lose by six or less points or win the game outright for them to cover the spread.
Point Spreads and Payout Odds
How much you get paid on your point spread bet depends on the odds listed at the time of the bet. Beside every point spread in parentheses are the odds that determine the payout. They’re expressed as American odds and they look just like the odds you’d find on a moneyline bet such as +125 or -120. In order to figure out your payout, first look at whether the odds are negative or positive.
- Negative odds show how much you’d need to bet in order to win $100.
- Positive odds show how much you’d win from a $100 bet.
- For example, if the odds are -125, you’d have to bet $125 to win $100.
- For a positive bet of +185, you’d win $185 in profit off a $100 bet.
Using multiples of 100 makes it quick and easy to see the value and cost of a bet; it doesn’t mean your bets need to be $100. You can bet however much you want within the maximum and minimum betting parameters outlined in a sportsbook, and the payout will be scaled up or down based on how much money you stake.
Rules for Point Spread Betting
Rules for point spread betting include locking in odds, scenarios that result in a push and the inclusion or exclusion of overtime. We’ll cover all of these rules, so you know exactly what to expect from your spread bet.
- When placing a spread bet, the odds you take at that time are the odds that are used to determine your payout. It’s very common for spreads to change as the game approaches, but these changes won’t affect the bet you’ve locked in.
- Point spreads are either whole numbers, or they can include a half-number like 4.5, for example. When the spread is a whole number, like 4, there’s a chance that the favorite will win by the exact number presented in the spread. When this happens, the bet is neither a win nor loss; it’s a push, which means that all money is returned to bettors.
- Overtime and penalty shots (in the case of NHL) are included in spread betting outcomes for all major sports except tournament soccer-like World Cup. Unless it’s a friendly match, a soccer spread bet does not include overtime.
Examples of Point Spread Betting
Up to this point we’ve discussed how point spreads work, but we haven’t talked about the difference in spread betting between sports with lots of scoring and sports with very little scoring. This distinction can be seen with two different kinds of point spreads:
- Flexible point spreads
- Systematic point spreads (runline and puckline)
Flexible point spreads can be any number the oddsmaker thinks is appropriate for the game. These types of spreads are used for sports with lots of scoring like football and basketball.
Systematic point spreads, on the other hand, are used with sports that have lower point or goal totals-like baseball and hockey. In these scenarios, the spread is the same for every game. We’ll go through an example of these two types of point spreads, starting with a flexible NFL spread.
Let’s say the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs are facing off, and both teams are enjoying solid seasons. The Patriots have the stronger record, so they’re the favorite. You can tell this game is taking place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City because the home team is always listed on the bottom of the two lines:
New England Patriots -3 (-110)
Kansas City Chiefs +3 (-110)
We’re looking at a 3-point spread here. The spread is always negative for the favorite and positive for the underdogs. With the 3-point spread restraining New England, the Patriots must beat Kansas City by more than 3 points for their bets to pay. On the other hand, the Chiefs can either win straight up or lose by 1 or 2 points and still cover the spread. Overtime is included in the outcome.
A third outcome is possible. If the Patriots beat the Chiefs by exactly 3 points, say the final score is 10-7, the result is a push, and the money staked is returned to bettors. Often, oddsmakers will use spreads that incorporate a half-point in order to avoid pushes because there are no half-points awarded in hockey, baseball, basketball or football.
Point Spread Pushes
- Point spreads that are whole numbers can result in a push.
- Point spreads that include a half-point won’t result in a push.
Example of the Runline
To illustrate MLB’s spread betting, known as the runline, we’ll use a game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. With baseball, the presence of a certain pitcher is such a big part of the team’s success that they’re included as part of the bet. In this scenario, if a different pitcher plays, the bet is marked No Action, and the money staked is returned to bettors. Some sportsbooks offer MLB runline bets where no pitcher is included, and the odds will reflect the uncertainty through lower payouts.
Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
Boston +1.5 (-145)
New York -1.5 (+125)
Unless you’re looking at Live Betting, the runline always uses a 1.5-point spread, with the favorite getting -1.5 and the underdogs getting +1.5. In our example, the Yankees are 1.5-point home favorites, which can be deduced from their negative spread and placement underneath the Away team. In order for a runline bet on the Yankees to win, they must win by at least 2 runs and Tanaka must be the starting pitcher. If it all pans out, a $100 bet would pay $125.
For a bet on Boston to be successful, Rodriguez would have to start and Boston would have to win, or lose by a single run. A $145 bet would pay $100.
Best Point Spread Betting Strategy
Betting point spreads offers all kinds of opportunities to use betting strategies to increase the value you’re getting on your bets. Let’s take a closer look at some of the edges you can find.
Point Spread Moves
Tracking a point spread for a game of interest will tell you how the public as a whole is betting. In order to reduce the risk of exposure, sportsbooks are always trying to balance the action between both sides of a bet.
So if the public predominately bets on one team, the spread will shift to encourage more action on the other team. Here’s an example of how a 4-point spread can move:
- A 4-point spread could increase to 4.5 if a lot of money is being poured onto the favorite. The half-point gives the underdog a wider range to lose by.
- If too much money is on the underdog, that 4-point spread could shift to 3.5, making it easier for the favorite to cover.
Teams with big fan-bases typically see a shift in their spread before the start of a game, so if you want to bet on one of these big franchises, it’s best to do it in advance. Meanwhile, it’s usually best to bet against them closer to game day when there’s more value on the underdog.
Any sport with a structured spread, like baseball and hockey, won’t see shifts in their spread. Instead, changes are made to the odds associated with the spread. To encourage betting on one team, odds will lengthen, such as +150 becoming +165. To discourage betting on a team that has already received a lot of action, odds will shorten, such as -125 becoming -140. Keep an eye on these changes to get the best value for your spread bet.
Betting the Middle
As bets roll in on one team in a game, the spread shifts to encourage action on the other side. This can create a unique opportunity to bet the middle, which involves betting on both sides, with each side having its own spread. If the end result is in the middle of both bets, you win twice.
Betting the middle is most common with NFL because NFL odds are typically released a week before game day, providing ample opportunity for the spreads to shift. We’ll use an example to explain how to bet the middle.
Let’s say the Philadelphia Eagles are -14.5 favorites against the Los Angeles Rams. You pick them up, and as game day approaches, the spread shifts, making the Eagles -17.5 favorites instead of -14.5. At this point, you pick up the Rams as +17.5 underdogs. Now, if the Eagles win by 15 to 17 points, you win both your Philadelphia bet and your Los Angeles bet.
- The Middle = The gap between the favorite and underdog that comes from the spread widening on the betting lines.
With football and basketball, you can increase your odds of winning a spread bet by buying points to alter the line in your favor. Sportsbooks offer one, two or all three of the following options when it comes to buying points:
- 5 point
- 1 point
- 5 points
Upon buying points, the spread will move in the direction that benefits you. If you’re betting the underdog, points will be added to the spread, whereas if you’re betting the favorite, points will be subtracted from the spread.
Point Spread Example
For example, if a point spread is 6.5, buying a half-point for the favorite decreases the spread to -6. Meanwhile, buying a half-point for the underdogs increases it to +7. Now, if the favorite beats the underdogs by 6 points, the result is a push instead of a loss. As for the underdogs, if they lose by exactly 7 points, the result is a push where it would have been a loss with the original +6.5 spread.
- Favorite: -6.5 Spread becomes -6 with the purchase of a half-point
- Underdogs: +6.5 Spread becomes +7 with the purchase of a half-point
For the most part, the cost of each half-point is 10 cents (10%) in vigorish, which is the money the sportsbook charges as commission; that cost would change a standard -110 line to -120. However, with football betting, there are certain premiums for spreads that land on or off numbers that are statistically more prevalent outcomes for win margins. For example, the two most common margins of victory in NFL are:
- 3 points. 15% since 2002.
- 7 points. 9% since 2002.
When buying points, if the spread happens to fall on or off the magic number 3, you’re charged 25 cents in vigorish, changing the line from -110 to -135. Now you’ve got to spend $135 instead of $110 to win $100. Spreads that fall on or off 7 incur a cost of 15 cents, changing the line from -110 to -125.
Of course, not all lines are -110. When you get into lines below the -110 standard, there is an additional step (and cost) because you have to get the line up to -110 before buying points. For example, a line of -100 would need to be boosted up to -110 before adding the point, and the 10-cent cost to do that is added to your point purchase. Lines that are above -110 don’t require any extra steps to bring them down to -110.
Click here for more information about the concept of -110.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules to point spread betting that are specific to the sportsbook you’re using, as some books have restrictions on what type of numbers can be modified by a spread. For instance, with some books, you may only be able to add a half-point onto a spread with a half-number, which would turn some of your losses into pushes.
Line Shading Point Spreads
Line shading is when sportsbooks make the most popular bets more expensive than what the true odds would suggest. It’s no secret that people bet on what they want to see in a game, and in general, people want lots of offense and big-franchise victories. If a sportsbook is shading lines, these two picks cost more than normal. A common strategy to avoid falling prey to shaded lines is to bet against the public and to always shop around.
Point Spread vs Moneyline
Points spreads and moneylines offer two unique approaches to betting on a game. Do you want to pick the winner of a game straight-up? Alternatively, you can bet on how many points the favorite will win by, or how close the underdog will come to pulling an upset.
The first option involves a simple bet on the moneyline, which is where new bettors often start. As you get comfortable with sports betting, you’ll want to progress to the point spread for the added value.
Beginner Two-Step Betting Process
Step 1: Moneyline
Step 2: Point Spread
With the moneyline, you pick the team that you think will win the game, and if that team wins, you win. If there’s a tie, you get your money back. If your pick loses, you lose your wager. It’s as simple as that. The amount you win depends on each team’s probability of winning and is clearly marked in the odds. This is an easy first step in sports betting, making it a great starting point for beginners.
With the point spread, your bet will require more thought, as you’re picking a team to win against the spread, not straight up. With this extra step, you get extra benefits; it’s easier for the underdog bet to come through and more challenging for the favorite to win. That extra hurdle for the favorite translates into bigger payouts than what you can expect to win on the moneyline.
As a rule of thumb, the moneyline is best for predicting underdog upsets, and the spread is best when you want to bet on a big favorite to win. You’ll still want to compare the odds and payouts of both options to make sure you’re getting the best value possible.
Point Spreads in NFL Football
Point spreads are the most popular way to bet on NFL, and they come in all shapes and sizes. You could be looking at a tiny spread of 1 point, or big spreads like 17 points. The spreads get even bigger if you look at college football.
There are a few things to keep in mind when betting on NFL spreads to boost your odds of coming out on top.
- Going back to 2002, the most common margin of victory in NFL is 3 points. There’s a 15% chance that a game will end with the winner beating the losing team by 3 points.
- The second-most common margin of victory is 7 points, which comes in at 9%.
- The most common margin of victory that doesn’t come with a premium price when buying points is 10, which happens approximately 6% of the time.
- Keep note of line changes. The public generally backs favorites, so if you see the spread tighten up, there’s a good chance sharp bettors are trying to predict an upset.
- NFL point spreads include overtime.
- Points can be purchased with NFL spreads.
Click here for our comprehensive guide on how to bet on NFL football.
Point Spreads in NBA Basketball
Basketball point spreads are similar to football ones in that they can range substantially based on how lopsided the matchup is. Although the spread makes the bets fairly even, there are a few key insights that will help you get the most of your NBA point spread betting experience.
- Common win margins in NBA range from 3 to 6, with the most common margin being 5 points.
- There are no premiums on buying half-points in NBA betting.
- Basketball is notorious for having hot and cold streaks. Use these to your advantage by trying to predict when the streak will end. The longer a team has a hot streak, the more chalk they’ll need to cover, which opens up a lucrative opportunity to cash in on the underdog.
Click here for our comprehensive guide on how to bet on NBA basketball.
Runline and Point Spreads in MLB Baseball
MLB point spreads are different than NFL and NBA ones because they’re standardized and inflexible. Instead of having a range of point spreads, teams are listed as a -1.5 favorite or a +1.5 underdog, with the exception of Live Betting, which offers flexible runlines. In order to balance the action, handicappers adjust the odds, which determine payouts. See below for an example of a runline:
- San Francisco Giants +1.5 (-155)
- Boston Red Sox -1.5 (+135)
In this example, betting $100 on the Red Sox would pay $135, and betting $155 on the Giants would pay $100. These odds will shift before the game begins in order to balance the action between both teams. Because the spread is standard and quite small, buying points isn’t an option with the MLB runline.
In baseball, a team’s success is greatly influenced by their starting pitcher-so much so, that they’re often included in MLB spread bets. In these cases, the pitcher listed in the spread must start for the bet to be active.
Click here for our comprehensive guide on how to bet on MLB baseball.
Puckline and Point Spreads in NHL Hockey
Hockey spreads are similar to baseball spreads in that the spread is standardized, and the odds associated with the spread are adjusted to balance the action between both bets. Just like with baseball, hockey spreads are 1.5, although at times, 2.5-goal spreads are available. Buying points isn’t an option with the NHL puckline.
As is the case with most major league spread betting, overtime counts in NHL betting. And if the game includes shootouts, the final score will reflect the winner of the shootout with the addition of one goal to the victor’s game total.
When betting on NHL, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to make an informed bet.
- The impact of home ice advantage: Visiting teams are saddled with a long change two of three periods in the game, making it tougher to swap out tiring defensive players under pressure. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so common for hockey teams to win at home and lose on the road.
- The strength of the goaltender: A hot goaltender can singlehandedly win a game, but they don’t typically play back-to-back nights, so be sure you’re getting the first string and not the backup.
- The style of each team’s play. Some teams are more offensive, while others are more defensive. See how their styles measure up to make an informed spread bet.
Researching and keeping track of these factors will help you determine if the favorite or the underdog is the best bet for any given hockey game.
Click here for our comprehensive guide on how to bet on NHL hockey.
Point Spreads: A Sports Betting Essential
Spread betting should be included in every player’s tool box. The key to making money off sports betting is the ability to place the best type of bet with the best odds every time you make a wager, and knowing the benefits and drawbacks of each bet helps you make informed decisions.
Next time you want to put some money on a big game, make sure to compare the spread with the moneyline odds to see where the best value is.