- Bookmakers create a point spread to balance the betting market between two unevenly matched sides.
- Favorites are handicapped (minus points) and underdogs are given a head-start (plus points).
- The size of the spread depends on the perceived strength of the favorite over the underdog.
- A point spread is the great equalizer in sports betting – levelling the playing field and providing bettors with a great alternative to the moneyline.
Point Spread Definition
A point spread levels the betting field for two mismatched teams by handicapping the favourite (minus points) and giving the underdog a head start (plus points).
Say the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the road to Washington, but are still favorites to win. Moneyline odds are Tampa Bay -500 and Washington +360.
As an alternative to this market, and to attract more action at less risk to the bettor, sportsbooks created the point spread.
In our example, the point spread is set at 9.5 points.
This means the sportsbook expects Tampa Bay to win by at least that margin.
How to read a points spread
A point spread set at 9.5 points will show as:
- Tampa Bay -9.5 (-110)
- Washington +9.5 (-110)
You can look at this as Tampa Bay starts the game 9.5 points behind Washington; or Washington starts 9.5 points ahead of Tampa.
How to read odds of -110
At -110, you need to bet $110 to win $100 – so the book is charging 10% vig. As such, a $100 wager on either team would pay out $191.
Use our Odds calculator to simplify the math.
What is a spread bet?
Now that you have seen what the points spread is, let’s explain what a spread bet is.
A spread bet is a bet on the margin of victory.
- If you back the favorite, Tampa at -9.5, you’ve bet the spread.
- If you back the underdog, Washington at +9.5, you’ve bet against the spread.
Betting Against the Spread – Betting ATS
You may see “against the spread” abbreviated to ATS. A team’s ATS stat tells you how many times it has successfully covered the spread and how many times it has failed to do so.
For your bet to win, your team needs to cover the spread.
What is covering the spread in sports betting?
Remember that the points spread works as a handicap for the favorite and a head start for the underdog. In this example, a 9.5-point handicap on the Bucs and a 9.5-point boost to Washington.
For Tampa to cover the spread, they need to win by 10 points or more.
Washington covers the spread if they win, or if they lose by no more than 10 points.
How to place a spread bet
Visit your online sportsbook of choice, find the game you want to bet on and locate the Spread – which will be clearly marked. Remember two important points: 1) the favourite will carry minus points, and the underdog plus points; and 2) the odds on each side will often be -110, but this may vary a little. If the odds are wildly different, you are probably looking at the moneyline market.
How is a point spread calculated?
As an interested sports bettor, you’re probably wondering how a bookmaker actually comes up with the point spread. Why would the line be set at 9.5 points rather than 10 or 11?
Frankly, this question is unanswerable in full because so much information goes into informing a line and a point spread. Of course, what’s important to recognize is that information is power.
The more a bookmaker knows, the higher the likelihood they set a spread that attracts balanced action on both sides. And for a bettor, if you have information that isn’t widely known – or at least not by the bookie – then you have an edge. Which means you may be able to find value in the odds.
As a starting point, sportsbooks will all have models crunching all the stats on all the teams, and all the players in those teams. All the data.
This produces their power rankings, which generally serve as their starting point. From there, there’s literally an unlimited number of other external factors to consider.
What else do we know?
Let’s briefly look at the more obvious big-picture factors, but know that sportsbooks and sharp bettors will get as granular as they possibly can. Depending on the sport, different questions will be asked, but it fast becomes apparent just how much information comes into play.
But to highlight some of the more obvious:
- Home advantage. It’s usually worth a few points in football and basketball, and is considered invaluable in the post-season, whatever the sport.
- Track record is another. How has the team performed recently – riding high and on a roll, or down in the dumps trying to break out of a slump? Low morale and a lack of confidence can break a team. Championship teams can dig deep to turn it around. If a team is in the process of turning it around, that’s a different situation too – so their past-five-game record might actually be misleading. How does the home record compare to their record on the road? Some teams are hopeless away from home; others don’t seem too bothered.
- Injuries and availability is another, for obvious reasons. If stars aren’t playing, that will affect the point spread. If stars are playing, but carrying injuries, that’ll be accounted for too. What if it’s a big return from injury?
- Never underestimate the importance of the weather report too. How cold is it gonna be out there on the gridiron? How well do the respective kickers generally handle a gusty wind?
And then all those questions are asked of the opposition team too, all in a giant effort to try to set the best point spread.
Remember, what we said earlier: a point spread is set based on the perceived strength of the favorite over the underdog.
The third factor that will affect the final spread is the action seen since the market open.
Balancing the market
Bookmakers will always look to maintain as much balance as possible on either side of a bet. They do this to limit their exposure to potential liabilities. If more money is landing on one side of a market, the bookmaker is exposed to a greater liability if the other side wins.
In an ideal world (for the bookmaker), the action is equally split on both sides, so that whatever has to be paid to the winners is covered by what was taken from those who lose. And because vig is collected on all bets placed, the book will always make money.
Lop-sided action can suggest that the initial spread is mis-priced – and that there’s value on offer.
This is why sharp bettors often take positions early, because they get to do so at better odds. Or in this case, a more comfortable spread that should be easier to cover.
So, the action that comes in informs the sportsbook of the betting public’s view, allowing it to alter the spread to the most accurate number possible. This explains why the closing spread is often different form the opening spread.
Is betting the spread or moneyline better?
The answer to that depends on what you want out of your betting experience, so there are arguments either side.
In our example, the spread is offered at 9.5 points at odds of -110 on either side. Recall, the spread is there to produce a more even betting playing field. As we’ve already seen, a $100 bet on the spread pays out $191.
At moneyline odds of Tampa Bay -500 and Washington +360, a $100 bet on the favorite pays out $120, and $100 on the underdog wins $360. Of course, don’t forget that the odds are adjusted accordingly. It’s far more likely that the underdog covers the spread than wins outright.
You can also use our Moneyline Spread Odds Converter to compare the two markets and search for value.
Managing your bankroll
Successful long-term sports betting requires you to successfully manage your bankroll. Big moneyline bets – especially on heavy underdogs – can quickly erode your bankroll, leaving you to top up your account if you want to bet further.
But hey, not everyone’s in this for the long run. Placing a bet on a big game can add an element of fun to the experience – especially if you’re not really wedded to either team.
So if you’re just having a bit of fun on Super Bowl Sunday, or a college Homecoming game, who the hell are we to tell you what to do? Though we would say, don’t put the house or the kid’s college fund on it.