How Does Spread Betting Work?

For the most popular sports on the menu, there’s one bet that drives a great deal of the conversation. The point spread is one of the biggest sources of handle at legal sportsbooks for the NFL and NBA, and there are variations available in other sports to boot.

Betting the spread requires more than just picking which side will win. It can be tricky to navigate if you are new to betting. Our complete guide to legally and safely betting on the point spread here in the US will explain the intricacies.

Latest NFL point spreads

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NFL Point Spread Betting Example

Sportsbooks set a point spread for every NFL game. It can be helpful to think of it as an estimated margin of victory, or the expected difference between the two teams. When you want to place a bet on NFL point spreads, you have to make one of two choices.

  • The favorite minus the points.
  • The underdog plus the spread.

When reading a game line, negative points are for favorites, while a positive spread is for the underdog. To visualize, consider the following real-time odds for a Week 3 game.

  • 49ers vs. Broncos Point Spread
    • 49ers: ()
    • Broncos: ()

For this contest, the spread is tight, which helps to make the game more engaging from a betting perspective due to the question of which side will ultimately cover. Let’s take a detailed look at how the wager works.

How does spread betting work?

The point spread is most commonly associated with football and basketball betting. Variations appear in other sports, such as a run line for baseball and a puck line for hockey. In all cases, sportsbooks will set a spread that’s akin to an estimated margin of victory. You can choose the favorite to cover the spread or the underdog plus the listed number.

Las Vegas Raiders+3.5 (-110)
Dallas Cowboys-3.5 (-110)

For this example, the Cowboys are 3.5-point favorites over the Raiders. If Dallas wins by four points or more, such as 30-21, it will have covered the spread. Las Vegas covers by keeping the game closer than that, such as 28-27, or by winning outright.

The point spread is one of the most popular sports bets. It helps to level the playing field between two teams. By extension, it can make contests that appear to be mismatched much more appealing from a betting perspective.

Is the spread available in all sports?

The spread is one of the most common bets at sportsbooks. It’s a standard offering for the following sports and will appear prominently as part of the main game listing.

Other sports also use a variation of the point spread. The name might be different, but the concept is the same: the side you choose has to cover the spread.

  • MLB — run line
  • NHL — puck line
  • Soccer — goal line

For football and basketball, spreads can range from the low single digits up to double-digit numbers. MLB and NHL lines are generally set at 1.5, but you may find alternative lines at some shops. For soccer, the line can be as low as 0.5 and go up to a couple of goals or more for potential mismatches.

The spread bet also appears for other sports. For example, in betting on the ATP and WTA tours, you can bet on the spread for sets or games in the individual matches. Point spread betting brings in the most volume for football and basketball, but it will attract action elsewhere as well.

Why point spread lines move

The lines for point spread bets will come out well in advance of game time. From the initial release up to the start of the game, bets will continue to come in. Sportsbooks might adjust the numbers in response to betting action. The spread itself could shift by a half-point or much more, while the odds can also fluctuate up or down.

The movements are in response to betting action. If a clear preference emerges among the betting public, as in one side attracting the bulk of interest, then the sportsbook has lopsided action on its hands. It would rather not have that happen. To balance things out, the sportsbook will shift the spread and odds, sometimes in response to action from professional or “sharp” bettors.

The side not seeing as much play can become more attractive, while the side that’s bringing in the business will move in the opposite direction. Line moves can impact the overall appeal of a wager you’re interested in, but remember that you can always shop around at multiple books to find the odds and lines that are more to your liking.

Calculating the vig on point spreads

For a point spread bet at standard odds of -110, you won’t double your money if you win. Why is that? It’s because of the vig, also known as juice, which is a fee the book collects for taking and settling the bet. If you win a $100 wager at odds of -110, the return will be $90.90. The difference between that and doubling your money is $9.10, which is the vig on the bet.

The amount of the vig can have a direct impact on your long-term bottom line. For a single wager, the difference between odds of -110 and -105 might not seem like it moves the needle all that much. However, it adds up over the long run. Let’s say you placed 100 bets of $100 each at odds of -110 and another 100 for the same amount at odds of -105, and won 53% of bets in both cases.

Odds of -110

  • $100 for 100 bets equals a total of $10,000
  • Win 53% of those bets: $90.90 profit on 53 bets for a total of $4,817.17
  • Profit plus stake returned: $5,300 + $4,817.17 = $10,117.17
  • You’ve made a total profit of 1.17% (117.17/10,000)

Odds of -105

  • $100 for 100 bets equals a total of $10,000
  • Win 53% of those bets: $95.20 profit on 53 bets for a total of $5,045.60
  • Profit plus stake returned: $5,300 + $5,045.60 = $10,345.60
  • You’ve made a total profit of 3.45% (345.60/10,000)

Each tick of difference impacts the potential return on winning wagers. This is a big part of the reason why line shopping can be a valuable addition to your overall routine. By scouting out the best possible prices, you’re placing yourself in a better position to achieve long-term profitability.

Point spread betting examples

Even for the most seasoned handicappers, point spread betting can be a tough nut to crack. Beyond making the right call on which side will cover, you also have to factor the vig into the equation. To beat the juice at odds of -110 on a long-term basis, you would need to win at a clip of 52.4% or better.

That can take some doing to achieve. When beginning with point spread betting, start by grasping the basic concepts and build from there. To that end, let’s take a look at some specific examples for multiple sports.

NFL point spread betting

  • New England Patriots          -4.5 (-110)
  • New York Giants                   +4.5 (-110)
  • Patriots cover by winning by five points or more, such as 30-25.
  • Giants cover by winning the game or by keeping the margin to four points or fewer, such as 27-24.

NBA point spread betting

  • Milwaukee Bucks                  +1.5 (-110)
  • Los Angeles Lakers             -1.5 (-110)
  • Bucks cover by winning the game or by keeping the margin to one point, such as 109-108.
  • Lakers cover by winning by two points or more, such as 112-109.

College football point spread betting

  • Clemson Tigers                     +3.5 (-110)
  • Alabama Crimson Tide        -3.5 (-110)
  • Clemson covers by winning the game or by keeping the margin to three points or fewer, such as 40-38.
  • Alabama covers by winning by four points or more, such as 37-30.

College basketball point spread betting

  • Baylor Bears                         +2.5 (-110)
  • Gonzaga Bulldogs                -2.5 (-110)
  • Baylor covers by winning the game or by keeping the margin to two points or fewer, such as 69-68.
  • Gonzaga covers by winning by three points or more, such as 75-69.

For MLB and NHL games, the concept is the same. The run line and puck line are typically set at 1.5. If you like the favorite, that team will have to win the game by two or more runs or goals, while the underdog can cover by winning outright or by keeping the margin to one.

Understanding spread betting rules

All legal sportsbooks have house rules in place that cover the ins and outs of wagering. The rules let you know what to expect, and also provide protection for the books on various circumstances that may arise. For point spread bets, here are a few of the key points to be aware of:

  • Spreads and odds might adjust after you place your bets. Your wagers will be settled based on the numbers at the time of bet placement.
  • If the final score of a game lands exactly on the margin of the spread — i.e., 30-27 for a three-point spread — then the bet is a push, and the sportsbook will refund wagers.
  • Bets will remain live for slight delays in the action, but a complete postponement to a later date or outright cancellation can lead to sportsbooks voiding wagers.
  • All wagers are settled based on official league data and statistics. Books will not entertain disputes over results.

Most online sportsbooks have a dedicated section for house rules, but others may include them in the FAQ or help sections. You are responsible for understanding the rules where you play, so take the time to review to avoid any surprises.

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