How Point Spreads Work

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The change in the 1940's

It seems unheard of today, but there was actually a time not that long ago when there was no such thing as point spread betting.

All bets were essentially moneyline bets, with the betting payout determined by odds. If you were betting the 1931 Rose Bowl between Alabama and Washington State, there was no opportunity to lay points on the Tide or take points on the Cougars because the point spread did not exist.

That changed in the 1940s when a mathematician named Charles McNeil, who loved betting on football, opened his own sportsbook and offered his customers the first-ever point spread.

Using his knowledge of football and math, he would estimate how many points a team would win by, and not just the odds that they would win.

Point spread betting was an instant success, and now some eight decades later, it is the foundation of all team sports betting.

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Understanding the Point Spread

If you are a golfer or have ever played on a bowling team, think of a point spread like a handicap. It is a way for two teams of differing abilities to play each other on equal footing.

The better team, and the favorite in the game, gives a certain amount of points to the lesser team, the underdog. And if the favorite doesn’t win by at least that amount, they lose the bet.

Point spreads are typically used on higher-scoring sports, like football and basketball, and they look the same regardless of which sport you’re betting.

Example 1:

Example 2:

If you take the Ohio State Buckeyes to win on the road in Madison, they must win by at least a touchdown. Anything less than that and the bet on Ohio State loses.

On the flip side, a bet on the Badgers means that even if they lose by as much as six points, you still win. Only a seven-point loss or greater would mean that you lose your bet.

For obvious reasons, any point spread around three points or seven points for a football game makes the betting action more exciting. A score in the final minute and everything can change.

When betting on basketball, there will be far less of a pattern to the point spreads. In the example above, the Lakers are hosting the Warriors, and they must win by at least five points for a bet on the Lakers to win. A bet on Golden State comes with a buffer of four points. It’s not until the Warriors lose by five points or more that your bet is lost.

Note the -110 next to all of the point spreads. This is how much a winning bet pays, as expressed in American odds.

The plus and minus signs on the point spread indicate points that are given or taken by the respective teams. The minus sign next to the 110 indicates that if you want to win $100 on your bet, you will need to wager $110.

This extra $10 from a $110 bet goes to the sportsbook. It is their fee for arranging the bet, and in the industry, it’s called vig or juice. You might see the juice as low as -105 on a point spread bet, but rarely is it ever lower than that, and never does a point spread bet come with a plus payout.

Point spreads can come in even numbers. If Ohio State was favored by 7 instead of 6.5, it is possible for the bet to end in a tie. In this case, all money that is wagered is returned to both sides, and no juice is taken.

The Initial Point Spread and a Moving Point Spread

When a point spread is first set by a bookmaker, it is at best an educated guess. For NFL games, it’s quite a good guess.

Using a mathematically driven rating system, each team has a baseline of expectations. Then factoring in things like recent play, injuries, rest, matchups, and home-field advantage, a number is assigned.

With so many eyes on the NFL and so much information available, this number is usually very accurate. Bookmakers have their jobs because they are good at them.

The same holds true for the NBA and major college football and basketball. A point spread is set with the goal of stimulating an equal amount of wagering on both sides, and more times than not, the sportsbook gets it right on the first try or close.

On lesser followed teams, like smaller schools that play football and basketball, there is less information available. Less is known about the players and how they perform in certain situations, and that can lead to point spreads that are off the mark.

This is where the betting public gets to weigh in. As more bets are laid, point spreads will move in one direction or the other to reflect those bets. If Idaho is a 7.5-point favorite over Eastern Washington, but most of the betting action is on the underdog Eagles, that spread might move to under a touchdown in an effort to get more action on the Vandals.

This is true for all sports that use a point spread. The goal of the sportsbook is to have an equal amount of betting on both sides.

The point spread isn’t a predictor, nor does the sportsbook have a rooting interest in the game. They simply want equal betting so that neither team is a liability to their profits, should that team win.

And one final note on point spreads and point spreads that move. The point spread that you are wagering is locked in at the time the wager is placed. If you bet on Idaho at -7.5, but then the spread moved to -6.5, your bet doesn’t change.

Point Spread Terms

Knowing the right betting terms is important for you to get the most out of your sports betting experience. And when you bet the point spread, there are a number of terms and phrases that you will hear and read.

Point Spread variations

To this point, we’ve focused on football and basketball because those are the sports that you will most often bet using a point spread. But technically speaking, you can bet on point spreads for baseball and hockey.

Baseball Run Line

The run line is almost always 1.5. And it’s important to know that the most common winning margin in baseball is just one run.

These lines don’t move, but instead, the odds of each team do. You might have the Dodgers facing the Marlins, with a run line of -1.5. A no-brainer, right? Take the Dodgers.

But unlike with a point spread that pays both sides an equal -110, a run line will pay different odds. The Dodgers -1.5 might only pay -190, where the Marlins at +1.5 could pay +175.

Hockey Puck Line

The puck line bet in hockey works the same way as the run line. The line is almost always 1.5 goals, and the difference between the two teams is made up with the odds that are paid. Taking the Capitals -1.5 against the Rangers might only play -150, where a bet on the Rangers at +1.5 could pay +135 on a winning bet.

It’s also worth knowing that often the team laying the 1.5 goals will come with the bigger payout.

Point Spread Strategies

Bookmakers are smart and good at their jobs, so use them to your advantage. They generally know more than the betting public, and the public tends to like the favorite. So if you are keen on betting on the underdog, wait. Let the public put their money on the favorite, giving you a more favorable point spread to bet.

If the point spread movement is early in the week, that is more likely to come from professional bettors who think they’ve found a line that is exploitable. By the time you notice the movement, it’s often too late for you to take advantage.

But if it’s not, seize the opportunity. And at the very least, it lets you know where the pros are putting their money so you can act accordingly.

Always line shop. This will require that you have an account at more than one sportsbook, but because of the different bonus offers that are available online, this is a good thing to do anyway. Having multiple accounts allows you to shop around for the best point spread on the game you want to wager.

Most sportsbooks get their odds and point spreads from a centralized source, and the differences in spreads are harder to find than they used to be. But they are still out there and can be found and then exploited. If you really like the Packers to cover a 3-point spread, you’ll like them even more if you can find a 2.5-point spread.

The margins on winning sports bets are small, so even tiny tilts in your favor can pay off huge in the end.

Don’t be afraid to double your bet. As we mentioned, once you place a wager on a point spread, that number is locked in. But let’s say you do bet the Packers at -3, and then the line moves to -2.5. That’s an even better point spread than the one you had before, so go ahead and bet it again. As long as you aren’t risking more than you can afford to lose, it’s a smart bet.

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What is the Spread?

If you are a golfer or have ever played on a bowling team, think of a point spread like a handicap. It is a way for two teams of differing abilities to play each other on equal footing.  The better team, and the favorite in the game, gives a certain amount …