What is Spread Betting? Everything you need to know
Understanding the spread and how to approach an against-the-spread wager is an integral part of sports betting.
If you watch sports regularly you have likely heard betting terminology thrown around by broadcasters with a little more frequency over the last couple of years. Terms like the favorite, underdog, moneyline, parlay, and even over/under all have seen an uptick in usage since gambling became legal in the United States.
What is the spread in sports betting?
One term you have likely also heard more of recently is “the spread”. The spread is a concept used in sports betting that refers to artificial handicaps made by sportsbooks in an attempt to even out a matchup between opponents. Spreads are essentially oddsmakers giving their bettors an estimate of what the margin of victory or defeat will be in a game.
In the above example, the Philadelphia Eagles are favored on the moneyline (-125) and are therefore expected to win the game – or projected to have a higher probability of winning the game. This is all reflected in the spread where they are being given a -1.5 handicap to indicate their status as favorite, and the side more likely to win.
The Kansas City Chiefs, conversely, are the underdogs, and their spread is set in positive points (+1.5). As the underdog, the Chiefs are expected to lose the game – or at least project with a higher probability of losing. This is also reflected in their spread where their handicap is giving them an extra +1.5 points, indicating their status as the underdog and the side less likely to win.
What is covering the spread in sports betting?
Covering the spread is when your team covers or beats the handicap that has been assigned to it.
Closing Spread: Philadelphia Eagles (-1.5) vs Kansas City Chiefs (+1.5)
Example A: Eagles win 27-26
- Eagles money line bets would win (as the Eagles won the game)
- Eagles spread bets would lose as they failed to cover the -1.5 spread (failed to win by 2.0 points or more)
- Kansas City Chiefs moneyline bets would lose as they failed to win the game
- Chiefs spread bets would win as they covered the +1.5 spread (were able to lose by less than 2.0 points)
Example B: Philadelphia Eagles win 30-27
- Eagles moneyline and spread bets would win (as the Eagles won and won by 2.0 points or more)
- Kansas City Chiefs moneyline and spread bets would lose (as they lost the game and lost by more than 1.0 points)
One important thing to remember about reading spread bets is that the larger a spread gets between two teams, the more bookmakers consider the game to be a potential mismatch. So a -1.5/+1.5 spread indicates that a game or match is projected to be a close affair, with it potentially coming down to the final score or drive.
However, a larger -7.5/+7.5 spread would indicate the sportsbook considers the game to be a much larger mismatch, with more blowout potential.
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Why do spreads change?
Spreads on games are dynamic. Once online sportsbooks release a spread on a game or match the line on that game can move in either direction up until the game starts.
In Super Bowl 57, the Eagles opened at many books as underdogs on the point spread but quickly moved to -2.5 favorites. After two weeks they settled around -1.5 favorites at kickoff.
Spreads in games change for multiple reasons. The first and foremost reason for a spread to change is when lopsided action comes in on one side of a game or match. Bookmakers often desire a balanced wagering environment where both sides of a game have equal amounts of bets and handle. This allows them to profit no matter the outcome. When one side of an against the spread bet gets too much action, oddsmakers often adjust the spread to make the side with less action more desirable.
Spreads can also change as a direct reaction to breaking news. If an NFL team suddenly lists their starting quarterback as questionable or doubtful, then the sportsbook will adjust the spread to indicate the changing dynamics of the game environment. Different players or news will have different impacts on the spread. A high-profile quarterback being ruled out may cause the lines to shift by 3.0 points or more.
In 2019 when Drew Brees was ruled out for Week 2 and backup Teddy Bridgewater took over, the spread in that game shifted from the Saints being +1.0 underdogs (pre-Brees news) to the Saints ultimately kicking off as +5.0 underdogs. Hence the bookmakers ended up valuing the switch from Brees to Bridgewater at about 4.0 points on the handicap or spread.
Understanding how the spread reacts to this kind of news can be profitable. In the above example, the 4.0-point move was clearly an overreaction as Bridgewater was a very capable backup. The Saints not only beat the Seahawks but went on to win five games in a row with Bridgewater at the helm.
Why do sportsbooks offer point spreads?
The spread is a tool that helps online sportsbooks ensure they get equal action on both sides of a matchup – allowing them to profit from the vigorish or juice they charge regardless of which team wins or covers. When a team gets too much action, the sportsbook can quickly lower or raise the spread to make the other side more attractive and balance out their handle.
You can also use the moneyline betting odds to calculate implied probability and see the amount of vig a sportsbook is charging.
As mentioned above, the spread is also used as a handicap that estimates what sportsbooks think the average margin of victory or defeat will be, and puts each team on equal terms from a betting perspective. This then allows sportsbooks to open up a completely new betting market (against-the-spread bets) that can be featured alongside traditional moneyline bets.
Against the spread betting levels the matchup and the betting odds – regardless of who is playing. It also gives bettors who want to bet a side a different set of options from the moneyline odds.
As we can see, the spread odds (-4.5 at -110) from Super Bowl 56 allowed bettors who wanted to get action on the Rams an alternative to simply betting them on the moneyline, where they had very short -200 odds.
The Rams' moneyline from this game would have paid as follows.
$100.00 Moneyline bet on Rams: $100.00 x -200 = $50.00 win and $150.00 payout
The shorter moneyline odds will often be appealing to some, but for those who wanted longer odds – and were confident that the Rams could both win and cover a small spread – the -4.5 spread bet from that game provided them with a better option.
A Rams spread bet from that game would have paid as follows.
$100.00 Spread (-4.5) bet on Rams: $100.00 x -110 = $90.00 win and $190.00 payout.
Conversely, for those who liked the underdog Bengals in the same game, but wanted a little insurance to work with, the +4.5 spread also gave them another option to consider and a scenario where the Bengals didn’t even have to win the game for them to win their bet.
Hence, the spread allows sportsbooks to offer bettors a way to bet either side of a game, at relatively even or pick’em odds, regardless of what side they choose.
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How to read a point spread bet
Betting the spread is most commonly referred to as betting “against the spread”. This is because bettors are no longer playing for their team to win the game or match, but instead betting on them to cover (or defeat) the handicap instead. In order to understand spread bets it’s important to ensure you also understand how the bets work and the terminology that comes with them.
This is the handicap that the sportsbooks introduce to even the playing field between two teams. The spread is essentially the sportsbooks indicating to their bettors what they think the average or estimated margin of victory/defeat will be in a game.
The handicap gives each side a certain spread to cover. One side (the underdog) is given points as a cushion, meaning they can still lose the game and cover the spread. The other side (the favorite) is given extra points for them to cover meaning they can win the game and still fail to cover the spread.
The favorite is the side more likely to win the game. In a spread bet, the favorites are indicated by having a negative spread line (e.g. -1.5, -3.5, -7.5, etc). These lines indicate extra points that the favorite must cover or WIN by in order to cover its spread.
Example: Team A is a -3.5 favorite. Team A must therefore win the game by 4.0 points or more to cover its spread.
The favorite in an against-the-spread bet is always being placed at a disadvantage by the spread (given extra points to cover) since they are considered more likely to win the game straight up.
The underdog is the team with the lesser chance of winning the game outright. In a spread bet, the underdog is indicated by having a positive spread line (e.g. +1.5, +3.5, +7.5 etc). These lines indicate the extra points being given to the underdog. In a spread bet, the underdog must either win the game outright or lose WITHIN the given handicap to cover the spread.
Example: Team B is a +3.5 favorite. Team B must therefore either win the game or lose by 3.0 points or less to cover its spread.
The underdog in an against-the-spread bet is always being given an advantage by the spread (being given extra points to lose by) since they are considered less likely to win the game, straight up.
The hook refers to the half-point (0.5 points) that is added to the end of handicaps in spread bets. Since no games can end in 0.5 totals, the hook ensures that there are no ties or pushes that will cause a bet to go ungraded or void.
Spreads don’t always come with a hook and you will often see lines without the half-point (e.g. 3.0, 4.0, 7.0) in NFL games, specifically. If a game with a -3.0/+3.0 spread ends with a three-point differential (e.g. 30-27) any spread bets posted on a -3.0/+3.0 line would be graded as void or a push.
The juice or vig
As mentioned above, the goal of most sportsbooks is to have even action on both sides of a game so they can profit, regardless of the outcome. They profit because of the vigorish or vig they charge on a bet. The vig is essentially the built-in cost the sportsbooks place into a betting line. On a spread bet, the vig is indicated by the fact both teams are available at negative odds (usually -110), instead of even or pick’em odds (+100).
While betting odds of even (+100) would allow us to profit $100.00 off a $100.00 wager, the vig built into -110 odds means we must wager $110 in order to get back $100.00 in profit.
What sports have point spreads?
Most sports use point spreads in some capacity. For some, the point spread is the main way the public goes about betting on the sport. Below we review spread betting and how it works across the major sports.
NFL point spread betting
Point spread betting in the NFL is one of the most popular betting markets in the world. NFL spread betting markets fluctuate greatly depending on the teams involved and you will often see spreads in excess of 10.0 points or more later in the season as more teams fall off and become less relevant in the playoff race.
NBA point spread betting
NBA point spreads work in much the same way NFL point spreads do. Spreads can and do fluctuate based on the teams involved and will get into much higher numbers late in the season as “tanking” occurs and star players get ruled out with more frequency. The NBA has also recently become a very big “breaking news” league of late, whereby star players get ruled out at the last minute many nights and push spread lines in one direction or another quickly.
MLB point spread betting
Spreads in baseball are often referred to as runlines. They are typically available at -1.5/+1.5 per side and will rarely move past that number just due to the nature of the sport.
In order to cover a -1.5 runline a team must win by two runs or more. Conversely, a team with a +1.5 runline only needs to win or lose by one run to cover and pay off for bettors.
NHL point spread betting
NHL spread bets are referred to as pucklines and, like baseball, are typically available at -1.5/+1.5, with odds that will fluctuate depending on the matchup.
In order to cover a -1.5 puckline a team must win by two goals or more. Conversely, a team with a +1.5 puckline only needs to lose by one goal to cover and pay off for bettors.
Props and other sports
Spreads are used widely across almost every sport in some way, shape or form. Tennis often implements game spreads, where the favorite must not only win the match but win a specific number of games or sets than his opponent in order to cover.
Player props also use spreads on a nightly basis. In a prop bet, players are essentially assigned a spread from a specific statistical category (e.g. rebounds in basketball, receptions in football) and then it is up to the bettor to determine whether or not the player will cover that handicap.
Just like the game spread examples from above, the prop spread is an indication of how the sportsbook thinks the player will perform.
Looking at the lines from above, it is clear that Jaylen Brown and Al Horford were expected to have decent nights rebounding with a 6.5 rebounding prop. However, we can also see that BetMGM expected Jayson Tatum to be much busier on the glass given his 9.5 rebounding prop was 3.0 points higher than his teammates.
Sports betting strategies for betting against the spread
Just like any other form of betting, spread betting can be profitable. The main reason you would make a spread bet is that you believe there is good value on the betting line available on a specific side. There are also other strategies you can employ when betting spreads to increase your chance of long-term success.
In some sports, certain margins of victory will occur more often than others. This means that when the spread gets to a certain point and lands on a key number it will often make for a good opportunity to take one side over the other.
The best and most widely used example of key numbers in spread betting comes from football and NFL betting. Since there are only so many ways to score in NFL games – with the most common, by far, being touchdowns and field goals – matches tend to end with specific margins of victory on a regular basis.
A three-point margin of victory tends to be the most common margin of victory we see in the NFL, with seven, 10, and six also being key and commonly occurring numbers. This makes spreads of -2.5, -6.5 and -9.5 good numbers to have when betting favorites. Additionally, this tendency from the NFL also makes +3.5, +7.5 and +10.5 good spread numbers for betting on underdogs.
Key numbers are also very important when betting teasers, which is a form of parlay betting that involves spreads.
Line shopping is one of the simplest and most straightforward practices you can implement to make yourself a more efficient spread bettor. It is essentially just the practice of looking for the best odds and lines available – across multiple sportsbooks.
The most important factor in line shopping is having access to multiple sportsbooks (DraftKings, BetMGM, Fanduel, etc) that will regularly give out different odds and spreads on the same games. Once you have access to multiple books you can then compare and contrast what is being offered on certain matches to find the best deal.
Sportsbook A: Giants +7.5 (-120)
Sportsbook B: Giants +7.5 (-110)
With sports betting, line shopping is important because every small tick up or down in the odds impacts our overall return on investment or ROI. In the above example, line shopping across two different sportsbooks allows us to get better odds on the exact same Giants spread bet, than if we just limited ourselves to the odds from Sportsbook A. Using Sportsbook B’s odds we can an extra .10 points worth of value and an extra $10 return on a $100 wager.
Sportsbook A: Giants +7.5 (-120) – return on $100.00 wager = $80.00
Sportsbook B: Giants +7.5 (-110) – return on $100.00 wager = $90.00
Line shopping is even more vital for spread betting as with spreads we have to consider both the different odds AND the different spreads being offered by the sportsbooks.
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Sometimes different sportsbooks will have different spreads available, at the same odds, on the same game. This will always make one sportsbook much more attractive than another – especially if it involves the spread passing through a key number (e.g. +2.5 vs +3.5).
You can use our odds calculator to make informed decisions about which line will provide the better ROI for your spread bets.
Middling is a common practice in sports betting that involves betting both sides of the spread in a game and having a chance at having both your bets result as winners. Middling is similar to arbitrage betting but can only be used in spread betting, and is most commonly seen or used in NFL or NBA betting circles where injury news can move spreads significantly before kickoff/tipoff.
Middling can be employed when you place a spread bet on a game and then the spread or line moves in your favor prior to tipoff.
Bet 1 - Eagles +2.5 (made on open when the line was Chiefs -2.5/Eagles +2.5)
The line then moves to Eagles -1.5/Chiefs +1.5 before kickoff. We place our second bet, this time on the Chiefs at +1.5.
Bet 2 - Chiefs +1.5 (made prior to kickoff when the line was Eagles -1.5/Chiefs +1.5)
We now have two bets (Eagles +2.5 and Chiefs +1.5) and have created a middling opportunity whereby we will win both bets if the game ends with either a Chiefs win of 2.0 points or less, or an Eagles win by 1.0 point.
Middling with spreads essentially has three different outcomes:
- Both your bets win (in the above example that would mean a Chiefs win of 2.0 points or less, or an Eagles win by 1.0 point)
- One bet wins and the other loses
- One side pushes (lands on the number – only happens when the spread is at .0) and the other side wins
Middling can be a useful strategy and is often best employed when there is a lot of line movement in the spread (in your favor). Live betting can also be very useful when attempting a middle as lines move aggressively once a game starts and you will often get good opportunities to middle off your initial bet if your team starts well.
It’s also important to understand the odds you are getting when middling as betting both sides of a game also means you are paying vig on two bets instead of one.
Most sportsbooks now offer bettors more than one spread to choose from for a game.
These kinds of alternate spread markets open up numerous opportunities for bettors. While the main spread on a game will generally have odds of -110 (or close to that) on both teams, alternate spreads have far less balanced odds.
As we can see above, the main spread (-3.5/+3.5) is offered at -110 on either side but once the spread numbers start to change, the odds become increasingly less balanced.
Alternate spreads can be useful if employing strategies like ladder betting, teaser strategies or when you’re creating a same game parlay – and trying to correlate a lopsided win with a player prop. However, it’s also important to understand that betting alternate spreads is essentially like buying points from a sportsbook and can hurt your overall return.