What Is Point Spread Betting?

As sports betting continues to go mainstream, we have all witnessed several interesting developments. For example, it wasn’t that long ago when references to point spreads during game broadcasts were only be made with a wink or nod.

These days, there are open discussions about spreads all over the airwaves. From favorites and underdogs to which sides might cover, it’s all out there. There’s a reason for that: Point spread betting is one of the biggest drivers of betting at legal sportsbooks.

Now that regulated sports betting is official here in Illinois, and now more fans will understand the reference. So, what do you need to know about point spread betting? Read on as we explore this fascinating wager in detail.

Point spread bets explained

In its simplest form, sports betting is about picking winners and losers, such as a moneyline bet. In that market, there can be clear favorites and underdogs reflected in the odds. And there are plenty of times in which there’s not much value on the favored side.

So, what’s a point spread bet? Oddsmakers will install what’s known as a “point spread” to level the field between the two teams. The spread is basically an estimated margin of victory, i.e., the points difference between the two teams. You can still choose between the favorite and underdog, but the choice includes additional factors.

You can wager on the favorite minus the points with the underdog plus the spread. Whichever side you choose, the spread has to be covered for the bet to be a winner. So, how does the spread get covered? Let’s take a look.

How do teams cover the spread?

To illustrate, we’ll work through what a spread might look like for an NFL game. In the default game listing for this fictitious matchup, you’ll see the spread listed as one of the main bet types:

Minnesota Vikings +2.5 (-110)
Chicago Bears -2.5 (-110)

Next to the two teams are a pair of numbers. The first is the amount of the spread, while the number in parentheses is the odds attached to the bet. For this example, the Bears are favored by 2.5 points, which we can tell due to the negative number.

If you bet on the Bears, they need to win the game by a margin greater than 2.5 points. A 30-27 win for the Bears would work fine, but 21-20 in favor of Chicago wouldn’t. If you bet on the Vikings, you’re looking for them to lose by fewer than 2.5 points or to win outright.

In that case, we can flip the scores from our example. A 21-20 loss for the Vikings means they have covered the spread, but they fail to do so in a 30-27 loss. A Vikings win also means they would cover.

Are spreads used for all sports?

Pretty much. The point spread is one of the most popular items on the sportsbook wagering menu. While it’s mostly known for use with team-based sports such as the NFL and NBA, you’ll find variations of it elsewhere.

MLB and the NHL use something similar to a spread that we’ll cover in a bit. You’ll even find spreads available for head-to-head matches in golf and tennis. Wherever you see a spread bet, the concept is typically the same: The side you choose must cover the number.

How to place a point spread bet in Illinois

Sportsbook apps and websites make it easy to place bets on the point spread. As mentioned, it’ll be one of the default betting choices on an average game.

Orlando Magic +1.5 (-110)+115   O 209.5 (-110)
Chicago Bulls       -1.5 (-110)-105 U 209.5 (-110)

There are three sets of numbers next to each team, which represent the main bet types: point spread, moneyline and total. For this contest, the Bulls are slight 1.5-point favorites over the Magic.

To place a bet on the spread, you have to click the box that corresponds with your choice. If you want the Bulls -1.5, click there and the bet will be automatically go to your bet slip. Next, enter your wager amount, verify that everything looks good, click the submit button and you’re all set.

How do point spread betting odds work?

The majority of online and mobile sportsbooks use a baseline of -110 for point spread bets. After the initial release at that number, you may see some movement here and there. We’ll explain why that happens in a bit.

Odds of -110 tell you that you would have to wager $110 to receive a profit of $100 on winning bets. So, why can’t it just be an even return of $100 for $100? That’s thanks to the “vig,” which is the operator’s fee for facilitating the bet.

Also known as “juice,” this is a big part of how sportsbooks make their money. If they were merely trading dollars for dollars, there wouldn’t be any profit. It can help to think of the vig as the commission you have to pay to place your bets.

Upon the initial release, the odds for both sides of a point spread are usually in the same spot. Once the betting public gets their chance to weigh in, the numbers may move. There could also be some ticks of difference in the spread itself as game time approaches.

Why do point spreads move?

Betting markets do not stand still. Once the odds are released to the public, people will begin to bet on them. For wagers with two choices, one side could see much more of the early action over the other side. When this happens, the operator has a liability on its hands.

Sportsbooks would rather not be in this position. They’ll tweak the numbers in a bid to even things out more. For example, one side of a point spread bet may see the odds reduced to -105 while the number is raised to -115 on the other side.

If that doesn’t help to even out the action, additional adjustments may take place. Additionally, you can also see spreads move by a half-point or more as operators look for the right mix. Therefore, shopping around for the best prices is always a good idea.

As a quick example, PointsBet in Illinois could have odds of -112 on the side, and you want to bet on it. After looking around, you find BetRivers at -108 on the same side. While this seemingly small difference may not look like much, it can certainly add up.

How much does a spread bet pay?

Since a standard point spread bet will list at odds of -110, the return is predictable. For every $100 you wager at odds of -110, you could win $90.90. Of course, the odds won’t always be exactly there for each spread bet that you place.

Once you have your bet on the slip at a sportsbook, the operator will display the return based on your wager amount. You can also use an online handicapping calculator to do the math when you’re researching lines.

For those who prefer to figure it out themselves, there are formulas you can use based on the odds at IL sportsbooks:

  • Negative odds: wager amount/(odds/-100) = return
  • Positive odds: wager amount * (odds/100) = return

Illinois sportsbook rules for spread betting

Each online sportsbook and sports betting app has its own set of house rules. There are also standard practices across the industry, but each operator may use its discretion in certain situations. Here are the basics on point spread betting:

  • When you place a spread bet, the wager is based on the number at the time you wager. The spread may move afterward, but your bet is locked in on the number at the time of placement.
  • Games postponed or delayed due to weather, etc., may remain as live bets if completed within a reasonable timeframe/ However, the wager could be canceled at the operator’s discretion, with all bets considered void and refunded.
  • The official league data will determine the settlement. The final tally is what sportsbooks use for spread betting purposes.
  • If you bet on a spread at a whole number — such as three points — and the final result lands exactly on that digit — i.e., 30-27 — then the wager is considered a “push.” The book will refund your bet as it’s essentially a tie.

Those are the core rules you need to understand; however, we must emphasize that some unexpected circumstances may arise here and there. For details on how the sportsbooks you’re using will handle such situations, review the house rules or terms and conditions.

Point spread betting examples

At first glance, point spread betting can seem a little confusing; let’s walk through some additional examples so you can understand it further.

NFL point spread betting

The point spread is one of the most popular types of wagers for the NFL. Each game on the docket will attract a high volume of bets. Here’s a fictional NFL point spread example:

Green Bay Packers +3.5 (-110)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -3.5 (-110)

For this matchup, the Buccaneers are 3.5-point favorites. If Tampa Bay wins by a score of 31-27, the game then covers the spread. A shift of one point to a score of 30-27 means that it hasn’t.

The Green Bay Packers cover the spread by keeping the margin of victory to three points or fewer or by winning the game outright. Since the odds are the same on both sides of our example, bettors will receive a profit of $90.90 on winning $100 bets, regardless of the side they choose.

NBA point spread betting

Point spread betting on basketball is also popular. We recommend shopping around for the best NBA prices as the numbers can move quite a bit from release to tipoff. Here’s an NBA point spread you might see:

Philadelphia 76ers +4.5 (-108)
Boston Celtics -4.5 (-112)

The Celtics have a 4.5-point advantage over the 76ers, according to the oddsmakers, so they need to win the game by five points or more to cover. A final of 105-100 works, but a score of 100-96 does not.

If the 76ers can keep the game margin at four points or fewer — or win — then they’ve covered the spread. A $100 winning bet at odds of -108 returns $92.60, while the same bet amount at -112 will bring back $89.30.

MLB point spread betting

MLB uses an equivalent of the point spread that is known as the run line. Unlike spreads, which can be all over the map, books use a standard number for MLB games. Here’s an example:

Minnesota Twins +1.5 (+110)
Chicago White Sox -1.5 (-130)

There are also alternative run lines available at many books, but the 1.5-run bet is what you’ll find in a standard game listing. The White Sox have to win the game by two runs or more to cover. A Sox victory of one run means the Twins cover.

Minnesota also can cover by winning the game. Keep a close eye on the odds for run line bets. You can find some good value opportunities out there, but MLB market action can have a big impact on both sides of the equation.

NHL point spread betting

The NHL is similar to MLB for this wager type. Its version of the spread is known as a goal line, also set at a standard number. Here’s an NHL point spread example:

Detroit Red Wings +1.5 (+105)
Chicago Blackhawks -1.5 (-120)

NHL betting odds will move on both sides, so shopping around is always a good idea. Some operators will also offer alternative goal lines, which can be interesting to explore if you have a really good feel for a matchup.

For this game, the Blackhawks are favored by 1.5 goals, so they need to win by two or more, such as a 5-3 victory. The Red Wings can cover by winning or by forcing a tight game, such as a 3-2 Blackhawks win.

College football point spread betting

There can be many paper mismatches in the world of college football, with big programs facing off against smaller schools. The point spread makes things a bit more interesting. Here’s an example:

Wake Forest +20.5 (-110)
Notre Dame -20.5 (-110)

The Fighting Irish are favored by a whopping 20.5 points, so they’ll need a big win of 21 points or more to cover. If it’s a Notre Dame blowout to the tune of 49-17, then bettors on that side have a winning ticket.

Wake Forest bettors hope that the team can keep the game closer than that to a margin of 20 points or fewer. When betting on NCAA football, it’s always good to look at the opening lines and how far they’ve moved since then for some clues on bettor sentiment.

College basketball point spread betting

The spread is popular for college basketball betting from the regular season through to March Madness. Spreads can be all over the map, from tight games to potential blowouts. Let’s try out this fictional example:

In this meeting of Illinois programs, Northwestern is favored by just 1.5 points, needing to win by two or more to cover, such as with a 70-68 victory. DePaul covers with a one-point loss or by winning the game outright.

During the regular season, many marquee games will see lots of betting action, while lower-profile matchups may not see as much. By the time the tournament rolls around, each game on the docket will bring plenty of folks to the window.

MLS point spread betting

Soccer uses a goal line. The sport is inherently low-scoring, and ties can be a factor. For MLS games, that translates into really low numbers to consider, like this example:

New York Red Bulls +0.5 (-110)
Chicago Fire             -0.5 (-110)

To cover the goal line, the Chicago Fire would only need to win the game by a single goal. If the Red Bulls force a tie or win, that side covers. For soccer betting, carefully scan the different bet types, as there are often three-way outcomes in which ties are included as an option.

Other sports that use spreads

While spreads are most commonly associated with team-based sports, you can find them elsewhere. For example, a tennis match will have a spread based on the margin of games or sets in a match.

Petra Kvitova +4.5 games (-110)
Ashleigh Barty -4.5 games (-110)

For this wager, you have to determine if Ashleigh Barty will win the match by five games or more or if Petra Kvitova will keep it closer than that.

There are also golf spreads. For each PGA Tour stop, books will pair up golfers in head-to-head matchups with a spread element on some bet types. You’ll also find spread betting available in other sports, such as cricket and rugby.

How to handicap point spread bets

It can take some time to get up to speed on handicapping point spreads. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent resources that you can dive into online as you work toward building out your strategy. Here are some tips you can use to get started:

  • Study the Numbers: When you’re betting the spread, remember that you are wagering on specific numbers. If your research doesn’t justify giving or taking that number of points, then pass on the game. Also, keep in mind that shopping around can point you to numbers that are more to your liking for a specific game.
  • Understand What Impacts the Score: There are tons of stats to consider when betting on sports, but many of them won’t necessarily impact the outcome. Basics include points for and against, as will metrics like turnovers or injuries to key players. Spend your time on what matters and learn how to filter out the noise.
  • Watch the Line Movement: The odds board can reveal a whole lot beyond which side is favored to win or lose. As the numbers move, you can zero in on which way the public money is flowing. Some sites track public betting percentages, so add that to your repertoire and factor it into your thinking.

Getting on the right track with point spread betting can lead to success before too long, but there are also some potential pitfalls. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Don’t Bet on Every Game: The theory is that when you win more than you lose, you’ll come out ahead. Instead, take a targeted approach while working toward increasing your overall winning percentage.
  • Don’t Chase Bad Beats: Failing to cover a spread by a single point — because of a missed kick, blown free throw, etc. — can be frustrating. It happens, and you’re going to have to learn how to take it in stride. If you chase that loss with a vengeance or double down in a bid to get even, you may be in for a very rude awakening.
  • Don’t Try to Wing It:” Learning how to consistently beat the spread takes effort, practice and patience. You may find some short spurts of success by winging it, but it won’t be of the long-term variety. If you’re looking to make sports betting a hobby, then you have to spend some time building your skills.

What to remember about point spread betting 

The point spread bet is one of the major wager types for team-based sports, along with the moneyline and totals. Oddsmakers set the number, which is essentially an estimated margin of victory, and bettors then get to pick sides.

You can choose the favorite minus the points or the underdog plus the number. Whichever side you choose has to cover the spread for the bet to be a winner. Point spread betting can be tricky for those new to the game, but those who put in the effort can overcome the learning curve.

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