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How to Sports Bet 101: What is a Point Spread?

Henry John

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When it comes to sports betting, the point spread is at the center of it all. One might call it the heart and soul of sports handicapping. Even those who are new to or unfamiliar with the betting side of sports have probably heard the term “point spread” tossed around at one point or another. If you are interested in getting involved in sports betting in any capacity, understanding the ins and outs of the point spread is vital. This article is a great place to start.

In the sections that follow, we will define what a point spread is, discuss how to bet on the spread for a game, elaborate on the importance of point spreads when it comes to handicapping, and provide a couple of real-life examples of shopping for the best point spread on a particular game.

How To Sports Bet 101: What Is A Point Spread?

Defining the Point Spread

While a full description of the point spread extends far beyond any general summation, the following offers a solid working definition of the concept:

“The point spread is a betting number made by oddsmakers that operates as a handicap between two opponents. Thus a bet made against the set point spread is a bet on the margin of victory between winner and loser in a sporting event.”

For new or inexperienced sports bettors, the definition above might perhaps be raising more questions than answers. Let’s break down the key points in greater detail.

Oddsmakers Determine the Point Spread

The point spread itself is a number created by oddsmakers, otherwise known as bookmakers. The oddsmakers determine what the point spread for a particular game or event will be just as they do the outright moneyline odds to win, the total, or any prop bet that you can think of.

Once the oddsmakers settle on a point spread and post it for action, the line is live for any and everyone to wager on. As stated in the definition, betting on the point spread means that one is betting on the margin of victory in the event. This runs contrary to moneyline wagers which are placed on the predicted outright winner of a sporting event.

Sports Betting’s Great Equalizer

Perhaps you have heard before that “the point spread is the great equalizer in sports betting.” This statement quite honestly could not be more accurate. While many sporting events are highly competitive, there are also plenty that feature unevenly matched opponents. The larger a team’s expected advantage is over their opponent, the larger the point spread will be for that particular game or event. Thus the point spread has the ability to bring even the most lopsided of handicaps in terms of power ratings onto an even playing field for bettors.

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How to Bet on the Point Spread

When it comes to betting on a point spread, bettors will have the choice of backing the “favorite” or the “underdog.” In sports betting, a favorite is the team (or individual) who is perceived to be stronger and have the advantage in a particular matchup. The underdog is the team (or individual) who is perceived to be worse and is expected to have a tougher time in the matchup. Given that we already know the point spread is a bet on the margin of victory in a game or event, we can fit in the favorite and underdog terms accordingly.

Betting on a Favorite Against the Spread

Recall again that the point spread serves as the equalizer between two teams, regardless of the disparity that exists between their power ratings. Thus the favorite in a sporting event will be “giving points” on the spread. Since the favorite is the side that is ultimately expected to emerge from a game victorious, the number of points that they are “giving” on the point spread is identical to what oddsmakers believe will be the margin of victory. For a point spread bet on the favorite to be deemed a winner, the favorite must win the game/event by a margin that exceeds the spread itself.

Betting on an Underdog Against the Spread

The same concepts apply when considering a point spread bet placed on an underdog, only in reverse. The same number of points that a favorite is “giving” in a particular matchup marks the total points that the underdog is “catching.” Common phrases that one might hear in the sports betting industry include “We’ll take Team A plus the points,” or “I like Team B catching seven,” etc. Both phrases reference betting on a point spread underdog.

For a point spread bet on the underdog to be graded a winner, one of two things must occur. Either the underdog must “cover the spread,” i.e., lose the game by a smaller margin than the number set by oddsmakers, or the underdog must pull off an upset and win the game outright over the favorite.

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Example of Point Spread Betting

In this section, the goal is to apply the concepts discussed above to an actual point spread betting venture. For this example, refer to the image below which depicts the betting odds and point spread for an NFL game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs.

Sports betting bets bet how to bet point spread against the spread picks how to win money sports betting odds lines predictions NFL NBA MLB

As seen in the image, the point spread for this Raiders vs. Chiefs NFL matchup is 9.5. Bettors can easily identify which team is the favorite and which is the underdog in a matchup by noting the accompanying sign along with the listed spread for each team. A minus (-) sign always denotes the favorite while a plus (+) sign always signifies the underdog.

In the sample matchup above, oddsmakers have declared the Raiders an underdog of +9.5 points. On the contrary, the Chiefs are -9.5-point favorites. Therefore, a point spread bet on Las Vegas would require either the Raiders to lose by nine points or less OR win the game outright to cash. Meanwhile, a point spread bet made on the Kansas City would require the Chiefs to win the game by 10 points or more in order to cash.

Reading the Odds

It is crucial for bettors to note the difference between the point spread and the actual betting odds on a game. The most important thing to remember is that the point spread itself is NOT a betting price. Just like moneyline odds on teams to win a game outright, there are also odds on all wagers against the spread. Let’s refer back to our example game between the Raiders and Chiefs to help clarify this point.

Notice in the image that there is a second number below the respective spread of 9.5 points in either direction. This represents the corresponding odds that bookmakers have given each team to cover the spread. Just like the spread itself, a minus (-) sign denotes betting odds with an implied probability of more than 50%. A plus (+) sign signifies betting odds that carry a 50% implied probability or worse. One can easily determine the implied probability of any sports betting odds by Googling a calculator.

In our example game, the corresponding odds for the Raiders to lose by nine points or less OR win the game are listed at -110. Thus oddsmakers give Las Vegas a 52.4% chance to cover the spread of 9.5 points. In a similar manner, we can compute the -109 odds given to the Chiefs laying 9.5 points. As the betting favorite, oddsmakers believe the Chiefs have a very strong chance to win the game outright. However, when put up against the great equalizer that is the point spread, Kansas City’s chances to win the game by 10 points or more are only 52.2%.

Addressing the “Flawed” Probability Calculation

Savvy readers undoubtedly picked up on the fact that in the Raiders – Chiefs example, oddsmakers have given both teams a probability chance of better than 50% to cover the spread. When one adds the combined probabilities of the Raiders covering and the Chiefs covering together, they yield a total probability of 104.6%. Given that it is mathematically impossible to have greater than a 100% total probability for a game or event, how can this be?

Well, although the point spread is deemed “The Great Equalizer,” anyone interested in betting on sports should know from the jump that the house always has an advantage over the players. So, yes, the point spread is technically the most equal sports wager one can make in an attempt to beat the oddsmakers and ultimately turn a profit. However, the sportsbooks have to pay the bills somehow, and one of the ways they do so is by raising the probability of the point spread on both sides via the accompanying odds.

Recall that odds signifying a 50% implied probability are denoted as “+100.” With both the Raiders and Chiefs having odds reflecting over a 50% chance that each covers the point spread, bettors are forced to pay slightly more than they would win to make the bet. It is almost like a luxury tax, if you will, to be able to face the house on an equal playing field.

While risking -110 on the Raiders in this example would only require betting $110 to win $100, that discrepancy can add up fast when a bunch of people bet on the same game. Even though the house will have to pay all bettors who have the winning side of the spread, they will accumulate extra money thanks to the “juice” (also known as “vig”) that was also laid by bettors on the losing side.

Why the Point Spread is Important

There are many reasons why the point spread carries such massive implications in the sports betting industry. Remember that oddsmakers carefully construct all point spreads unique to each individual game or event. The spread for a primetime NFL game is not correlated whatsoever with that for a mid-afternoon Ivy League basketball game or that for a UFC championship bout. Yes, even UFC fights have their own version of point spreads that you can bet on!

As a bettor, you must learn to evaluate a point spread and uncover anything that a certain line might be trying to tell you.

The Point Spread is the Handicap of All Handicaps

Going all the way back to our working definition, the point spread serves as a handicap for a specific sporting event. How bookmakers handicap two opponents against one another is extremely important for bettors to be aware of. While any and all astute sports bettors have their own version of power rankings and elements that they base their own handicapping off of, the only handicap that matters at the end of the day is that of the oddsmakers setting the lines.

For every bell and whistle that a sharp bettor may throw at their handicap for a big game, the house throws ten at that same game. Non-bettors who are sports fans have almost certainly at some point that “Vegas knows best.” Indeed, the oddsmakers behind the counter who set the point spread for a particular game emerge on the winning side in terms of profit far more often than not.

What Can the Point Spread Tell Us?

First and foremost, the point spread tells us the obvious of which team is the favorite and which is the underdog in a matchup. While some games may seem fairly obvious even before the spread comes out, for toss-ups between evenly matched opponents, the point spread makes the ultimate determination as to which side should be perceived as stronger and which as weaker.

Bettors also need to compare their own numbers and handicap for a game relative to the point spread set by oddsmakers. A large discrepancy might require some additional research and work on your part. Always assume that the house is right and double down on your own handicap before rushing out to bet on a game or event. If your numbers feel that a certain team is more likely to win an even matchup, but the point spread lists that team as a short underdog, make sure that you are not missing any player injury, weather scenario, or any other factor that might be baked into the line.

Point Spreads Do Not Stay Stagnant

Perhaps the most important thing that a point spread can tell bettors is based not on the initial number set by oddsmakers but on where the line moves from there. That is right, point spreads are not stagnant in nature. If you are new to sports betting, familiarizing yourself with the importance of monitoring line moves is paramount to your success. Anytime oddsmakers adjust a point spread, it is worth making note of. When the move is around or through a “key number” (key numbers vary by sport), the move is all the more noteworthy.

It should be said that oddsmakers do not just randomly decide to move a point spread on their own. In fact, it is the betting market as a whole that dictates where a spread may ultimately wind up before a game or event begins. What bookmakers are particularly interested in are the bets made by professional bettors, also known as “sharps.”

Line Moves Signify Sharp Betting Action

There is a common misperception out there that a sportsbook moves a line when an overwhelming amount of liability gets built up on one side. In actuality, a point spread can move counter to the side with liability built up if a sportsbook’s sharp customers are all firing in that direction.

Thus when a point spread moves, it is the result of a respected sharp bettor making a wager in the direction of the move. In order to try and align themselves on the right side, oddsmakers will adjust their own handicap (the point spread) to mirror the handicaps of sharp bettors.

While there are many other components to reading line moves in the sports betting market, they are not necessary to this basic discussion of point spread movement.

Examples of Finding the Best Point Spread Bets

After discussing how point spreads can move in the previous sections, it is worth diving into how you, the sports bettor, can ensure that you get the most potential bang for your buck on every wager. While you cannot bet a point spread that has already moved at its original number, there is a way to potentially work around the pesky game of line movement. However, just because one sportsbook might have moved a point spread as a result of taking sharp bets on one side, that does not necessarily mean that all other books have seen the same flow of sharp action. Timing is key, and having access to multiple sportsbooks will give you an increased likelihood of maximizing your betting value.

Shop Point Spread Betting Lines with OddsShopper

If you are trying to jump from app to app when tracking a point spread on the move, you are engaging in a headache waiting to happen. There is an easier way to track line moves and find the best betting odds in real-time. That is precisely where OddsShopper comes into play.

Let OddsShopper Find the Best Point Spread for You

With OddsShopper, obtaining the best value on your point spread betting picks is quick and easy. This helpful tool offers users multiple ways to keep track of the lines across all major U.S. sportsbooks. The easiest way to find a desired point spread at the optimal line and odds is to simply filter the selections and let the tool bring you right to the best value.

See the GIF below for an example of this odds shopping process in action for the same Raiders vs. Chiefs example we used above.

Sports betting bets bet how to bet point spread against the spread picks how to win money sports betting odds lines predictions NFL NBA MLB

The process works exactly the same for betting on NBA point spreads. Below is another GIF showing OddsShopper in action for a basketball game between the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs.

Sports betting bets bet how to bet point spread against the spread picks how to win money sports betting odds lines predictions NFL NBA MLB

Manually Compare Point Spreads Side-by-Side Through OddsShopper

While the most efficient way to use OddsShopper is through the “Shop” feature above, bettors also have the option to manually shop the odds on the tool’s “Compare” pages. Instead of simply filtering selections and letting OddsShopper direct you to the best point spread and odds, the “Compare” feature allows users to manually locate the best line across all sportsbooks in their home state.

The tool will list out the point spreads and odds offered at the various sportsbooks in a side-by-side manner. It also highlights the best number and/or odds to make the process even easier. The image below shows is taken directly from the tool and shows the point spread odds comparison for the same Raiders vs. Chiefs NFL game.

Sports betting bets bet how to bet point spread against the spread picks how to win money sports betting odds lines predictions NFL NBA MLB

Users can also sort the “Compare” pages by state, game, team, and type of bet. Refer to the GIF below for an example of what this process would look like for the aforementioned Nuggets vs. Spurs NBA game.

Key Points

When it comes to sports betting, the point spread is one of the most important terms to know. In summary:

  • The point spread is the oddsmakers’ handicap of a sporting game or event that sets the standard for all bettors to follow.
  • The point spread denotes which team is the favorite in a particular matchup and which is the underdog.
  • Point spreads are sports betting’s great equalizer.
  • A bet on the point spread is a bet on the final margin of victory in a game/event.
  • A favorite will only cover the spread if they win the game by a margin greater than the number.
  • An underdog will cover the spread if they either lose by a margin less than the number OR if they win the game outright.
  • The point spread itself should not be confused with the betting odds.
  • Sharp betting action can cause a point spread and/or its accompanying odds to move.
  • The OddsShopper Tool offers users multiple ways to compare point spreads across sportsbooks and find the best lines and value.

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