How Does The Point Spread Work & What Does It Mean

When it comes to betting on the NFL, NBA, College football and basketball or any other sport with a line based on points or equivalent, it is vital that any bettor possesses a solid understanding of that sport’s point spread to find success.

What Is A Point Spread?

The function of a point spread is essentially a handicap (a number) placed on one team for betting purposes, designed to give the underdog in any game an equal chance at winning when the point spread is considered. These betting lines are set by Bookmakers in the hope of splitting the amount of bets on a game evenly. A point spread is used in sports where point differentials can be significant on the scoreboard. The spread can also be used in bets like Parlays or Teasers.

Point Spread Example

What Is Point Spread Betting?

When betting the point spread you have two options. You can either bet the favorite, meaning taking the team that is favored and will have a “-” minus sign in front of the number (point spread). The other options is bet the underdog, meaning you are taking the team not expected to win and getting the points, having a “+” plus sign in front of their number (point spread). For more on what Betting Against The Spread is click here.

How Does The Point Spread Work?

When two teams meet on the field or on court, one team is typically better than the other. If all sports bettors had to do was to pick the winning team in a game, they’d all simply wager on the better team and collect their winnings more often than not.

Example Of What Does A Spread Of -2.5 Mean

Using an example from the NFL season, the Detroit Lions were hosting the Chicago Bears. There was little doubt that Detroit was the better of the two teams; all anyone had to do was look at their records. Detroit was 9-8 on the season, while Chicago was just 3-14. The Lions had already beaten the Bears earlier in the season. So, if all you had to do was pick the winning team, nearly every bettor would have taken the Lions. Instead, the online sportsbooks established a point spread to make both teams equally attractive in the eyes of bettors.

In this case, the Lions were installed as a 2.5-point favorite, commonly designated as Detroit Lions -2.5. The Bears, the underdogs, were written as Chicago Bears +2.5.

If betting the favorite in this example, the Lions had to win by 3 points or more in order for you to cash your bet. Since the Lions were favored by 2.5 points, you subtracted 2.5 points from their final scoring total for betting purposes. If Lions were to win 24-21, a 3 point margin, Lions bettors would win their wager. Alternatively, if the Lions were to win 21-20, a 1 point margin, Lions bettors would lose, because the Lions didn’t win by more than 3.

If you bet the underdog, the Chicago Bears, you won your bet if Chicago won the game outright or if they lost by 2 points or fewer. Because the Bears were the 2.5 point underdogs, simply add 2.5 points to their final score for betting purposes.

If the a hypothetical spread 3 points and the Lions won the game by exactly 3 points, 23-20, the result would have been a tie or a push. In this case no money would’ve changed hands.

Does Betting On The Point Spread Include Overtime?

Yes the point spread includes everything that happens in overtime! Point spread betting is based on the final score of the game.

How Is The Point Spread Made?

A number of sports gamblers, both beginners and veterans, fail to understand the true meaning of the point spread and the thought process that goes into determining the figure for each game. The point spread is not necessarily designed to be a true representation of how much better one team is than the other. Instead, it is designed to attract an equal amount of wagers on both teams. If betting action is even on both sides, sportsbooks are guaranteed a profit regardless of which team covers the spread. For more on this check out our in-depth look at how sports betting odds work.

You may hear that the point spread is designed to create a case where half the gamblers bet on one team and the other half bet on the other. That’s close, but it’s not entirely correct, as not all sports bettors wager the same amount on each game. If a sportsbook receives 50 bets on the Buccaneers for $110 each, but receives 50 bets on the Panthers for $330 each, the oddsmaker (the person who sets the spread)  hasn’t done a very good job, even though the same number of gamblers are betting on each team.

The sportsbooks are aware that the sharp money (smart bettors) wager more money than a typical gambler, so the spread is created with these players in mind. This is particularly true in basketball, which doesn’t generate the same amount of money in betting handle as football. In basketball, when the sportsbooks have the sharper bettors on one team and the general public betting on the other side, we could see line movement to account for the difference in gross dollars wagered on one side. Line movement can sometimes come from volume of wagers, but it is far more often that point spreads move due to volume of dollars wagered.

One of the most famous stories involving the point spread involves Super Bowl III when Joe Namath and the New York Jets, who were 18-point underdogs, upset the Baltimore Colts. A reporter asked oddsmaker Bob Martin if he was embarrassed about setting that spread. Martin replied that it was one of the best numbers he ever came up with, because it split the betting money right down the middle.

Point spread betting generally comes with a -110 level of odds attached to it. This means bettors risk $11 to win $10 with the same proportion no matter the amount of the wager. This is the reasoning for the oddsmakers attempts to split the betting handle on each team evenly. For example, if a sportsbook receives $33,000 in bets on Team A and $33,000 on Team B, they stand to make $3,300 regardless of which team covers the spread.

Why Do Point Spreads Move?

If one team is receiving a large majority of the dollars bet on a particular game, a sportsbook like BetMGM will move the point spread to try and attract bets on the other team. For example, if the Miami Heat are favored against the spread by 7 points in a game and the vast majority of the money is coming in on Miami, the spread will move upwards, a half point at a time. If moving to Miami -7.5 and then -8 doesn’t stop the bets from coming in on Miami, the spread could move to Miami -9 or higher.

In more rare occurrences, a bettor will be required to risk $115, $120, or possibly more to win $100 when betting with the point spread. This will occur most often in football games when the spread is on one of what are known as the “key numbers.” In football, these are typically thought of as 3, 4, 6, 7, and 10, as teams are much more likely to win by one of those margins than they are by, say, 5 or 9 points. This is due to the nature of football scoring coming most frequently in dominations of 3 points and 7 points.

If the Miami Dolphins are favored by 3 points over the New York Jets and a large percentage of the wagers is coming in on the Dolphins, the sportsbook may be hesitant to move the odds to Miami -3.5 or Miami -4 for fear of receiving too many bets on the Jets. Even if the point spread moved only a half-point, to Miami -3.5, and the bulk of the bets transition to the Jets, the worst thing that could happen from the sportsbook’s point of view would be for the Dolphins to win by exactly three points. If they did, the many bettors who had already taken Miami -3 would push their bets, while those who’d taken the Jets +3.5 would win their bets. This would cause the sportsbook to lose a fair amount of money on the game. This is an example of why the odds required on a spread would move before the point spread.

It’s important to note that while odds are based on $100 wagers, it is certainly no requirement to wager that much. -110 odds mean risking $110 to win $100. Following suit, -120 means risking $120 to win $100. Just the same, you can risk $11 to win $10 or any denomination, understanding the proportion of risk versus payout will remain the same.

Point spreads can also move due to issues such as injuries, suspensions, and weather. A football team without its starting quarterback or a basketball team without its leading scorer won’t be expected to perform as well without the player as they would otherwise. Severe weather like a driving snowstorm can slow down a high-powered offensive team. These are just a few of countless factors that can create one sided action and ultimately alter a point spread.