Point spread betting is the most popular form of sports betting in the United States. The primary purpose of point spread betting is to create an opportunity to wager money on teams/athletes in a given contest by assessing their relative strength against each other. The point spread involves the scoring units in each sport (i.e., points, goals, runs, etc.), and is designed to create a playing field as level as possible between the two teams for potential bettors, in the form of a projected margin of victory.
For example: in most college football seasons, Oklahoma’s football team is going to destroy the Kansas squad in a Big 12 battle. The point spread allows bettors to assess the margin by which Oklahoma will whoop them. If favored by nearly five touchdowns, Oklahoma would be -34.5. Alternatively, Kansas might keep the margin within 34.5 points. You could take Kansas at +34.5.
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Points spread betting: outcomes
A point spread bet has three potential outcomes: win, loss, or push. If bettors choose correctly and win, a sportsbook will pay the bettor in full amount based on the “price” of the wager, which is most commonly -110. That means a bet for $110 would win $100, or $11 would win $10, and so on. (More on this later.)
Alternatively, a “push” — when the game result falls exactly on the point spread margin — results in a “voided” or “canceled” bet and means that bettors get their original wagers returned.
Obviously, a loss is a loss.
A point spread bet differs from a moneyline bet because the outcome of a spread bet, for bettors, does not always mirror the final result of the sporting event. Where a moneyline bet involves picking one team to win outright (or a draw when offered as a potential outcome), the losing team in a point spread bet may still provide a win for bettors, depending on the score of the sporting event. Taking the early example, if Oklahoma beats Kansas 51-21, a 30-point margin, Kansas would be a heavy loser but cover the spread.
Point spread bets, explained
There are three components of a point spread wager:
- The actual point spread
- The favorite
- The underdog
The point spread is the number of scoring units (i.e., points for basketball and football, runs for baseball, goals for hockey and soccer) representing the projected margin of victory for the favorite over the underdog. The amount of the spread can range widely from sport to sport and event to event. Additionally, home-field advantage is incorporated into a point spread, with the customary “adjustment” being anywhere from zero to three points, depending on the track record of a team’s performance at home.
The New Orleans Saints’ raucous home at the Superdome is a notoriously difficult environment for visiting opponents. A team that plays well at home would normally have a maximum three points added in its favor to the spread, while a team that does not play well at home or overall would likely have a smaller adjustment to the spread in its favor. So if the Saints played their opponent on a neutral field? Points for home field advantage would not come into play.
Sportsbooks or oddsmakers set the spread, while bettors evaluate the matchup in a process called “handicapping.” Professional bettors will even calculate their own spreads on games, then compare them with what sportsbooks have posted and attempt to find and exploit discrepancies.
The favorite is the team viewed as more likely to win. Using $100 as the betting unit (size), a bettor would have to wager the amount listed (i.e. -110) in order to win $100. If the bet wins, the sportsbook would pay $210, which is the stake ($110) plus the win ($100).
Bettors who choose the favorite win their wager when that team wins by an amount greater than the point spread. For example, if the Colts are favored over the Titans by 5.5 points and the Colts win by 7 points, the Colts have “covered the spread.” Bettors who wagered on the Colts will have won the bet.
A favorite is always represented with a minus sign (-) preceding the point spread. For example, in an AFC East showdown, the Patriots might be -6.5 against the Jets, or a “6.5-point favorite.” The Jets would correspondingly be +6.5 “against the spread.”
The underdog is the team considered less likely to win, or put another way, more likely to lose. For point spread betting purposes, the value of the point spread is added to the team’s total as part of the wager.
Bettors who choose the underdog win their wager when that team either wins the event outright OR loses by an amount less than the point spread. For example, if the Seahawks are favored by 5.5 points over the Rams but Seattle wins by only 4 points, Seattle has “failed to cover.” Bettors who wagered on the Rams would win the bet despite the Rams losing the actual event. In this case, the Rams have “covered the spread.” If the Rams win the game outright, they have likewise covered the spread.
An underdog is always represented by a plus sign (+) preceding the point spread. For example, “Rams +5.5.”
And when the teams are evenly matched: “Evens” or “Pick ‘em”
A game that’s listed as “even” or a pick ’em bet means two teams are viewed as so close in terms of level of play that the sportsbook decides to price them as equally likely to win or lose. In such a case, there is effectively no spread or projected margin.
An evens or pick ‘em point spread will usually have the word “evens” or “pick ‘em” or “PK” listed on the moneyline. You might see both sides listed at -110 for the price, and the side you pick has to win in order for you to win your wager. Only if the game were to end in a tie would the bet result in a “push,” in which your wager would get refunded.
Point spread betting: the vig, a.k.a. “juice”
The “vig” is an abbreviation of the word vigorish, which is what the bookmaker “charges” for accepting a wager. It’s the cost of doing business and how sportsbooks keep the lights on. The vig is also known as the “juice.”
The standard pricing for spread betting is -110 on both sides, which amounts to “20 cents.” This is based on the combined vig of 10 cents for every dollar on the favorite, and likewise 10 cents per dollar on the underdog. Keep in mind on a $110 wager at -110, the extra $10 is not part of the bet, which is why a winning bet here collects $210 (the $110 bet plus $100 in winnings), and not $220.
Because the point spread is designed to be attractive to bettors who want to wager on either the favorite or the underdog, the value will sometimes range from +100 to -120 on each respective side, or -105 and -115, as the sportsbook attempts to entice wagers at different prices.
When the price on one side of a point spread reaches -120 or higher and wagers are imbalanced to one side over another, a sportsbook will often adjust the point spread to rebalance the “action” on the bets being made.
Suppose a point spread opens with the Celtics favored by 5 points over the Knicks at -110. If bettors believe the Celtics are going to whoop the Knicks by more than 5, they may collectively place a larger amount on Boston. And if a lot of people are betting on the Celtics at this number, the imbalance has the potential to change the vig to -115 or -120, which may dissuade more action on the Celtics.
Should wagering continue in the Celtics’ favor, a sportsbook could then increase the point spread to 5.5 points while resetting the vig at -110 to help foster a better balance of incoming bets between the favorite and underdog. There is no set rule on incremental increases or decreases in the point spread — the volume of incoming money on a pick is a key determining factor on the movement of the point spread.
Lines and prices are not static — they will move in response to betting action, injuries, weather reports, and other factors that impact play on the field.
The potential outcomes of a point spread bet
(1) The favorite covers the spread:
Bettors win choosing the favorite when the favorite wins by a margin GREATER THAN the point spread.
Example: The Bucks are favored by 4.5 over the Lakers and the Bucks win 108-102, a 6-point margin. They have covered the spread, and people betting on the Bucks will win their wagers.
(2) The underdog covers the spread:
Bettors win choosing the underdog when the underdog wins outright OR the underdog loses by a margin LESS THAN the point spread.
Example: The Cowboys are favored by 7.5 points over the Giants, but the Giants keep the game close and lose by only a field goal, 30-27. The Cowboys have failed to cover the spread, while the Giants did cover the spread.
(3) It’s a “push” and the bet is voided:
A push occurs when the favorite wins by a margin IDENTICAL to the point spread. When that occurs, bettors have the full amount of the wager returned to them.
Example: The Ravens are favored by 1 point over the Steelers, and the game is a nail-biter in which the Ravens win 28-27, creating a margin of victory of exactly one. No team has “covered” here, and bets on both the Ravens and Steelers will be returned. An online sportsbook transaction record may call this a “voided” or “canceled” bet.
Another key term in spread betting is “the hook.” The hook is the half-point that has the potential to swing betting outcomes regardless of the whole number it follows.
For example, if the Bears are favored by 3 ½ points over the Vikings and defeat Minnesota 20-17, the bettor who “gave” 3 ½ points on the Bears had a losing bet. This is because Chicago won by 3, when the Bears needed to win by 4 in order to cover the spread. The bettor who took the Vikings and “got” 3 ½ points was thus saved by the hook and wins the bet, despite the Vikings losing.
There are certain “key” numbers, especially in football, where the hook makes a bet more challenging. This is evidenced by the above example with spreads of 2 ½ and 3 ½ points. That also holds true when a spread is 6 ½ or 7 ½ points or even larger ones such as 9 ½ or 10 ½ points.
The connection of the point spread to the moneyline
While a moneyline bet is an entirely separate wager from a point spread wager, the two are connected in terms of how the potential moneyline payout allows bettors to examine perceived gaps in team levels.
As an example, if Team A is favored by 3 points in an NFL game at or near -110 or Team B is a 3-point underdog at or near -110 per $100 bet, that same game could have a moneyline status of -160 for the favorite and +135 for the underdog. The difference reflects the perceived gap between the teams. But remember, for moneyline bets the side the bettor picks has to win outright, which is a taller task for the underdog than covering the spread.
When the point spread increases, the moneyline wager requires betting more money to achieve the same return, but because the point spread is designed to create betting on level terms for both teams, the value remains at or near -110 for the favorite or at or near -110 for the underdog per $100 bet regardless of the size of the point spread. In contrast, the moneyline for a team that is a 7-point favorite could be -350, while a 7-point underdog could be +285.
But regardless of sport, the point spread serves as the great equalizer when betting on games!