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How To Bet On Point Spreads

Some sports bets are really simple and easy for new users to wrap their heads around. An example of that would be a moneyline wager in which you are simply picking the winner from two choices, generally a favorite and an underdog.

Other types of sports bets throw additional wrinkles into the equation to consider. Included on that list is point spreads, which can take a little bit of getting used to for those new to the game.

For point spread betting, you not only need to try to figure out which side is going to win, but also by how much. To add to the confusion, you can also place a wager on the losing side and still win your bet, provided the game stays closer than expected, that is.

While point spreads can absolutely seem like a foreign concept at first glance, a little practice is all it takes before it clicks and everything makes sense. We’re here to lead you on the path to making that happen. Read on.

Point spread explained

A point spread refers to a number of points that’s placed on a game by oddsmakers. The intent is to level the field between two teams of differing levels of strength while accounting for the home advantage.

It can be helpful to think of it as an estimated margin of victory. If you hear someone say that the Indianapolis Colts are three-point favorites over the Cleveland Browns, that’s a spread.

For betting purposes, you’ll have to factor in the point spread regardless of which side you want to bet on. When you come across the game in the betting lobby, you’ll see a listing that looks something like this.

  • Cleveland Browns +3 (-110)
  • Indianapolis Colts -3 (-110)

Oddsmakers attach odds to both sides of the equation, and bettors then decide which side they like while factoring in the point spread. If you like the Colts, that means they’ll have to win the game by a margin greater than three points.

A final score of 27-21 would work in that regard, but a tally of 21-19 wouldn’t get it done. If the margin works out to be exactly three points — such as 24-21 — then the bet is considered a push and refunded.

For Browns bettors, the final margin of victory must be kept to less than three points, or Cleveland has to win the game outright for the bet to be graded a winner. If the Browns lose 35-34, then all good.

A Cleveland defeat by a score of 35-31 would mean the bet is a loser, while a final of 31-28 in favor of Indianapolis would make it a push.

The side that wins on a spread bet is said to have “covered,” while the losing side failed to cover the spread. Point spread bets are one of the most popular items on the wagering menu.

They definitely take some getting used to, but you’ll understand why they attract so much volume after becoming more familiar with them.

Point spread betting examples

Point spreads are most popular for betting on basketball and football. MLB and NHL use what are known as a run line and goal line respectively, both of which are generally locked at 1.5.

When it’s a spread, the number can vary, ranging from the low single digits all the way up to big double digit lines. Let’s walk through some additional examples, starting with hoops.

Let’s say it’s an upcoming college basketball regular season game between two relatively close foes with a slight edge given to the home team. That would translate into a spread that looks something like this.

  • Maryland +1.5 (-110)
  • Indiana -1.5 (-110)

A Maryland bettor is expecting the Terrapins to keep it closer than 1.5 points or to win the game outright. Those on the Hoosiers side are looking for the home side to win by two points or more.

A final score of 70-69 would be good for Maryland bettors but bad on the Indiana side. If the Hoosiers win by a score of 71-67, they have covered the spread, while the Terrapins have failed to do so.

Next, let’s consider an NBA game that involves a big home favorite. The spread and odds look like this when you find the game in the betting lobby.

  • Atlanta Hawks +7.5 (-110)
  • Indiana Pacers -7.5 (-110)

The Pacers are expected to handle business in a game that’s not looking like it will be particularly compelling. However, there’s intrigue to be found for spread bettors.

You can make the call that Atlanta will lose by less than 7.5 — or pull out the big upset — or go with the home favorite minus the points. Just like that, you now have rooting interest in a game that doesn’t look too appealing at first glance.

Indiana needs to win pretty big at home — such as by a score of 100-92 — to cover the 7.5-point spread. If Atlanta keeps it closer than that — like 95-91 — then the underdog visitors cover.

Moving onto football, you’ll also find spreads on both the college and pro side. We’ll begin with the former and consider a fictitious matchup with a huge home favorite.

  • Miami-Ohio +21.5 (-110)
  • Ohio State -21.5 (-110)

The powerhouse Buckeyes are expected to have their way with the RedHawks at home. A moneyline bet on Ohio State wouldn’t pay out all that much if they won as a result, but you can find a good return with a winning spread bet.

For reference, a winning $100 spread bet at odds of -110 returns a total of $190.90 — the initial bet amount plus a profit of $90.90. Odds of -110 are standard at most sportsbooks for spreads, but the odds can and will move. We’ll cover the reasons why in a bit.

In this example, if Miami-Ohio keeps it respectable, such as 38-21, then that side covers. As long as the RedHawks keep the margin under 21.5 points, bettors on that side are golden.

Ohio State bettors are looking for a more convincing win. Something along the lines of 49-20 would get it done, but any result closer than 21.5 points would not.

For our final example, we’ll move on to an NFL game that is expected to be relatively tight. Here’s the spread and odds you have to consider when betting the NFL.

  • Buffalo Bills +3.5 (-110)
  • New England Patriots -3.5 (-110)

If you place a bet on the Patriots, then you’re expecting them to win the game by four or more points. Bills bettors anticipate that Buffalo will keep it closer than that or maybe even win the game outright.

A 27-24 victory for New England is good for Buffalo bettors but a loser on the Patriots side. If we reverse the score, a 27-24 win for the Bills is also great for bettors on that side, but the upset loss for the Patriots also means that they have failed to cover.

Odds and line moves for point spreads

After odds and lines are released, it’s not uncommon to see movement on both fronts. The odds can move by a few ticks here and there, and the same is true for spreads.

For odds, the standard at most sportsbooks for spread bets is -110. Naturally, you won’t always see those exact same odds the entire time a game is listed. For example, let’s say it’s an NBA game that has seen a decent amount of sports betting action.

The spread was initially at 2.5 points, and that remains the same for now, but the odds have shifted a bit.

  • Oklahoma City Thunder +2.5 (-108)
  • Houston Rockets -2.5 (-112)

When we see the odds move, we can interpret that as the sportsbook operator attempting to make one side more appealing in a bid to level out the action. Once the public weighs in and starts placing bets, more action may come in on one side.

In an attempt to even things out a bit more to their liking, oddsmakers may shift the odds in response to the public betting action, and spreads can also move in response to wagering volume.

For an example, consider an NFL game with a slight home favorite of 3.5 points. After a good amount of action comes in on the underdog side, oddsmakers could move the spread to 3 or 2.5 points.

  • Los Angeles Chargers +3 (-110)
  • Denver Broncos -3 (-110)

If the movement in spread doesn’t have the desired effect — or if it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction — then the spread may shift again. For the week preceding an NFL or college football game, it’s not uncommon to see a few movements.

Odds and lines can also move if new information comes in after the initial numbers are posted. A player trade, coaching change, or key injury are among the items that could potentially move the needle.

Paying attention to the movement of spreads and lines is an important part of the handicapping process. While the little ticks of difference may seem minor, they can not only add up, but they can also point you toward market direction and news that you may have missed.

For weekly NFL and college football slates, odds will begin being released as the preceding week is winding down, and you can expect to see numbers on all games by the morning after the final game is in the books.

As for NBA and college basketball, odds and lines may appear the day or night before a game if both clubs have the previous day off. They’ll definitely be out by the morning of the game, barring any news that may impact the line being released.

Handicapping point spreads

To handicap point spreads, you need to begin by breaking down the contest itself. You can use the following steps to get off on the right track.

  • Review odds and lines: Beyond the underdog and favorite, has there been any movement to make note of?
  • Overall strength: Which of the two teams is simply the better one on paper?
  • Recent play: How have the two teams performed lately? Any hot or cold streaks to be aware of?
  • Advantages and disadvantages: Any edges to be found on either side, such as offense vs. defense or rebounding strength?
  • News and notes: Is there anything notable that could really move the needle, such as a key injury or rotation shift?

Walking through those five steps will give you a great starting point. You can then go even further and take a look at things such as advanced statistics.

After you have a good idea of which side is in line to win the game outright, it’s time to factor the spread into the equation.

Let’s say it’s a game in which the Colts are welcoming the Tennessee Titans to town with the home side installed as a slight 2.5-point favorite. When you see the spread, begin by asking yourself two questions:

  • Are the home Colts 2.5 points better than the visiting Titans?
  • Can the Colts win by more than 2.5 points or will the Titans keep it closer than that or win outright?

No matter how well-versed you are on the two teams or how sound your handicapping strategy may be, answering those two questions isn’t easy. For some clues, you can dig into the following pieces of information:

  • Historical matchup records between the two teams.
  • Home/Away records for the two sides.
  • Records against the spread for both squads.

Just like handicapping for all other types of bets, breaking down a point spread is all about getting you to a certain level of confidence on your wager before clicking submit. If it’s a contest you can’t make heads or tails of even after putting in the work, there’s nothing wrong with passing on the game and living to fight another day.

One final note on point spread handicapping: a good set of power rankings can be an invaluable tool to use. Power rankings are more than just a straight listing of teams from top to bottom. A good set will also assign a numerical value to each team.

For properly designed ratings, all you need to do is compare the two numbers and factor in home-field advantage. The difference between the two numbers will point you to what a fair spread between the two sides should be.

Many experienced handicappers create their own power rankings and fine tune them as the season moves along. There are also a number of completely free rankings to be found online that are quite good, including TeamRankings and Sagarin.

Key takeaways on point spreads

Point spread bets are mainly used for basketball and football betting, both on the college and pro side. A spread is a number installed by oddsmakers that attempts to level the playing field between two teams.

The point spread can be viewed as being akin to an estimated margin of victory. The goal for handicappers is to decide which side will cover the spread.

For favorites, that means they have to win the game by an amount greater than the spread. Underdogs can lose the game and still cover by keeping it closer than that, or they can win the game outright. If the final score results in an exact tie for spread purposes, then the bet is considered a push and refunded.

Points spread bets are one of the most popular items on the sports betting menu. While they take some getting used to, a little bit of practice and persistence can help you overcome the learning curve in no time.