Explaining The Points Spread

Explaining The Points Spread

There are many popular forms of sports betting, but the king of them all is betting against the spread. Other betting options such as betting on the moneyline, or betting over/unders are also very popular, but if you hear people discussing sports betting, the overwhelming odds are that they are discussing points spread.

Understanding Point Spread Strategies

The point spread is a way to make every game even from a betting standpoint. If one basketball team is significantly better than the other, it wouldn’t be fair or realistic for them to both have the same betting odds.

So, oddsmakers set a spread, or line, that makes it essentially even for people to bet on both sides. When you are looking at a spread there will be one team with a minus (-) symbol in front of their odds.

That team is the betting favorite. The other team will have a plus (+) symbol in front of their odds. So, if it says Celtics -8.5, that means the Celtics are favored to win by 8.5 or more points.

If it says Hornets +8.5, that means that you are betting on the Hornets to either win win, or at least lose by fewer than 8.5 points.

So, if you bet on the Celtics and they win by 10 points, you would win that bet, but if you bet on the Celtics and they only win by 1 point, that would be a losing bet.

The most popular sports for betting against the spread are higher scoring sports such as football and basketball, both pro and college.

Because betting ATS works best with higher scoring sports, lower scoring games, such as soccer and baseball, have different ways to bet on their games.

What is a point spread bet?

There are three types of sports bets that are extremely popular:

Betting the over/under is when you are predicting how many points will be scored in a given game.

So, if the Clippers Lakers over/under is 231.5 points, you are trying to predict whether that game will have more than 231.5 points scored or less than that number.

Betting the moneyline is simply predicting the winner of a given game. So, if you think the Lakers will beat the Clippers you can bet on them to win, though be warned if a team is a big favorite the odds may not pay out very well.

If you want to bet on a team that is heavily favored to win, you might need to bet a significant amount of money just to see a small return.

The moneyline might show that the Lakers are -110 favorites, meaning you would need to bet $110 to win $100 in profit.

Betting the spread, as explained above, is the most popular form of sports betting, by far. The spread odds even out both sides of a bet and you can pick any game without worrying about getting just a small payout in return. So, you will generally receive a very similar, if not identical, payout for betting on the Lakers -3 or betting on the Clippers +3.


Who are the favorites and underdogs in a point spread?

Let’s use a randomly selected NFL game as an example to better understand point spreads and how they work.

The Kansas City Chiefs are 13.5 point favorites against the Denver Broncos. You would generally see that listed as -13.5 for the Chiefs or Broncos +13.5. A minus symbol (-) always indicates the favorite, while a plus symbol (+) means a team is the underdog.

This means that the Chiefs are expected to beat the Broncos by 14 or more points. Remember, in point spread, you are not betting on the winner but on the margin of victory.

So, if you bet on the Chiefs and they win the game, but by less than 13.5 points, you would lose that bet. If you bet on the Broncos you would win the bet if they win, OR if they lose by 13.5 points or less.

A Chiefs 28-17 sounds great for Kansas City, but that’s a winning bet for Denver.

Additionally, you will often hear the expressions “giving points” and “getting points” with regard to points spread. The favorite is always giving points, while the underdog is getting points.

So, in this game, the Chiefs are giving 13.5 points and the Broncos are getting 13.5 points.

What does “push” mean in points spread?

Duke is a 3 point favorite over North Carolina in a college basketball game. If Duke wins by more than 3, they won the game against the spread. If North Carolina wins the game, or loses by fewer than 3 points, then they win against the spread.

But, what happens if Duke beats North Carolina by exactly 3 points? That is what’s known as a push, essentially a tie.

Bettors who picked Duke and bettors who picked North Carolina are refunded 100% of their money. Nobody wins or loses on a push.

Of course, if a spread is a half number, ie. 5.5 points, then a push is impossible.

What affects the point spread?

Each sports book or casino has a group of people who set the odds for every game, called bookmakers, or oddsmakers.

Their goal is not necessarily to predict each game correctly, but to predict which number they could set that will get exactly 50% of the betting action on each side.

So, taking the above example of Duke being 3.5 points favorites over North Carolina, they are estimating that half of all bettors will take Duke at -3.5 and half will bet on North Carolina.

For this particular game, they may have considered that Duke is a very “public” team, meaning a team with a massive amount of fans, which could mean that more people are predisposed to betting on them.

Other examples of public teams are the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, and Los Angeles Lakers.

So Duke might be 3 points better than North Carolina in the minds of an oddsmaker, but they give Duke the extra half point to account for the extra Duke supporters.

Now suppose one of Duke’s best players gets injured the day before the game and will miss this contest. A good enough player missing a game might move the betting spread, the bookmakers might move the line from Duke -3.5 or Duke -2.5.

Another factor that could move the number is if enough bettors, or more specifically, enough money is bet on one specific team.

So, if a big money bettor makes a massive bet on Duke at -3.5, the oddsmakers might move the line to Duke -4 or even -4.5, to entice more people to bet on North Carolina, attempting to divide the money evenly between the two sides.

Though it is not a factor in college basketball, in an outdoor sport, like football, inclement weather could move a spread. Similarly, travel issues, such as a team having a delayed flight and arriving only hours before a game, could also affect a spread.

How are spread odds calculated?

In the example we gave above, the Kansas City Chiefs are 13.5 point favorites over the Denver Broncos. But with every point spread comes betting odds. So, the Chiefs are 13.5 point favorites, and that bet is listed at -110. What does that mean?

Moneyline odds, or American odds, are numbers that are 3 or more digits, that have a plus (+) or minus (-) sign in front of them.

American odds are always based on a bet of $100, regardless of whether you are betting one dollar on an over/under or one thousand dollars.

So, using the Chiefs-Broncos game as an example, if you bet $100 on the Chiefs -110 means you are risking $110 to win $100 in profit. On most sites, the Broncos are also -110 at +13.5 meaning, you would also be risking $110 for every $100 you bet.

So, if you bet $110 on the Broncos (and again, $100 is just a default number, you could bet one dollar or one thousand dollars) and they cover the spread, you would get back a total of $210, meaning $100 in profit.

If arithmetic is less your style, be sure to use Sidelines’ Over Under Calculator to help you calculate your potential payouts!


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While the numbers for this particular game are both -110, frequently a game will have different betting odds for the favorite and underdog.

If the number is much higher on one side, say, -120 on the Chiefs and -106 on the Broncos, that would mean that much more money is being bet on the Chiefs and the oddsmakers are trying to even out their risk, by making the Broncos number more appealing and the Chiefs number less appetizing.


Can I parlay spread bets?

A parlay is a bet that combines multiple bets together into one bet. You can bet on two teams against the spread, you can even bet on every single team playing on an NFL Sunday to cover the spread, and they are both examples of a parlay.

To win a parlay bet all of your different picks would need to win, so betting on two or three games would be far more likely to win than a bet on ten games.

However, parlaying multiple bets increases your potential amount of winnings, so every bet you add to your ticket will add to your prospective payout, assuming 100% of your bets in that parlay are winners.

Suppose you want to parlay the Chiefs covering against the Broncos by 13.5 points, and the Bears to cover a 2.5 point spread against the Lions.

Both of the favorites are -110, meaning if you were betting the games separately, you would be risking $110 to win $100. However, if you parlay both games you would be risking $110 to win $290.91.

If you wanted to add the Steelers as 7 point favorites over Washington, Pittsburgh has -105 odds, so your $110 bet on a three-way parlay would payout $672.73. With every bet you are increasing your risk, but also increasing your potential winnings.

But remember, you need to win all of your bets in a parlay, even winning 5 bets out of 6 is the same as winning 1 bet out of 6, so be careful with the size of your parlays.

What are the most common point spread strategies?

There are dozens of points spread strategies that have been popularized over the years, but it’s worth discussing 5 of the most common strategies, including: waiting until the last second, focusing on units, shopping for the right spread, paying attention to line moves, and ignore silly theories.

We will explain them in order, from the most simple to the most complicated.

  1. In uncertain times, sometimes waiting until the last second to bet, is your best bet

Picture this: You place a bet on Thursday for a Sunday NFL game. You have bet on the underdog at +7.5 points.

The day before the game the underdog’s QB tests positive for COVID, or is found to have an injury more serious than previously feared, and the QB is declared out for Sunday’s game. Immediately, the line moves from +7.5 to +10.

Now, you are stuck with a bad line on a team you possibly no longer want to bet. Perhaps, since you liked this team at +7.5, you would love them at 10. Or alternatively, you feel you never would have placed this bet had you known your team’s QB would miss the game because you have no faith in his backup.

Either way, by betting early you have accidentally painted yourself into a betting corner.

In uncertain times, the best thing you can do is to wait until right before the game is played, when you have access to all possible information, before placing your bets.

  1. Wins and losses don’t matter, units do

If you follow betting experts on social media, you will often see them tout that their betting record is 56% or 59%.

First of all, never believe anyone’s betting record unless you are tracking it yourself. But more relevant here, the only thing that matters is units won.

What is a unit? A unit is the amount of money you are generally comfortable placing on one bet. That number varies, of course, for every person.

Let’s suppose here, for the sake of using round numbers, that your standard betting unit is generally $50 per bet. So, if you bet $50 on five favorites against the moneyline, your record might be 5-0 but if they were big favorites you might only be up 2 units.

Alternatively, if you place three bets on +1000 underdogs and one of them wins, your betting record might be 1-2, but you would be up seven betting units.

It’s important to know how much you are comfortable to wager, and it’s also important to know how to track your success, via units or money won and lost, as opposed to merely wins and losses.

  1. Shop for the best spread

Suppose that you want to bet on the Dallas Mavericks as a 7 point favorite against the Sacramento Kings in a hypothetical NBA game.

You really think the Mavericks are a lock to win the game and the number feels somewhat low to you. But, you wish the number was a little higher because the Mavericks beat the Kinds by 7 points in their last game and you are nervous about a push.

Well, if you look hard enough you might be able to find that extra half-point. Many betting sites offer slightly different numbers and if you use a site that lists the spreads for every book you can price shop and find the best spread for your side.

So, it’s possible that Dallas -7.5 is out there if you look hard enough. It’s even possible that one site is offering Dallas -8. Sometimes, the first line you see is the best one, but it never hurts to look.

If you are willing to bet on multiple different sites, you increase your odds of having the best available spread for every single game.

  1. Pay attention to WHY the line is moving

For NFL games, so many people are betting on a game that it is extremely difficult for one bettor, even if they’re betting a massive sum, to change the spread for a game.

However, for a Radford-Winthrop college basketball game, even a medium sized bet can change the line for a game on one specific site.

Sometimes a bet can be so big that it will cause one book to move their line, to spread their risk to the other side, and every single other reputable site will make the move proactively.

The key here is that there are many reasons for the betting spread to change, but you need to be acutely aware of why a line is moving.

Of course, the most obvious reason for a line move is a major injury or suspension, or because of a concerning weather report.

But you should always scour social media and see why a line moved- if it was an injury you will see that from traditional experts, if it is related to unseen betting action, you will find that information from gambling specific sources.

  1. The best strategy: Ignore every silly theory

Every bettor has an over/under betting strategy or an aphorism that they swear works virtually whenever they use it to bet.

For example, people are certain that the week after NFL teams fire their coaches, particularly unpopular coaches, they are locks to win.

You can turn on the television the week after a coach is fired and hear that sentiment on every sports talk show. The truth is that the week after NFL teams fire their coaches, they cover the spread less than 50% of the time.

Similarly, some bettors are certain that college football teams will overlook their biggest game of the season and play a dud the week before their rivalry game.

So, their assumption is that Ohio State is more prone to have a let down the week before Michigan, or Oklahoma will struggle the week before playing Texas. The truth is the data does not support this argument.

There are dozens such “theories” but none of them really hold up to even the easiest data check. That’s why the above strategies all focus on doing research and don’t just encourage you to bet on a certain team playing in a specific jersey on weekdays. Those theories might be fun to talk about but they aren’t fun to bet on.

Time to place your bet

We have discussed many different concepts and strategies above, but not all strategies work for every sport.

A concept might win frequently in NFL betting, but it could have no value for NBA betting, and vice versa. Some people love betting on NFL teams coming off a bye week, especially if they have a good coach, but there’s no apples to apples comparison to NBA betting.On the flip side, people love betting against NBA teams playing back-to-back games, or three games in four nights, but there is no real NFL equivalent. Similarly, most gambling related weather ules have zero relevance for NBA betting, since it doesn’t snow inside NBA arenas.

If you are a baseball fan, before you bet you should familiarize yourself with runlines, which is essentially the MLB betting equivalent to a points spread bet. The run line for MLB games is almost always -1.5 runs, so you would be betting on the favorite at -1.5 runs or the underdog at +1.5 runs. Of course, the actual odds of these bets vary wildly depending on if a team is a slight or major favorite.

Whatever your preferred strategy is, make sure you do all the research necessary to place the best bets you possibly can. The best bet is an informed bet.

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