The sports betting experts at TheLines will deliver information on how to bet on sports like the NFL, NBA and college football using the point spread below. Betting the point spread is one of the basic elements of sports wagering. We will answer the question of what is a point spread? We will also provide several examples of spread betting.
Betting on the point spread is when you wager on how many points a team will win or lose by. Point spread betting is particularly popular when wagering on the NFL and NBA.
An elite NFL team like the Kansas City Chiefs, for example, might be the favorite against a sub-standard team like the Las Vegas Raiders. The Raiders would be listed as the underdog, marked by a “+” sign and the number of points an oddsmaker believes they might lose by. Kansas City would be marked by a “-” sign and the number of points the oddsmaker believes they might win by. This game might be listed as “Chiefs -8.5, Raiders +8.5.”
Here we will cover what the point spread is, how it works, and other minutiae surrounding the most popular form of sports betting. Ready to bet on the point spread now? Check out spread odds below and click to bet.
A point spread represents first the oddsmaker’s and then the betting market’s best guesses at the numerical separation between two competitors. Sometimes the spread can be as little as half a point. Other times, like Team USA Basketball games at the Olympics, you might find spreads upward of 50 points.
Let’s look at the NFL Week 10 game between the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills as an example.
Chicago Bears +3.5 at Minnesota Vikings -3.5
NFL Week 12 will conclude with the Minnesota Vikings hosting the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. MNF odds are Vikings -3.5 and Bears +3.5. Basically, the oddsmakers are giving Minnesota a slight home-field advantage. Since the Vikings are favored by 3.5 points, it means Minnesota needs to win by at least four points for a point spread bet to pay out. So if the Vikings only win 23-20, Chicago bettors would cash their point spread tickets thanks to the +3.5 line. However, if the Vikings end up winning 35-30, Minnesota bettors would cash winning tickets as a result of the spread being covered. With a line of 3.5 on either side, it eliminates a potential tie should one team score a game-winning field goal. With point spreads, it’s a good idea to do line shopping before placing the bet as the prices can vary between sportsbooks. For instance, the price at BetRivers might be Bears +4 compared to +3.5 at other books. It’s also a good idea to monitor team injury reports. Besides getting the health status of key players, the news could be the reason behind any late line movement. With point spread odds typically being around -110 on either side, a $100 winning bet would return $190.91 ($90.91 profit plus the initial $100 back).
Most times, particularly at high levels of professional sport, the competitors have very close talent levels, and therefore the handicap winds up on the smaller side. Take, for example, the 2022 Super Bowl spread between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams.
The LA Rams were favored by 4 points over the Bengals at most sportsbooks. This appeared as LA Rams -4. The Rams needed to win by 5 or more points to cover the spread. Cincinnati was a 4 point underdog. This appeared as Bengals +4. That means the Bengals would have needed to win the game outright or not lose the contest by 5 points or more. The final score was Rams 23, Bengals 20, so bettors who bet Bengals +4 would have won their bets considering Cincinnati only lost by 3 points.
With a spread of -4 in favor of the Rams, if the Rams had won the game by exactly 4 points the betting result would have been a “push” and bettors for both sides would have gotten their wager refunded.
Another spread bet example
Let’s also look at the 2020 NFL season’s Super Bowl line between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The market favored the Chiefs to win, making the Bucs the underdogs. The Chiefs entered as 3-point favorites.
One would generally denote the situation in text as:
- Kansas City Chiefs -3
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers +3
The two teams are judged to the be 3 points apart, with the Chiefs “giving” 3 – hence the minus – as the favorite and the Bucs “getting” 3 as the underdog.
Note that because this game took place on a neutral field (at least in terms of tickets sold, since Tampa Bay coincidentally served as the host city), the spread was the actual representation of the difference between the two teams. That is, home field presumably didn’t factor into the spread. In most cases in team sport, one can’t deduce the exact differences in strength between two teams by their point spread alone because of home field being worth some fraction of the spread.
The underdog Buccaneers won 31-9. Obviously, the spread wound up a non-factor.
What is ‘covering the spread?’
While the Buccaneers didn’t need the 3 points the betting market gave them in the Super Bowl, the spread does play a role in the betting outcome of the game pretty regularly. If it didn’t, the betting market wouldn’t be doing its job.
For an example of the spread coming into play, look at the other Chiefs vs. Buccaneers matchup from the 2020 season. In Week 12, the Chiefs traveled to Florida for a road date with the Bucs and won 27-24. Pro Football Reference quotes -3.5 as the closing line.
In this case, the Chiefs won the game but didn’t “cover the spread” (win by more than the handicap). Simple arithmetic tells you 27 – 3.5 = 23.5.
Since 24 > 23.5 (the Chiefs’ handicap-adjusted score), Chiefs bets at -3.5 lost. The books kept the bettor’s stake.
By the same token, the Buccaneers lost but covered the spread: 24 + 3.5 = 27.5. Since 27.5 > 27, books graded Bucs +3.5 bets as winners. The book returns the stake and pays out the winnings.
If the game lands exactly on the spread – for example, if KC had won the Super Bowl by 3 – then spread bets will “push.” A push means the book returns everyone’s stake. It’s like the bet never happened.
Now that we know how the point spread works and what it is, let’s take a look at two examples of different spreads that were available at the start of the 2021 NFL season. The Week 1 lines below comes from DraftKings Sportsbook.
San Francisco 49ers (-7.5) At Detroit Lions (+7.5)
The San Francisco 49ers entered 2021 hopeful of recapturing their Super Bowl form from two seasons ago.
The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, were in rebuilding phase after years of failed contention. They traded away former franchise QB Matthew Stafford and hired a new coach with a long contract.
Thus, even on the road, the 49ers rate as -7.5 favorites at DK Sportsbook. In other words, they’re expected to win by more than a touchdown. San Francisco won by eight, 41-33, with that extra half-point truly impacting the outcome for bettors. Had the final score been 40-33, Lions’ bettors would’ve cashed winning tickets.
Lines of at least a touchdown are relatively uncommon in the closely contested NFL.
Green Bay Packers (-3) At New Orleans Saints (+3)
One Week 1 game saw 2020 Super Bowl contenders matched up in New Orleans. With Aaron Rodgers back in the fold, the Green Bay Packers once again found themselves among the favorites heading into 2021.
The New Orleans Saints, sans Hall of Famer Drew Brees, were expected to take a step back in 2021. However, they still returned most of their major pieces on what some considered the best top-to-bottom roster in the league last year. They had All-Pro contenders at several positions on both offense and defense.
Combine that with home field, and the betting market sees a closely matched contest. Hence, Green Bay took the field as favorites, but favorites expected to prevail by just 3 points. However, the point spread ended up being a non-factor as the Saints ended up winning easily, 38-3.
What is ‘juice’ or ‘vig’ in point spread betting?
When you’re looking at a line for point spread betting, the handicap won’t be the only number associated with the bet.
Along with the “+7” or some such number, another number will sit alongside it. Generally, this number will be “-110” at an American sportsbook or something like “1.91” at a European book. This is the price you’re laying along with the handicap. In either of these two examples (they’re the same, just denoted differently), you’re laying $11 for every $10 you hope to win.
This fee, known as the vigorish (often shortened to vig) or “juice,” enables the sportsbook to make a profit. Notice if the book offered an even payout with Team A +7 and Team B -7, you could bet both sides and break even. Hence, the vig exists, forcing you to pay a fee in exchange for your bet.
This means bettors must win more than 50% of the time to break even. In fact, on point spread betting at -110, the breakeven point comes out to 52.38%. Check out this page for more math behind the vig in sports betting.
While the above examples (the -110 in American odds and 1.91 in decimal odds) represent industry standard vig, be aware that sometimes books will adjust the vig slightly. In these cases, your breakeven point may move up or down depending on which direction the adjustment happens. Most frequently, this happens when an NFL line edges toward a key number.
Why do point spreads change?
A line nudging from +7.5 (-110) to +7.5 (-120) bears noting, but spreads often change much more drastically. And these changes can have sweeping impact on your betting experience.
Imagine you see the Lions +7.5 against the 49ers and, for some reason, you’re very excited to back the Lions. However, you normally bet $200 a game. And you won’t have that sort of disposable income until you get paid on Friday. After a busy work week, you’re sipping a beer at home, shuffling your fantasy lineup around. You remember that line you wanted to bet, so you open your account and scroll down to find the Lions.
Except, now you see them at +6.5. What happened?
The answer is that +7.5 was the market price when you first looked at the line. But, like all markets, prices change. The typical lifespan of a spread betting price goes something like this:
- Market-setting (sometimes known as sharp) sportsbook opens a market.
- Competitors copy and post the market.
- Everyone’s limits begin fairly low. The exact size depends on the book.
- As game time draws nearer, more and more information pours into the market. This information allows the books to sharpen the line, theoretically drawing it closer to its “true” odds.
- When the books become more confident in their numbers, they expand the limits. Again, most often the books follow the leads of the market setters with some small variation based on house risk.
- The line closes when the game begins.
In theory, the closing line represents the most accurate picture of the probabilities in the event. It reflects the largest set of information.
What sort of information are we talking about? Injuries can change the market, for example. Maybe a few key players have been ruled out for the 49ers or returned from injury sooner than expected for the Lions.
Most often, the information enters the market in the form of bets. Specifically, high-limit bets from sharp, winning players. These bets move the market because the sportsbooks respect the opinions of these accounts. In turn, they respond by moving the line.
In this case, multiple sharp players may have placed large wagers on the Lions at +7.5 and +7, necessitating the move.
What is line shopping?
How should you react to a move like that if you were planning to bet Lions +7.5 but now your book is dealing +6.5?
Well, you should first ask yourself if you still like the Lions at +6.5. As a general rule, sizable market moves should give you pause. If the sharp players liked the Lions at +6.5, they would likely keep betting them until the line moves further.
If you’re still determined to bet the Lions, you should see if any sportsbooks to which you have access are still dealing +7. This is known as “line shopping” – searching for the best available line.
Line shopping makes a large difference to your bottom line over the long haul. It can turn losing bets into pushes and pushes into wins because, some percentages of the time, the games land on these numbers.
Remember that Week 12 battle between the Chiefs and Bucs referenced above? While the line sat at 3.5 most places throughout the week, some shrewd Chiefs bettors got -3. Unlike their brethren who laid -3.5, these bettors got their money back when the game landed on 3.
Should I bet with point spreads?
Point spreads are generally a pretty good option for most bettors at new sports betting sites.
For one, the vig on spread betting will generally be among the lowest of any markets offered. This means the sportsbook keeps less of the money they accept (known as the handle), which means more goes back to the bettors.
Furthermore, high-limit bettors can usually get a lot of money down on point spreads. If you’re someone with deep pockets who likes to bet big, spread betting is for you since the limits will usually be large relative to other markets.
Finally, spread betting keeps many otherwise uninteresting games worth watching. Sure, maybe the Chiefs are up 20 points on the Jets in the fourth quarter, but outcome of the game with the handicap included may remain up in the air.
Just understand going in that you will encounter some frustrating situations with spread betting. In particular, end-game scenarios often play out in ways that adversely impact a spread bet but have no impact on the actual result. For example, a -7.5 NBA favorite up 108-100 in the final seconds may play lackluster defense and allow a meaningless bucket that covers the spread.
Can I use a point spread bet in a parlay?
Yes, bettors can generally combine point spread bets with other types of bets in a parlay – a multi-part that requires all components of the bet to hit. In fact, parlaying spread bets is very popular among many bettors.
Usually, spread betting involves laying -110, and a parlay essentially rolls over the winnings of each bet into the next bet. If you’re wondering how your parlay will pay out, just know most two-teamers pay a little less than 3-to-1, and the odds roughly double for each leg added after that.
Be advised that most bettors will have difficulty turning a profit with parlays. For parlays to be profitable, all or nearly all of the bets in the parlay must have a positive expected value (+EV), and most bettors can’t clear that bar.
Point spreads and live bets
Live betting has become increasingly popular over the years as it has become increasingly widespread thanks to more sophisticated technology at the hands of bookmakers. All you have to do is log in to your online account during a big game and you will see constantly shifting live betting lines, most often posted during commercial breaks.
Usually one of the markets the books offer is a live point spread market. These lines move rather quickly in response to happenings on the field.
For example, say the 49ers score two early touchdowns in Week 1 while the Lions fail to move the ball. The bookmaker might post 49ers -17.5 as the new line. If the Lions take the ensuing kickoff to the house, you might see 49ers -11.5 after that.
Unlike live moneyline betting, live spread betting can sometimes give you the opportunity for sizable “middles” – groups of numbers where you can win multiple bets but you can’t lose them all. Imagine in the above example you took the Lions at +17.5 then watched them run the kickoff back. Now, you can take 49ers -11.5 and have a chance to win both bets if the Niners win by 12-17.
Why was my spread bet canceled?
We’ve already discussed pushes, where the game lands on the spread and bettors get their money back. Some other situations can lead to canceled bets as well. Here are some of them:
- The bookmaker posts an obviously erroneous line. Often known as “palps,” books often cancel them if the game hasn’t started. Worse, if you bet at illegal offshore sportsbooks, they might freeroll you and only grade the bet if it loses.
- Starting pitcher changes in MLB. If you booked a bet with “pitchers listed” on the runline, then a late pitching change will void your bet.
- The game or match doesn’t occur on the scheduled day. Even if they reconvene the next day and play, books often cancel bets and produce a new market.
- The game or match ends early. Sometimes, this can happen due to inclement weather in various sports or a tennis injury.
Check your sportsbook’s rules to see how they grade these situations and more.