It is in the best interest of everyone involved – fans, leagues, teams, players, everyone – if sports are competitive. Nobody wants to watch blowout after blowout. But, sometimes very strong teams or athletes match up against very weak teams or athletes. Can anything keep these contests interesting? Enter the point spread, known in some places and in some sports as the handicap.
Points spreads can cause some goofy situations in sports fandom and betting. Many are the bad beat stories from otherwise meaningless plays in long-decided games swinging the betting outcome. But at the end of the day, bettors enjoy spread betting, so it’s a staple of the industry.
In this space, we’ll cover what the point spread is, how it works and other minutiae surrounding the most popular form of sports betting.
What is a point spread?
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.
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 upcoming NFL playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs.
The home team Chiefs are favored by 2.5 points over the Bills at most sportsbooks. This appears as Kansas City Chiefs -2.5. The Chiefs need to win by 3 or more points to cover the spread. Likewise, the Bills are a 2.5 point underdog. This appears as Buffalo Bills +2.5. That means the Bills would need to win the game outright or not lose the contest by 3 points or more. If the spread was -3 in favor of the Chiefs, and the Chiefs won the game by exactly 3 points the betting result is a “push” and bettors for both sides would get their wager refunded.
Let’s also look at last season’s Super Bowl odds 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 some examples of different spreads available for the 2021 NFL season. Each of the lines below comes from DraftKings Sportsbook, the first couple from Week 1 and the last one from Week 17.
San Francisco 49ers (-7.5) At Detroit Lions (+7.5)
The San Francisco 49ers enter 2021 hopeful of recapturing their Super Bowl form from two seasons ago. The betting market expects them to be one of the stronger teams this year, pegging them as a top-10 contender in the futures odds.
The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, have entered a rebuilding phase after years of failed contention. They traded away former franchise QB Matthew Stafford, hired a new coach with a long contract, and will aim to build a culture while cultivating young pieces they hope comprise their next competitive core.
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. Lines of at least a touchdown are relatively uncommon in the closely contested NFL – this is the only such NFL Week 1 line at the time of writing.
Green Bay Packers (-3) At New Orleans Saints (+3)
One Week 1 game sees 2020 Super Bowl contenders matched up in New Orleans. With Aaron Rodgers back in the fold, the Green Bay Packers once again find themselves among the favorites heading into 2021. If he performs at an MVP level again, there’s no doubt the Packers will have one of the strongest teams this year.
The New Orleans Saints, sans Hall of Famer Drew Brees, are expected to take a step back in 2021. However, they still bring back most of their major pieces on what some considered the best top-to-bottom roster in the league last year. They boast 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 entering as favorites, but favorites expected to prevail by just 3 points.
Cleveland Browns (pk) At Pittsburgh Steelers (pk)
Zoom all the way forward to Week 17 for a marquee matchup between playoff hopefuls and division rivals, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns enter 2021 off a breakthrough season in which they won a playoff game in Pittsburgh. They return all of their core pieces with most of them at an age when they should be improving rather than declining. Hopes are high among the long-suffering fan base.
The Steelers, on the other hand, appear to be a team in decline. After years of success, they lost many pieces from a once-elite offensive line and QB Ben Roethlisberger may be on his last legs. Still, they put together an elite defense last season, so the market sees them quite competitive with the Browns. In fact, it believes home field completely negates the Browns’ talent advantage.
Thus, both teams are priced evenly, often called a “pick’em” and denoted as “pk.” Yet, you won’t just get an even money payout on either team. You must pay a small fee no matter which side you take, which leads us to juice – or vig.
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.
For example, imagine in the 49ers/Lions game listed above that the sportsbook became inundated with a flood of Lions +7.5 money. Instead of immediately adjusting the line to +7 they might list the Lions +7.5 (-120). Particularly if the book’s competitors are all still at +7.5, increasing the juice gives the book a middle ground between taking a likely barrage of 49ers money at -7 and continuing to get more Lions money than they’d like to handle.
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, for several reasons.
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.