Who do you like to cover? What’s the spread on the game? These two questions are asked often in sports betting circles.
When you hear them, that means the conversation has turned to the point spread for an upcoming contest. The point spread refers to the line that has been placed on a game by oddsmakers.
Most commonly used in basketball and football betting, it can help to think of the point spread as the estimated margin of victory. For bettors who place a wager on the spread, this number needs to be factored into their handicapping.
At first glance, point spreads can seem confusing and it may look like there’s no rhyme or reason to the numbers. That’s not the case on either front.
We’ll explain everything you need to know about point spread betting right here. Let’s begin by taking a look at the best places you can place your bets.
What is a Point Spread?
A point spread is a number that bookmakers will place on a game. Handicappers then need to account for the spread when they are breaking down games.
Point spreads are most commonly used in basketball and football, but there are equivalents used for the other major North American sports. In the NHL, it’s referred to as a puck or goal line. For MLB, it’s known as a run line.
In both cases, the standard number used is 1.5. When it comes to basketball or football, there’s no set value for the point spread. It can range from as small as 0.5 points all the way up into double digits.
One way to look at point spreads is as the presumed gap in strength between the two teams. Let’s use a random NFL point spread as an example.
- New York Giants +3.5
- Dallas Cowboys -3.5
In this situation, the Cowboys are 3.5-point favorites. Bettors need to decide if the Cowboys are in fact 3.5 points better than the Giants for this contest, and if they will be able to win the game by this amount.
Naturally, there will be plenty of different perspectives on how the contest will play out. There will be bettors who side with the Cowboys minus the points, and those who like the Giants plus the points.
For Cowboys bettors to be correct, the team would need to win by greater than 3.5 points, such as 24-20. On the Giants side, they need to keep it closer than 3.5 points, as in 21-20.
The side that successfully exceeds the margin is viewed as having ‘covered’ the spread. You’ll come across the term ‘cover’ a lot in your research. It effectively means which side will be the winner from a betting perspective when the spread is factored in.
There will also be odds attached to point spreads. We’ll cover that in more detail in a bit.
How to Bet the Spread?
Since the point spread is most commonly used in basketball and football, we’ll be focusing on those two sports for the remainder of the article. In both sports, the point spread is used on both the Pro and College side.
Let’s walk through some examples for all of the major point spread sports, starting with the NBA. Here’s the line and spread for a fictitious game.
- Milwaukee Bucks +1.5 (-110)
- Toronto Raptors -1.5 (-110)
The Raptors are favored by 1.5 points, indicating a potentially tight game. After doing your research, you decide you like Toronto to win by more than 1.5 points.
As it turns out, the Bucks wind up winning a close one by a score of 100-98. Not only did the Raptors fail to cover the spread, but they lost the game, so your ticket is a loser. If Toronto had come out on top by the same margin, you would have had a winner.
Next, let’s take a look at the spread and odds for a random College Basketball game.
- Purdue +.4.5 (-110)
- Michigan State -4.5 (-110)
The Spartans are 4.5 point favorites for this tilt, but you like the way the Boilermakers are playing and think they can keep it close. When the final whistle blows, Michigan State hangs on for a 72-69 win.
The Spartans have won the game, but the margin of victory was lower than the spread. Those who bet on Michigan State minus the points have losing tickets, but bettors on Purdue plus the points such as yourself are winners.
The point spread works the same way when betting on College Football and the NFL. Oddsmakers will designate a favorite and an underdog, and then they’ll add a point spread into the mix.
- Cleveland Browns +6.5 (-110)
- New England Patriots -6.5 (-110)
The Patriots are pretty big favorites for this one. If you bet on them with the spread attached, they’ll have to win the game by seven or more points. For a bet on the Browns with the spread, the team will at least need to keep the margin to six points or under.
The favored status of New England proves to be prescient, as they go on to win by a score of 27-17. The 10-point margin of victory means that they covered the spread, while Cleveland has failed to do so.
For our final example, let’s move over to College Football for an imaginary inter-conference clash.
- Wisconsin +2.5 (-110)
- Texas A&M -2.5 (-110)
While the Badgers are the underdogs for this contest, the game is expected to be tight. Oddsmakers have placed the spread at less than a field goal as a result. When the final whistle blows, the Aggies escape with a 28-27 win.
Underdog Wisconsin has lost, but they kept it close and covered the spread. Bettors on that side have a winning ticket to cash, while those who wagered on Texas A&M minus the points move on to fight another day.
As with all other sports betting concepts, the more you are exposed to point spreads, the easier they become to understand.
Point Spread Odds and Line Moves
After oddsmakers release the spread and odds for a slate of games, the betting market has a chance to weigh in. That can lead to shifts in both cases depending on market action.
Let’s say a spread for an NFL game is released at 3.5 points. A flurry of public money comes in on one side of the coin. Oddsmakers respond by raising the spread up to 4 points.
So why did the spread tick up? In this case, we can interpret it to mean that a good amount of money came in on the favorite minus the points. To make the game more attractive on the underdog side, the sportsbook has added some more incentive in the form of a half-point.
On the odds front, we may see the same thing. Odds of -110 are pretty standard for point spread bets. If a book takes in more action on one side over the other – but not enough to justify moving the spread – then the odds can shift a little.
For example, a majority of the money coming in the favorite could lead odds on that side to change to -115, while odds on the underdog side are adjusted down to -105. This may influence the direction they go and even out the action for the sportsbook a bit, which is the goal they have when adjusting odds.
Odds and spreads can also move when a piece of news drops that could impact the outcome of the game. A major injury, lineup change, or trade are among the scenarios that could have such an impact.
For point spread betting, it’s always a good idea to check out the opening lines and compare them to where they are when you begin handicapping the game. This can alert you to market sentiment on the game, or potentially a piece of news that you may have missed.
How to Handicap Point Spreads
While handicapping for point spreads may seem complex when you’re first starting out, it really doesn’t have to be. It can be as difficult or easy as you make it, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with keeping it simple.
First things first, there are resources out there – both free and subscription-based – which provide picks against the spread. Some are good, some are average, and others aren’t so great.
If you’re going this route, a good rule of thumb is to find a few trusted resources – three will do the trick – and compare the picks to help form your own consensus. As always, practice due diligence when selecting sources and don’t just blindly trust the words of one as gospel.
For those who would like to do their own handicapping, it’s helpful to start with a simple process and build it out from that point.
First things first, study the lines and odds for the games on the slate. Recognize what the market is telling you, and examine any shifts from open to present time.
Next, consider the overall strength of the teams involved, as well as how much of a difference homefield or home court advantage may make. Oddsmakers have this factored in on their side, but it’s important for you to consider it as well.
One thing that can be very helpful is finding a set of power rankings that you can trust and use regularly. Power rankings rate the teams in the league from top to bottom and attach a number to each squad which represents their overall strength.
You can then compare these two numbers and account for home advantage. The difference will point you to a reasonable point spread, which you can then compare to the actual spread.
Power rankings can be found on subscription-based sports betting sites, but there are also a number of excellent resources on the interwebs which are completely free.
Afterwards, it’s time to examine the teams on a statistical basis. It’s very easy to get lost down the rabbit hole here, so stick to what really moves the needle when beginning, such as points for and against.
For football, you can also check out yards for and against. In basketball, lean towards things that truly impact the game, such as overall shooting percentage and turnover rates.
Once you have a good handle on examining the basic stats, you can add additional factors to provide a more well-rounded picture.
Last but not least, check out recent form for both sides. Teams go through hot and cold streaks, and current momentum can be a solid guide for what’s to come in the near future.
After you have gone through all of these factors, you can go through your own personal checklist to determine which side is better on all fronts. Taking the time to break down all of these factors should lead you to a choice that you feel comfortable with.
As your experience with handicapping point spreads increases, you may decide to add additional variables to the equation. You can make your own personal system as complex or as simple as you would like.
The choice is completely up to you and what works best for your strategy. As always, the bottom line is what type of process will lead you to positive results more often than not.
The Bottom Line on Point Spreads
Point spreads are most commonly used for betting on basketball or football. Oddsmakers will designate a number for each contest, and bettors will then need to factor that into their handicapping.
Bettors can wager on the favorite minus the points, or the underdog plus the points. If you think of the spread like a potential margin of victory, then that means the favorite needs to win by more than the spread, while the underdog needs to keep the game closer than that.
The standard odds for point spread bets are typically -110, but there will be shifts based on market action or news that develops after lines are released. The spread itself can also shift based on those same factors.
It’s a good idea to track how odds and spreads have moved from the open until the time you are ready to place bets. This can give you a sense of market direction and also help you spot factors you may have missed.
Handicapping point spreads can be confusing at first, but a simple process such as the one outlined in this article can help you get the hang of it quickly. As you move along, you can also personalize the process to better fit your style.
In addition, there are also free and subscription-based resources which provide picks against the spread. If you decide to pursue that path, it’s a good idea to gather multiple sources and attempt to find a consensus.