What is Spread Betting? How Does It Work?

Learn everything you need to know about point spread betting, one of the most popular betting formats out there for NFL, college football, and more.

Jun 27, 2023 • 07:35 ET

Not all teams and competitions are evenly matched. For sports bettors, that's where the point spread comes in.

What is a point spread?

A point spread, or simply “the spread”, is a sports betting number made by oddsmakers at sportsbooks that serves as a handicap between two opponents. Because not all teams are equal in skill, oddsmakers use spread betting to level the playing field.

The point spread is quickly becoming part of the mainstream sports conversation, used in sports betting as the great equalizer when it comes to comparing teams. It’s most often used in NFL and college football betting, as well as NBA and NCAA basketball. In baseball, the spread is called the run line, and in hockey, it is called the puck line.

What is point spread betting? Learn how it works with this infographic from Covers.com

How to read a point spread

Let’s look at the point spread from Super Bowl LIV featuring the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs as an example of how to read a point spread and what each side and number mean. 

The point spread from Super Bowl LII between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs

The handicap

Oddsmakers closely examined both of these teams and determined that the game would likely be decided by a point. They assigned a handicap of 1.5 points. The addition of the 0.5 to this and other such betting handicaps like Over/Under Totals is called a hook. It is simply meant to avoid the possibility of the result ending on the exact number since half-points are not possible in major sporting competitions.

The favorite

The oddsmakers have deemed that Kanas City is more likely to win the match, so they have made them the point spread favorite in this matchup. Bettors can identify the point spread favorites by the minus (-) in front of their handicap. Above, Kansas City has a handicap of -1.5, meaning oddsmakers expect them to win by one or more points. For a point spread bet on Kansas City to win, the Chiefs need to win the game by more than one point. Even if they win by just one point, this bet would lose.

The underdog

If oddsmakers believe the Chiefs are the likely winners, that makes the San Francisco 49ers the likely losers and, therefore, the point spread underdogs. A plus sign (+) in front of the handicap indicates an underdog. The 49ers are the +1.5 underdog in this game, meaning oddsmakers believe they will lose, but only by a point. To win this point spread bet with the 49ers, San Francisco would need to win the game outright or lose by one point exactly. If they lost by two points or more, this bet would lose. 

The vig

For many wagers with handicaps, sportsbooks assign a second set of odds that serves as the price of placing the bet. These prices are known as the vig or the juice. For our example above, the sportsbook assigned of vig of -110 to both the favorite and the underdog. This means a bettor would have to wager $110 to win $100.

Covering the spread

Kansas City ended up winning that Super Bowl 31-20. The 11-point margin of victory was greater than the -1.5-point spread, meaning they covered the spread.

How to bet against the point spread

Before making a point spread bet, you’ll need to decide who you think will cover the spread and if you should make the bet now or later — because the spread might change. Then you’ll want to understand the vig/juice on the spread and how much you stand to win. 

Which team will cover the spread?

The first thing you need to decide on is which team you think will cover the spread. Do you want to lay the points by betting with the favorite or do you want to take the points by betting with the underdog?

Why does the point spread change?

The point spread, like all sports betting markets, is an active market. Oddsmakers can and will move the spread based on a number of factors, including:

  • Which side professional bettors are wagering on
  • The amount of money taken in on one side of the spread versus the other
  • Breaking news that relates to the game (injuries, weather, etc.)

What does -110 mean?

You also need to understand how odds work in point-spread betting. In the above Super Bowl example, you’ll notice a -110 next to both spreads (assuming you’re using American odds). This is called the vig (short for vigorish) or the juice. It is a price that the sportsbooks charge to bet into this market and is similar to the rake in poker. With a vig of -110, you’ll need to wager $110 to win $100.

How much can I win?

The amount of money you can win from point spread betting depends on two things:

  1. The amount of money you wager
  2. The price of the odds at the time you make the bet

Many American bettors wager on a “to win” basis when betting odds with a negative sign (-), meaning they decide how much they want to win before deciding how much to risk. Above, we mentioned that at odds of -110, you need to wager $110 to win $100. Likewise, you’d need to wager $120 to win $100 if the odds are -120.

Use our betting calculator to find out exactly how much you can win based on different odds and different wager amounts.

How is a point spread determined?

The biggest factor that oddsmakers look at when making a point spread is the difference in skill level between the two teams. Most oddsmakers will have their own set of power rankings that will help determine the spread for each game.

There are other factors that come into play as well, including:

  • Current form
  • Location of the game (home-field advantage)
  • Injuries
  • Weather

Point spread betting in baseball

The point spread in baseball odds is often referred to as the run line. In MLB, the run line is almost always set at 1.5, meaning the favorite needs to win by two or more runs. 

Run line odds in MLB betting

Here, the Houston Astros (-1.5) were the favorite in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series with a vig of +155. A bettor could have won $155 on a $100 bet if the Astros had won by two or more runs. 

The Washington Nationals (+1.5) were the underdog with a price of -185, meaning it took a $185 bet to win $100 for Washington run line bettors. The Nationals won the game outright, so they covered the run line, but it also could have lost by one run and still covered.

Point spread betting in hockey

The point spread in hockey odds is often referred to as the puck line. In the NHL, the puck line is almost always set at 1.5, meaning the favorite needs to win by two or more goals.

Puck line odds in NHL betting

Above we see that the Boston Bruins (-1.5) were the favorite with a vig of +145. This means that a $100 bet would have paid out $145 if the Bruins had won by two or more goals. 

The Dallas Stars (+1.5) were the underdog with a vig of -165. A bettor needed to wager $165 to win $100 on the Stars puck line. Boston won the game outright 4-3, but Dallas covered the puck line because it only lost by one goal.

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