Spread Betting And Against The Spread In Sports Betting

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The simplest form of sports betting is probably the moneyline bet where the outcome of the wager is based solely on whether your chosen team wins or loses. Since some teams are better than others, moneyline bets will have odds based on the perceived probability that a team will win. A big underdog who is considered very unlikely to win will pay a lot more than a team who is considered a heavy favorite.

Betting the moneyline on big underdogs might be exciting when you hit a nice payout but those payouts are fairly infrequent. On the other hand, betting favorites generally return more wins but those wins tend to be much smaller. To find a balance between these outcomes, bookmakers also give you the option to bet “against the Spread.” Spread betting is a modern construct. It was invented in North America by a math teacher to make wagering on the weaker team in games with a huge favorite.

What Is The Spread (And How To Bet The Spread)

The most simple way to think of it is that the weaker team is given additional points before the game starts. Likewise, a bet on the stronger team starts out “minus” points. Spread betting is the main odd offered for high-scoring sports like NFL, NCAAF football and NBA, NCAAB basketball.

Sometimes spreads are given in other low-scoring points but these are a special kind of odd specific to a sport. We’ll cover “runline” and “puckline” in another post. The reason low scores are ignored is that adding a single point, or even half-point to the score of a hockey or baseball game could shift the odds wildly.

An Example From The NFL

Here is an NFL example featuring some real odds for an upcoming game:

 SpreadOddsPayout on $100
Carolina-3+100$100
Denver+3-120$83.33

Here Carolina is indicated as the favorite because their spread is -3. Denver’s spread is +3. What that means is that if you bet on Carolina, you need to subtract 3 points from Carolina’s final score then evaluate if you won the bet. Similarly, a bet on Denver means you take the final score and add 3 points to Denver’s score, and determine if Denver wins.

Before placing the bet it is vital that you also take the odds into account. In the above example, an $100 bet on Carolina pays $100. A $100 bet on Denver only pays $83.33. Completing that math is very important since a bet on Denver adds points, but does eliminate some of your return on investment. Always take odds into account. Check out our ROI calculator for more info!

Let’s say you decide to bet on Carolina -3 and the final score is Carolina 21 – Denver 17. You would subtract the 3 point spread from Carolina and be left with 18 points. Since that is still more than Denver scored, you would win your bet!

Conversely, if your friend had bet on Denver they would add the 3 points to Denver’s point total of 17 to get 20. Since this is less than Carolina’s score they would lose their bet even with the extra 3 points.

Beware Of The Push

Another important item to keep in mind is a “push” in spread betting. A push happens when the spread is applied and you end up with a tie game.

So in our example above, let’s pretend that Carolina had missed an extra point and the game ended up as Carolina 20 – Denver 17. In that case, the game would be a push because Carolina’s score of 20 minus the 3 points would be equal to Denver’s score of 17. And similarly, Denver’s score of 17 plus the three points would be equal to Carolina’s score of 20.

A push is generally not ideal for anyone. For the sportsbook, a push means they make no profit and return all money to bettors. For you, it means that you have tied up money in a bet that could have been earning you money in another bet

The push is the reason to pay attention to half-points in spreads. Sportsbooks generally like half points since there is a guaranteed outcome and they generally don’t care which side wins. Here is our above example, only there is an extra half-point added to the spread:

 SpreadScoreSpread Score
Carolina-3.51410.5
Denver+3.51114.5

In this case, the extra half point matters a lot because it turns a push into a loss for Carolina bettors and a win for those betting Denver. These half points can be tough to understand at first but once you get the hang of them they are easy. 

Summary

To sum up, a spread is the number of points you add or subtract from one team’s score to determine the winner. Betting on the favorite and winning is called winning against the spread. Take another look at our NFL examples above if you have questions and note that spread betting works exactly the same in basketball and other high-scoring sports. Finally, watch out for half points, as they both mean there is a result, but that result might not always be in your favor.

About the Author

John Yantosh

John is an engineer by day and a sports lover by night. He is an unapologetic homer for all Philly sports teams as well as his alma mater, Villanova.

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