Spread Betting, Explained: How Point Spread Betting Works

The simplest form of sports betting is probably the moneyline bet where the outcome of the wager is based solely on whether a team wins or loses a matchup outright. A big underdog that is considered very unlikely to win will have much longer odds (and pay a lot more) than a team that’s considered a heavy favorite.

To get even more invested in the matchup, bettors can also consider spread betting

To find a balance between moneyline outcomes, oddsmakers give you the option to bet against the spread. Spread betting — a modern construct — was invented in North America by a math teacher to make wagering on the weaker teams a possibility for any given matchup.

What Is the Spread in Betting?

A point spread is a number, set by sportsbooks, that creates a handicap between two opponents. With a spread, one opponent will be given points based on a number of factors and bettors can decide which team will win according to the set spread.

Spread betting is used to level the playing field between opponents who are not equal when it comes to skill. The easiest way to think of point spread betting is that the weaker team is given additional points before the game even starts.

So, for example, if the Kansas City Chiefs are big favorites against the Cleveland Browns, the spread could be set with the Chiefs as 10.5-point favorites. In this case, the Chiefs would need to win the game by at least 10.5 points to cover the spread. On the other side, the Browns would need to win the game or lose by less than 10.5 points in order to cover. 

With spread bets, every single matchup becomes a fun wagering option because oddsmakers have removed the advantages that a stronger team possesses on the field (or court, diamond, ice, etc.).

Point Spread Betting: the Basics

Spread betting has become one of the most common types of bets available at sports betting sites around the world.

It’s extremely popular for high-scoring sports like NFL, college football, NBA, and college basketball. Spreads are also available in lower-scoring sports, but they’re referred to as the run line in baseball and puck line in NHL betting.

With run lines and puck lines, a single point (or even a half point) added to the spread can spark a major shift in the odds. The same goes for point spread betting in soccer where goals are often few and far between.

Types of Spread Bets

As spread betting continues to grow in popularity, there are a few different types of spread bets to be aware of.

Point Spread

Point spreads are the most basic type of spread betting that we’ve broken down above. A point spread is set by oddsmakers for any given matchup to serve as a handicap between two opponents.

An example of this would be for a Sunday afternoon NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.

For the point spread, sportsbooks have set the line at Cowboys -4.5 and Packers +4.5. If you predict the Cowboys will win by 4.5 points or more, you would bet the Cowboys spread. If you believe the Packers will win outright or lose by less than 4.5 points, then you should take the Packers to cover the spread.


In spread betting, the Over/Under is also known as the “total.” This type of bet involves betting on the total combined score of both teams in a game. The sportsbook sets a total for the game and this number is known as the total or Over/Under line.

With totals, bettors wager on whether they believe the number of combined points will be Over or Under the set line. A total for an NBA game could be close to 200 points while NFL totals are usually closer to 50 points. It’s up to you to decide whether you think the game’s final combined score will be Over or Under the set total.

Other Types of Spread Bets

While most team sports offer some sort of spread betting, two other popular types of spreads are run lines (baseball) and puck lines (hockey).

How to Read a Point Spread

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. Spread betting works exactly the same in football, basketball, and other high-scoring sports.

The Favorite

The betting favorite is expected by oddsmakers to win the game. They are almost always assigned a negative spread. For example, the team could be assigned a -3.5 spread, meaning they need to win by more than 3.5 points for the bet to hit. If the favorite wins by the exact point spread, it is considered a “push” and a bettor will receive their initial wager back.

The Underdog

The underdog in a point spread bet is the team that is expected to lose the game. The team is given a certain number of points as a head start, and this is called the spread. For example, if the underdog has a +5.5 spread, it means they are given a head start of 5.5 points. They can either win the game outright or lose by less than 5.5 points in order to cover the spread.

Placing Spread Bets

When placing a spread bet, there are a few steps to keep in mind to ensure you are getting the best betting opportunity and taking into the risks into consideration.

Finding the Best Spread Betting Opportunities

  • Research the teams, players, and matchup history of the potential bet you will place.
  • Look to other sportsbooks to ensure your betting lines are competitive with the industry leaders.
  • Only bet what you are willing and able to lose.

Spread Betting Example: NFL Point Spreads

Here, you can put your spread betting skills to the test.

In the table below, you’ll find point spreads for upcoming NFL games, and you can bet on the spreads by clicking on your preferred betting markets.

Calculating Potential Payout

  • Determine the set bet amount you are willing to place on the spread.
  • Understand the risk associated with placing a bet. Positive odds indicate an underdog, and negative odds indicate the favorite. Users will win more money when they receive positive odds, but there is a higher risk involved with those bets.
  • Use an implied probability calculator or the formula: Potential Winnings = Wager Amount x (Odds/100) to calculate the payout. Mobile sports betting apps will also show you the potential payout before you place the wager in the bet slip.

Manage Risks with Spread Betting

  • Set betting limits for how much you will spend on a given event or per week. Determine an appropriate amount based on your bankroll and budget.
  • Do not go over this amount of money if your bets do not hit for the week.

Betting the Spread: NFL Example

Here is an example featuring odds for an NFL game:

SpreadOddsPayout on $100

The Carolina Panthers are the favorites because their spread is set at -3. Denver’s spread is +3. So, the Panthers are 3-point favorites.

If you bet on Carolina, you need to subtract three points from Carolina’s final score to 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 in order to determine if Denver has covered the spread. 

Before placing the bet, it’s vital that you also take the odds into account. In the above example, a $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 the odds into account. Check out our ROI Calculator for more information.

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 to cover the spread, they would add the 3 points to Denver’s point total of 17 to get 20. Since this is less than Carolina’s score (21), they would lose their bet even with the extra 3 points.

Spread Betting Strategies

As we’ve already discussed, it’s important to find the best spread betting opportunities through league and matchup research. You should also line shop for the best odds for your spread bets, and be sure to manage risk.

Here’s another spread betting strategy to keep in mind.

Beware of the Push

A push happens when the spread is set and the matchup ends exactly on that point spread number.  

So in our example above, let’s pretend that Carolina had missed an extra point and the final score ended up as Carolina 20, Denver 17. In that case, a regular spread bet would finish as 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 3 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.  

Spread Betting FAQ

What is spread betting?

Spread betting lets you wager on the margin of points a team wins or loses by. If you bet on the favorite, you pick that team to win by at least a set number of points (cover the spread). If you bet on the underdog, you are betting that the team will lose by a set number of points (or win the matchup outright).

How does spread betting differ from other types of betting?

Spread betting offers more flexibility when it comes to betting on the overall outcome of a game. If you bet the -2.5 spread, the favorite needs to win by at least 3 points for the bet to hit. If you bet on the +2.5 underdog to cover the spread, the team will need to lose by less than 3 points or win outright.

What does the "spread" mean in spread betting?

The spread is used to even the odds of two unevenly matched teams. The spread is also referred to as the line. Bookmakers determine the spread based on how the teams match up against one another.

How is the spread determined in sports betting?

Point spreads are set by oddsmakers to level the playing field between opponents of varying skill levels. The oddsmakers look at the two teams and post the spread based on how evenly matched the teams are. The spread is there to even out the odds and offer flexible outcomes.

How do I read and understand point spreads?

When reading the point spread, it’s important to remember that positive odds indicate the team is the underdog, and negative odds indicate the favorite. If you bet the underdog to cover the spread, you are betting on that team to lose by less than the set number (or win the game outright). If you bet on the favorite to cover the spread, you are betting that team to win by at least the set amount of points.

Is spread betting only applicable to certain sports?

No, spread betting is not limited to specific sports or sports betting apps. While it is more popular with football and basketball betting, spreads can be applied to most sports, including soccer, hockey, and baseball. It’s important to note that the lines will vary across different sportsbooks for each sport.

Are there different types of spread bets apart from point spreads?

Yes, spread bets can take many different forms. This includes player prop bets, quarter/half scores, team totals, and margin of victories.

How do I calculate potential payouts in spread betting?

Potential payouts from spread bets can be calculated in the same manner that you would with any other bet. Let’s say you place a spread bet on a football game where the point spread is +3.5 with odds of +125. You would win $125 in profit for every $100 wagered.

Is spread betting legal and regulated?

Spread betting is legal in all states with legal sports betting. Placing wagers of any kind on sports should always be done through legal and regulated sports betting apps.

About the Author
Brian Spaen

Brian Spaen

News Managing Editor
Brian Spaen was the news managing editor of Gaming Today. He has been a content writer and editor in various industries, including sports betting, environmental technology, and higher education. Brian is a graduate of Iowa State University and currently resides in Des Moines, Iowa.

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