How to bet the point spread

There are undoubtedly some terms that are synonymous with sports betting, and point spread is one of them. It is probably the most common wager type in the history of sports betting and in fact, its invention in the 1930s helped popularize the game of football.

Now that mobile betting in Canada is expanding with the Ontario iGaming market, there have never been more point spread options across a variety of sports and leagues around North America.

The spread is most common in football and basketball betting, but there are variations in many other sports, and it serves as the oddsmakers’ way of evening out the game from a gambling perspective.

Essentially, you’re no longer wagering solely on one team or another winning the game (as is the case with the moneyline).  With spreads, you’re wagering against a line that the oddsmakers set, with the goal of beating it to win your bet.

While the point spread is front and centre at most popular bets at any sportsbook you see, it can be a tricky wager to navigate if you’re new to betting. But the good news is that the learning curve is far from insurmountable.

In this guide to betting on the point spread, we’ll cover what you need to know, all of the pros and cons, mistakes to avoid, tips you can use, and more.

How does the point spread work?

One thing to remember is that not all teams are created equal. The point spread, as mentioned above, evens out the game from a betting point of view by applying a projected winning margin for the favourite and projected losing margin for the underdog. Take the following CFL example from two Ontario teams:

TeamSpreadMoneylineTotal
Toronto Argonauts-6.5 (-110)-250Over 44 (-110)
Ottawa Redblacks+6.5 (-110)+220Under 50.5 (-110)

Think of the point spread as a projected winning margin for the favourite and projected losing margin for the underdog. Toronto is the favourite and a projected winner by six-and-a-half points, and the Redblacks are underdogs by that same amount.

When you’re ready to bet, you have two options:

  • Bet on the favourite minus the spread number.
  • Bet on the underdog plus the spread number.

If betting favourites, you’ll need them to win by more than the spread. A bet on Toronto means the Argos must win the game by seven or more points to ‘cover’ the number and cash your ticket.

With underdogs, the team you select can lose by a lesser amount than the point spread and still win your bet. A wager on Ottawa requires the Redblacks to win the game or lose by six points or less to win the bet.

When it comes time to figure out potential wins and losses, look at the number that accompanies the spread in parentheses. This number is referred to as the ‘juice’, and it can be calculated just like a moneyline to determine how much you must risk for that particular spread.

Each side of the spread in our example is -110 and with negative lines, the betting odds represent what you must risk to win $100. So in this case, you’re risking $110 for every $100, or $11 for every $10.

What does “against the spread” mean?

If you spend enough time in sports betting circles, you’ll hear various statements like “I like the Alouettes against the spread” or “I’m taking the Roughriders ATS.” In both cases, this simply means that the person making that call likes that side in a spread bet.

When you’re betting against the spread, it’s essentially you versus the sportsbook. If you make the right call, you’ll get your stake back plus a profit based on the odds at the time of your wager. If you lose, the sportsbook keeps your stake.

Thanks to the juice (the reason we usually risk a bit more than we win), the sportsbook will come out ahead if betting on both sides is roughly equal.

Since spread betting goes beyond which side will win, it’s more about betting on numbers as opposed to the teams that are involved. While you may prefer one side over the other, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is which side will cover the spread.

Point spread betting odds

Point spread bets are a popular betting option. As a result, there’s often some movement in the numbers from the time of the initial release right up until the game. Our live odds feed lets you view the latest point odds for various sports from across the industry with a single glance:

How does point spread bets payout?

The payouts are one thing about point spreads that will vary from moneylines, which can be pretty wide-ranging, but point spread odds are a bit more consistent.

For football and basketball spread betting, the odds will tend to start at around -110 (1.91 in decimal format) on either side. This won’t always be the case, but it’s considered the starting price point for many point spreads and totals.

In the time leading up to the start of a game, juice for most point spreads will hover between -125 and +100 before shifting a half-point to whichever direction it is being pushed.

The spread will also always be the same for both teams, but the juice that comes with it could vary depending on where the action is coming from. If you want a spread different from the one offered by oddsmakers, you’re looking for an alternate line.

There are occasional site credit offers and promotions including profit boosts, which can be used to eliminate or lessen the juice on a point spread of your choice.

Alternate point spreads

Online sportsbooks have really opened up the betting menu for point spreads with the allowance of alternate lines. This lets players take virtually any spread they want for a game, with the line adjusted accordingly.

As a quick example, the Los Angeles Rams were favoured by 3.5 points over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game at the standard odds of -110 (1.91) on both sides. Alternate lines will show a number of the variations:

As you can see, the odds will change based on the alternate spread. The odds get further apart as you deviate from the conventional spread, accounting for whether you’re buying or selling points.

Alternate lines are good options if you’re looking for extra points of cushion, or feel that spread is off the mark and you can gain some extra value. Alternate lines are also popular options in parlays.

Point spread key numbers

Depending on the sport, there can be what is referred to as key numbers that you’ll want to have covered when betting the spread. This is especially important when betting on football, so this will be vital when betting on the CFL, though it varies from the NFL due to the differences in scoring.

What are the key numbers for NFL point spreads?

For NFL games, the main scoring events are field goals (three points) and touchdowns (six or seven). Those two margins — three and seven points — will tend to decide more games than random chance would suggest.

As such, they’re the key numbers to watch for when looking at NFL spreads. When you view upcoming lines, you’ll see many games that are hovering around those two numbers, as oddsmakers purposely set the lines close to these numbers.

Unless you like the safety of having a potential tie bet, spreads that end in .5 is more desirable. There will be a definitive outcome in that case, whereas a seven-point spread could wind up as a push if the final score lands on that margin, such as 28-21.

CFL key numbers

When betting on the CFL, it’s imperative to remember that it isn’t just like the NFL. We see many similar scores, but the CFL also has plenty of results that don’t mirror the NFL and specific scores that you wouldn’t really see in the American game.

This is due to the fact that CFL teams score a single point with a rouge, which occurs when the kicking team misses a field goal or punts, but the receiving team doesn’t make it out of the endzone. The point is, this can alter the score and thus, what is a key number.

That said, we’d still stick with three, six, and seven as three CFL key numbers to try and cover when betting against the spread.

What are the key numbers for NBA point spreads?

Scoring varies more widely in the NBA, and so too do the spreads. For a general range, a spread of 2.5 or less is close to a toss-up, while a bigger mismatch would be at 6.5 or more.

Since free throws, twos, and threes are the means of scoring, differences of a single point can loom large. On the key number front, many sportsbooks use four, 4.5 and five points as the baseline for teaser bets. In a teaser, you can move the line for two or more games in your favour by the same amount.

What are the key numbers for NHL point spreads?

For hockey betting, there’s one key number, and that’s the standard puck line number of 1.5. This means that the key numbers for decision-making purposes are one and two.

  • Can the underdog keep the margin to a goal or win the game outright?
  • Will the favourite win the game by two goals or more?

Once you’ve settled on the answer, you’re ready to place a puck line bet. While 1.5 goals is the standard, books will also offer alternate puck lines. These can be interesting options if you feel confident that an upcoming game will be lopsided one way or the other, though buying extra goals will cost a significant amount of juice.

What are the key numbers for MLB point spreads?

Run line betting for MLB is very similar to betting on the puck line with the NHL. The standard number is the same 1.5, but you will see alternate lines, as well. And as with hockey, if you feel confident an upcoming game will be more lopsided, that might be the time for betting on an alternate line.

Live point spread bets

Pregame bets aren’t where the action stops, as point spreads are widely popular in-game wagers thanks to the growth of online sportsbooks.

Once the game begins, oddsmakers will continue to update the odds based on the action taking place on the field of play. Bettors can continue to wager on markets such as the point spread, run line, puck line, and other versions of the spread as the game progresses.

Take the following MLB example from FanDuel Sportsbook:

FanDuel does an excellent job noting by colour which direction the odds are moving in based on the action going on in the game. Odds will constantly change with each action, whether it’s the clock continuing to run or a pitch being thrown in a baseball game.

Biggest point spread betting mistakes

There’s no way to win point spread bets all of the time. However, you can limit at least some of your losses by avoiding common mistakes. Here are some pitfalls that regularly set point spread bettors back:

Failing to shop for lines

Line shopping is a key part of long-term betting strategy, and it’s important to make this a part of your routine if it isn’t already. There’s a clear advantage to signing up at multiple online sportsbooks and checking all of these outlets to make sure you’re getting the best price before placing a wager.

Why place a bet at -115 instead of -110? Why take the underdog at +175 when it is +185 at another site? These small differences can add up over time.

In the case of point spreads and totals, there could be a half or full-point difference in the number itself, not to mention the juice that comes along with it. A half-point can be the difference when it’s time to settle up, while each shift up or down in the odds can have a direct impact on your overall bottom line.

Settling for bad numbers

Gambling on point spreads aren’t about betting teams as much as it’s about betting numbers, so you can’t be willing to settle for bad ones.

Picture it: You’ve broken down a matchup in which the spread is +3.5 points for an underdog in a pro football game. You’re confident with your call, but when you go to place the bet at your book of choice, the number has shifted to +3 instead.

Should you place the bet anyway? Not necessarily, and the discipline to back off of a bad number is an under-the-radar part of turning a long-term profit.

That said, our example focuses on three points, one of football’s key numbers. If your specific odds shift isn’t on a key number, maybe you still go with it at (hopefully) a better price than the original number.

Blindly following the herd

The point spread is a popular discussion point, and that’s especially true as media coverage of sports betting expands. You’ll come across many opinions on which side will cover, and a clear consensus may emerge.

Especially in the event that you’ve done little research and are looking for a side to hop on, don’t make the mistake of blindly following the popular opinion. Do at least a bit of due diligence to support your decision, and keep in mind that if betting public and talking heads were always right, sportsbooks would have trouble turning a profit.

Who sets the point spread?

Individual sportsbooks set their point spreads. Some will base the numbers on the findings of their own in-house teams and proprietary algorithms, while others may lean on an outside service to help set the spread.

Regardless of the method to get to the end number, the goal of the spread is to represent an estimated difference between two sides in a contest. Sportsbooks will consider a variety of factors to arrive at a number.

This includes matchup data, historical trends, recent plays and much more. In short, the spread is the result of a great deal of work. When a sportsbook releases it, you can interpret it as being the best possible guess from oddsmakers.

How does the point spread move?

After the point spread comes out, it’s not uncommon to see it move. Why would the spread move if oddsmakers have already put a ton of effort into generating the number?

The spread can move for two major reasons: in response to betting or as a reaction to the news that develops after the initial release. For the former, heavy betting on one side can lead books to shift the number in a bid to level out the action.

As for new, a key player could suffer an injury, or the weather forecast could change (if the game is taking place outside). For bettors, it can be illuminating to track any movements in the spread to try to figure out why they happened.

Why bet on point spreads?

There is a multitude of reasons to stick with point spreads as your preferred market. The list includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Consistent Odds: making it easier to project potential returns and your overall break-even point. If you lose a couple of big favourites on the moneyline, it can take quite a few wins to catch up. Spread bets will keep most of your wagers between -125 and +100.
  • Better Prices On Favourites: Even though the favourite needs to win by a certain amount, it may be worth it to go with -3.5 (-110) rather than -200 on the moneyline
  • Margin For Error With Underdogs: If taking an underdog, there’s some margin for error if the team that oddsmakers project to lose does indeed come up short. While the moneyline payouts are better, point spreads offer a better chance of actually winning with underdogs.
  • Evens Out Lopsided Games: Point spreads help apply rooting interest to otherwise lopsided games. Winnipeg may be favoured by 14 points but if you’ve got action on one side or the other, the game is more appealing.

Consider that on most occasions you will be paying -110 for a point spread wager. This means you’d have to win about 52.4% of your bets to break even over time. That percentage may tick up or down depending on the exact juice of your wagers, but you’re always aiming for at least better than half when it comes to win rate.

How is the point spread different in other sports?

While the point spread is most popular for betting on football and basketball, it’s available for other sports as well. For hockey and baseball, the spread goes by different names — the puck line and run line, respectively.

For the CFL and NFL, spread numbers can vary widely. The most common football spreads are around the key numbers of three, four, six, seven, and 10, but they can vary from close to 0 to double digits.

With NBA and college football and basketball, the spreads are also of all different varieties, but there aren’t the same key numbers the oddsmakers focus on. There are so many points in basketball that there is much more variation in spreads, and it’s possible for teams to cover (or lose) by wider amounts than we see in football.

When it comes to NHL betting, the puck line is always -1.5 for the favourite and +1.5 for the underdog. Because the spread is set, there are sometimes huge variances in the juice for puck lines, which can look more like moneylines at times. The run line in baseball is comparable in both the 1.5-run spread and the wide range of prices that come with those odds.

You’ll also find variations of the spread for other competitions, plus alternate lines. For example, a tennis spread bet can use sets or games in a match. No matter how you’re betting on the spread, the choices are the same: favourite minus a number or underdog plus the same number.

Vegas point spreads vs. local point spreads

Historically, Las Vegas has had a reputation as the place to go for sports betting. That sentiment still holds true today in many circles, but the landscape has also shifted. With sports betting legal in a growing number of places, bettors across North America can often find similar odds and lines much closer to home.

If you compare the spreads at local sportsbooks, you’ll find that they tend to be within a similar range of one another, as well as with what you would see in Vegas. Any differences are typically not too dramatic. Savvy bettors will quickly pounce on any outliers and quickly bring them back in line with the overall market.

If you’re used to leaning on Vegas odds as a benchmark, you can continue doing so. Thankfully, you won’t have to take a long trek to find similar spreads. Legal online sportsbooks will offer very competitive numbers.

What is a “good” point spread?

In a pure betting sense, a “good” point spread bet is one in which you receive some type of closing line value.

For example, you took the Toronto Raptors at -4.5 (-110) and the line closed at -4.5 (-120) or -5 (-110). Since you got the better of the line, that’d be considered a good bet, whether you won or lost. Sharp bettors are far more about the process than results on any given day.

Another way to measure whether a bet was good or not (specifically in football) is whether or not you’re on the correct side of a key number. Getting a team at +3.5 is much different than +3, just as that +3 is a huge difference compared to +2.5, so on and so forth.

For the casual bettor, the best bets are ones you feel comfortable making following some due diligence and research. It’s still very possible to lose, but you haven’t done so in a careless way while missing key details that could have informed your decisions.