Betting Against the Spread Explained
Welcome to the first installment of our Betting 101 series.
Today we will be breaking down all you need to know regarding the most common form of sports betting: spread betting.
First of all, if you’re new to the world of sports betting, you’re probably wondering what exactly a point spread is.
You may have heard it mentioned by a pundit on television that was talking about a given matchup, saying x-team was favored by a six-point spread.
Perhaps you have a friend or a relative that likes to bet on sports, and you just don’t know what in the world they’re talking about.
Well, that’s where this handy-dandy guide comes in!
Let’s dive right on in.
Why Do Point Spreads Exist?
Oddsmakers and Avengers’ supervillain Thanos share a lot in common.
No, it’s not because both of them want to vaporize your bankroll with the snap of a finger.
It’s because they both strive to have perfect balance!
In a perfect world, every sports ball team in the universe would be on equal footing with one another, and we could just wager in a happy 50/50 world without the need for arbitrary point margins to deal with.
Unfortunately, that’s not how sports work, and to prevent the obvious issue of casual sports fans betting everything they own on obvious mismatches, a safeguard needed to be put into place to ensure that either side had an equal chance to win a given wager.
After all, as they say on the streets, the Aria wasn’t built in a day.
(Something like that anyway).
Sportsbooks use point spreads to handicap a matchup in an attempt to attract equal betting on both sides and to level out the competition.
If the Patriots were playing the worst team in the NFL, or Alabama was playing a college that advertises classes during daytime re-runs of the Maury Povich show, and it was a simple win/loss proposition, it’s a pretty safe assumption most would bet on the heavy favorites.
And therein lies why point spreads exist.
Identifying the Favorite & the Underdog
The first thing to consider before making a bet on any given matchup, is determining which side in that given matchup is considered the favorite, and which side is considered the underdog.
Identifying the favorite in any given matchup is incredibly easy.
All you need to locate is the team that has a minus-symbol (-) preceding the number that is listed as the point spread for that given game.
Once you have identified the favorite, you can simply use the process of elimination and figure the other team is the underdog, or you can find the team with a plus-symbol (+) preceding the number that is listed as the point spread for that given game.
You might be going, “Ok.. that’s neat and all, but why the heck are we using a minus sign and plus symbol to begin with?
The minus sign means that the final score will have the spread number subtracted from it.
The plus sign means that the team’s final score will have the spread number added to it.
A simpler way to put this:
Negative number = favorite.
Positive number = underdog.
Differentiating between who is the favorite and who is the underdog in any given matchup, will be especially important when you delve into moneyline wagering (more on this later).
For now, consider the below example as a point spread you may encounter when you’re betting at the sportsbook of your choosing:
As you can see in this hypothetical matchup, the Chiefs have a negative number listed, indicating they are the favorite in this matchup and are expected to win the game by at least 2.5 points.
If you follow any sport, you know half-points, half-runs and half-goals do not exist, so a team would have to win a matchup they are favored by 2.5 in by three or more.
On the flip side of it, the 49ers have a positive number in front of their name. This means the 49ers could lose the game by 1-2 points or win the game outright, and either scenario would leave you as a winner.
Now to backtrack a bit, if you’re new to sports betting, you may be wondering why you can bet on a game with a half-point included as part of the margin of victory a team has to win by.
This number is often referred to in sports betting vernacular as “the hook”.
(Hence the website name, by the way.)
The hook is the half-point that is included in any given point spread with the sole intent being to prevent the wager ending in a tie.
For example, if the above example had the Chiefs point spread listed as -3 instead of -2.5, the Chiefs could theoretically win that game by a field goal, but neither side would win the bet because the Chiefs would win by the exact point spread total and the 49ers would lose by the exact point spread total.
In gambling, we call that a push. Nobody wins, nobody loses.
Calculating Payouts with Spread Betting
In the above example, you may have noticed another number in parentheses right next to the point spread of a given matchup.
This number is simply referred to as the “vig” or the “juice” on a matchup.
For those not clear what this is, consider that whenever you make any wager in Las Vegas or with another American sportsbook, that the entity taking your wager has to protect themselves from getting obliterated on taking wagers.
This small cut that oddsmakers/bookies take from any given wager is priced into the line itself, and is indicated in parentheses directly to the right of that point spread.
The number is always going to be based off a scale of $100.
A negative number indicates the amount you would need to risk to win $100.
A positive number indicates the amount you would win if you risked $100.
About eight out of 10 times, the juice on any given point spread wager will be (-110), meaning you would need to bet $110 to win $100.
Occasionally though, this number will vary based on a number of variables and could be listed anywhere from ‘EVEN’ to -125 and above.
If you ever see ‘EVEN’ or (+100) as the juice, this indicates that the money you put down on that wager will be the money you win should your wager come through.
Let’s take a look at another example to see this better demonstrated.
In this instance, if you believed the Broncos would lose by 1-4 points or win the game outright, you would need to risk $120 on the Broncos to “cover” their point spread to win $100.
If you believed the Las Vegas Raiders would win by 5 points or more, you would win $100 on a $100 wager.
It should be noted that it is very rare for a point spread matchup to go off at even money, but this was to demonstrate how such a point spread would look if that did occur.
Spread Betting in Other Sports
The same principles of spread betting are applied to every sport.
The above guidelines are the most common way to bet using a point spread in NFL football, NCAA football, NBA basketball and NCAA basketball.
However, if you’re betting on baseball, hockey or soccer, the same ideas apply.
The only difference is point spreads in those sports are never changed based on the matchup, only the juice on any given matchup.
In baseball (run-line) and hockey (puck-line), the spread for any matchup will always be +/-1.5 and will be named to fit the sport it’s associated with.
In soccer, the spread (goal-line) does actually fluctuate based on matchup.
I Got the Keys, Keys, Keys!
When it comes to spread betting, one early trick every bettor should learn is figuring out what the key numbers in that sport are.
The best application of this practice is in the sport of football, due to how scoring in the sport is structured.
Because field goals are worth 3 points and touchdowns are worth 7 when factoring in extra points, the most common margins of victory in football are 3 and 7.
Hence, these are the key numbers in this sport.
Previously we mentioned the extra half point attached to a given spread, also known as the “hook”.
When betting on football, if you’re looking to bet on a favorite, it stands to reason a team will have an easier time covering a 6.5-point spread over a 7.5-point spread.
Likewise, if you’re betting on an underdog, you’d feel much safer betting on them to lose by 7 or less with a 7.5-point spread over them needing to lose by 6 or less with a 6.5-point spread.
Key numbers hold most of their significance in football, but they also hold significance in basketball where the typical margin of victory is between 3-8 points, with 5-8 being the most common.
Considering that most professional bettors are betting numbers and not teams, understanding key numbers is a nice trick to staying ahead of the curve.