Point Spread Bets
Point spread bets are the most basic form of sports wagering. When people talk about “the line” on a game, they’re talking about a point spread established by a bookmaker for a specific sporting event. ESPN offers occasional coverage of point spreads during football season. You can even find point spread information in your local newspaper.
If you’ve seen point spreads all your life and never understood them, you’ve come to the right place. Learning how to place point spread bets is a great first step to learning how to bet on sports. Below are details on the line, how to read it, and how to use it for placing wagers.
What Is the Point Spread?
A point spread (or line) is a tool used by sportsbooks to attract wagers on both sides of a game. The line is most commonly used in football and basketball games. Because it’s rare for two teams in a pro sports game to be completely evenly-matched, one team will have an advantage, another will be seen as the underdog. The point spread is the handicap offered to the underdog to level the playing field, so to speak.
Letting customers bet on an outright winner would be disastrous for the book, since most people would just wager on the better team with no concern for the performance of the underdog. What the point spread does is incentivize wagers on the underdog by adjusting the final score by a specific number in one direction.
Winning a wager at a sportsbook with a point spread is not about picking an outright winner, it’s about analyzing the point spread and backing the team that beats it.
How to Read a Point Spread
In order to beat a point spread, you have to know how to read it, right? For this article, we’ll use an example from a specific football game – Super Bowl XLIX, played in February of 2015 between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.
If you’d picked up a newspaper and read the line before the big game, the point spread would have looked something like this:
New England Patriots +2.5
Seattle Seahawks -2.5
This arrangement tells us a lot: which team is home (listed on bottom, in this case the Seattle Seahawks), which team is the underdog (listed with a plus sign next to their name, in this case the New England Patriots), we know which team is the favorite (listed with a minus sign next to their name, in this case the Seattle Seahawks), and we know the point spread (2.5 points).
If you back Seattle, they have to win the game by a total of 3 points or more in order for your wager to pay off. If you back New England, it doesn’t matter if the Patriots pull off the upset or not, so long as they lose by no more than 2 points. Obviously, if New England does upset Seattle, a wager on the Pats will pay off.
Winning “Against the Spread”
Let’s look at the actual result of our example game to see what it means to settle a wager against the spread:
New England 28
In this case, the underdog Patriots won outright. It doesn’t matter how many points they won by – they were the underdog. All wagers on New England were winners. All bets on Seattle were losers. (And all because of an awful play call at the Patriots’ goal line, but that’s another story for another article.)
In this case, Seattle lost Against the Spread – ATS for short. 28 points for the underdog Patriots plus 2.5 points for the spread is a total of 30.5, which is more than the Seahawks 24 points. That means they win the ATS result.
So how does the money work? If you’d bet $100 on the Patriots, you’d win a $90 payout at the standard ten cent line. If you wagered $100 on the favored Seahawks, you’d be out your $100.
Basic Point Spread Strategy
You can use this basic information to form a rudimentary betting strategy.
If the bookmaker was only confident enough to give Seattle a field goal’s lead on the Patriots, it was clearly going to be a tight game. Oddsmakers aren’t often that wrong about flagship games like the Super Bowl. All things being equal, it’s likely the betting public would have taken the Seahawks to win the game and have been done with it. But throw in the point spread that gave the Patriots 2.5 points, and the proposition seems more equal.
Two possibilities existed for Seahawks backers at this point – either the team would win the game by at least three points or not. There was no possibility for a push, thanks to the use of a half-point. It’s impossible to score a half-point in football, so thanks to the magic of rounding, there’s no room for a tie outcome. Those who backed the Patriots were looking at two possible outcomes, too – either New England would pull off the upset or they would lose by just a point or two. Both would turn out in a win.
Super Bowl betting strategy is complicated because these are two squad at the top of their game, and there’s so much noise from the talking heads and betting public, it’s hard enough to beat the book. Throw in a tiny margin like 2.5 points, and it’s no wonder smart money often lays off championship games.
The trick to picking a big event like this on a point spread bet is to focus on tangible facts, head-to-head comparisons, and up-to-date injury and roster reports. If you can find a decent opportunity for an underdog (as New England backers found in Super Bowl 49), you can turn a profit.