How to read Point Spreads

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Point spread betting is the most popular way to bet on sports, especially in football and basketball.

Also known as line betting or handicap betting, spread betting came to prominence during the rise of professional football in the 1960s.

Spread Betting

Why is spread betting so popular? Spread betting creates interest in betting events regardless of whether one team is a heavy favorite to win the game.

You can calculate your expected returns on bets with this tool.

For example, let’s say the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers are firm favorites and expected to win the game.

So how does spread betting attract interest in what appears to be a one-sided contest?

A spread (also known as a line or handicap) is a points margin posted by a bookmaker. It will often look like this:

Pittsburgh Steelers -13.5
Cleveland Browns +13.5

In this example, the bookmaker has listed the Steelers as -13.5 point favorites and the Browns as +13.5 point underdogs.

In this case, the bookmaker believes there is:

  1. a 50% chance the game will end with the Steelers winning by more than 13.5 points
  2. a 50% chance the game will end with the Browns winning outright or losing by less than 13.5 points.

So while the Steelers are expected to win comfortably, the spread creates a betting interest in the game that the moneyline may not. Will the Steelers win by more than 13.5 points or will the Browns keep it close?

Let’s consider the final result:

Pittsburgh 35
Cleveland 17

What does it mean to cover the spread? In the above scenario, the Steelers beat the handicap (this is also known as “covering” the spread). Why did they cover the spread? Simply because they won by more than 13.5 points, in this case an 18 point blow out.

The easiest way to calculate a spread bet is to subtract the handicap from the favorite or to add the handicap to the underdog.

Let’s say we bet on the Steelers -13.5 points. We subtract 13.5 points from the Steelers score. This gives us a result of:

Pittsburgh 21.5
Cleveland 17

With the spread subtracted, the Steelers still “win” the game. So in this case, if we bet on the Steelers -13.5, we would win our bet.

On the other hand, let’s say we bet on the Browns +13.5 points. In this case we add the 13.5 points to the Browns final score. This would give us an adjusted result of:

Pittsburgh 35
Cleveland 30.5

The Browns still “lose” the game, despite receiving a 13.5 point handicap, and we lose our bet too.

What is a Push?

A push is when the final margin lands precisely on the spread. More often than not, a spread includes a half point (also known as a “hook”) so as to ensure that the result will land either side of the spread.

However, there are times when the spread will be a whole number. Super Bowl 51 was an example of such a spread, with the Patriots as a 3 point favorite.

So what happens when the margins lands on the spread? This is known as a “push” and results in all bets on the spread market being voided and refunded.

So if in Super Bowl 51 the Patriots had won by exactly 3 points, all bets on the Super Bowl point spread would be voided and all stakes refunded.

NFL Picks Against The Spread

How do you read NFL odds for spread bets? Let’s consider another example, this time Super Bowl 51 between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots.

Heading into the game, the point spread was:

New England Patriots -3
Atlanta Falcons +3

So the bookmakers believe there is:

  1. a 50% chance that New England will win the game by more than 3 points
  2. A 50% chance Atlanta will win the game outright or lose by less than 3 points.

The final score of the game was:

New England Patriots 34
Atlanta Falcons 28

Let’s say we bet on New England -3. Did our bet win?

As we did previously, if we bet on the favorite, we subtract the spread from their final score. This would then give us an adjusted score of:

New England Patriots 31
Atlanta Falcons 28

With our adjusted scoreline, we see that New England win the game and therefore our bet is also a winner.

However, if we bet on Atlanta Falcons +3, we add the spread to their final score. This gives us an adjusted final score of:

New England Patriots 34
Atlanta Falcons 31

With the spread added to the final score, we see that New England is still the victor and our bet on Atlanta +3 is lost.

NBA Picks Against The Spread

While NFL spread betting is very popular, NBA point spread betting provides bettors with daily betting opportunities.

Let’s consider an example, Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Entering Game 7, the bookmakers listed the spread as:

Golden State Warriors -5
Cleveland Cavaliers +5

Let’s say we have bet on the Cavs +5. Did we win our bet?

The final score of Game 7 was:

Golden State Warriors 89
Cleveland Cavaliers 93

As Cleveland were the underdogs and won the game outright, we have won our bet. Had the Warriors won the game by 6 points for more, we would have lost our bet.

And of course, if Golden State had won by exactly 5 points, all bets would have been voided and stakes refunded.

MLB Picks Against The Spread

MLB spread bets differ from both NBA and NFL spreads. When it comes to baseball, the spread is referred to as the ‘run line’ and it always set at 1.5 runs.

A typical MLB run line looks like the following:

Houston Astros -1.5
New York Yankees +1.5

The bookmaker will list odds for each:

Houston Astros -1.5+120
New York Yankees +1.5-150

So if we bet on the Astros -1.5 runs, if we bet $100 we will receive $120 if they win by over 1.5 runs, i.e 2 runs or more.

If we bet on the Yankees +1.5 runs, we must bet $150 to win $100 if the Yankees win the game outright or lose by just one run.

While baseball moneyline bets are typically listed at tight odds, run lines provide MLB bettors with an additional betting option.

You can quickly jump between different odds formats with an odds converter.

NHL Picks Against The Spread

NHL odds are similar to MLB odds, but rather than be referred to as run lines, NHL handicaps are referred to as puck lines.

Puck lines are listed much like MLB run lines. For example:

Boston Bruins -1.5-130
New York Rangers +1.5+108

In this example, if we bet on Boston and they win by over 1.5 goals, i.e 2 goals or more, we will win $130 if we bet $100.

On the other hand, if we bet on the Rangers, they must win the game outright or lose by at most one goal. If they manage to do either we will win $108 for every $100 that we have bet.

Picks Against The Spread

Spread betting gives bettors an additional betting option in the eternal battle with the bookmaker. You can also incorporate spread bets into your parlay betting slips.

Whether you’re betting on the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB, you’ll find spread bets and handicaps available for each game and in many cases a range of alternative handicaps.