A Guide to Point Spread Betting For Beginners

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) celebrates his touchdown catch with quarterback Josh Allen (17) against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Highmark Stadium.
Photo: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As legal sports betting becomes more common across the United States, the point spread for marquee matchups is being referenced with increasing frequency on sports broadcasts. Fans have likely seen the point spread referenced in pregame coverage, postgame highlights, and even during the games themselves in some cases.

The point spread in sports betting has become as important to some fans as the actual score of the game. But what exactly does the point spread entail, and how can bettors beat it?

In this guide to point spread betting, we will take bettors through the basics of point spread betting, including what the point spread is and how the spread is determined. We will also look at some of the finer points of point spread betting, which can be used to gain an advantage against the bookmakers in this popular form of wagering.

What is point spread betting?

Point spread betting is a form of wagering where a handicap is applied to the side a bettor wagers on. The goal of this bet is to have the highest score at the completion of a game after that handicap is applied. How this handicap is applied depends on the side that a bettor takes against the spread, as that determines whether points are added to or subtracted from their team’s score.

Bettors can see which team has points added to their score and which has points subtracted from their score based on the plus and minus point values next to that team’s name when looking at the betting odds.

Teams whose point spread value start with a minus sign have points subtracted from their score, which is known as laying points. Teams whose point spread value begins with a plus sign have points added to their score, which is known as taking points or getting points.

What is the difference between favorites vs. underdogs in points spread?

In point spread betting, the difference between being a favorite and an underdog is that favorites lay points, while underdogs receive points in this market. Here, the favored team is the one that is expected to win each game, while the underdog is expected to finish second best to the favorite. However, underdogs not only cover the spread on a regular basis but they also win games outright on plenty of occasions.

There are rare instances where neither team in a game is laying or getting any points, with those games known as “pick ‘em games”. In pick ‘em games, there is no point spread, as the two teams competing are deemed even enough from a competitive perspective to allow bettors to simply pick the side they think is going to win.

What determines the point spread?

There are several factors that determine what the point spread looks like for each game you see at your preferred sportsbook.

The first thing that goes into a bookmaker deciding the spread amount is a volume of statistics. Those statistics, featuring the two teams competing in a specific matchup as well as  the rest of their league over a large sample of games, are used to form models and algorithms that help generate point spreads. Naturally, the bigger the perceived gap between two teams, the bigger the point spread.

These numbers are then adjusted based on unique situational factors leading up to each game. Things such as home field advantage, injuries, and weather are included in those factors, along with the anticipated matchups between each team and what advantages or disadvantages are expected to come from them. This process is part art and part science, and is something bookmakers have perfected over the years in major leagues such as the NBA and NFL.

How much can I win betting the odds on point spreads?

The betting odds for point spread wagers tend to be consistent, as they are usually around -110 on each side. At -110 odds, bettors can bet $110 to win $100 on their point spread bets, though bettors can wager more or less than $110 to get a payout proportional to their stake amount.

There are slight fluctuations to the odds for point spread bets, as the point spread odds can be slightly higher or lower, but -110 is a common baseline figure for this market.

Instead of large variance in the odds for spread bets, the point spread number itself is what changes in this market. Games where there are expected to be huge mismatches in one team’s favor will have larger point spreads than games where the two teams are expected to be evenly matched.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) goes up for a dunk against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at United Center.
Photo: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

An example of a point spread bet

In this example of a point spread bet, let’s say that Team A and Team B are playing in a basketball game. Team B is a five-point home favorite against Team A, with both sides having odds of -110 to cover the five-point spread.

In this scenario, Team B would need to win by six or more points in order to cover the spread. Team A would cover the spread if they lost by four or fewer points, or if they won the game outright. And if Team B won by exactly five points, the two teams would end up even on the point spread and bets would be refunded in a push

In basketball, it is important to remember that teams trailing by a small margin will foul their opponent intentionally at the end of a game to get the ball back faster and attempt to spark a comeback. This scenario is a perfect example of such a margin, as a team that is down by three or four points may commit late fouls to keep their hopes of winning alive. Those fouls and subsequent free throws could have a huge impact on the final margin of victory, and should be kept in mind in situations like this one.

Half-points: what is the “hook” in spread betting?

When it comes to point spread betting, bettors will often see point spread amounts that end in a half-point. Those half-points, also known as hooks, can sometimes determine whether a point spread wager wins or loses. Given that it is not possible to score half-points in sports like football and basketball, spreads with half-points included cannot end in a push. One side of the point spread must win, which can create interesting situations for bettors late in games.

Which side half-points benefit can depend on what the overall point spread is in a game. In football, where margins of three and seven points are the most common, numbers like 3.5 and 7.5 have the potential to benefit the underdog. Point spreads of 2.5 and 6.5, meanwhile, can benefit a favorite as they are below the key numbers of three and seven points.

Which side is better to bet on?

In point spread betting, different bettors will have different philosophies on which side of games they like to back the most. Some bettors feel safer backing the team deemed to be the favorite in each game, while others like going with underdogs to go against the betting public. But which side is the best to back when wagering on sports?

The answer is that bettors should look at each game individually instead of backing favorites or underdogs exclusively. Both favorites and underdogs win against the spread regularly, even if the favorites are perceived to be superior to underdogs ahead of each game.

For example, look at the against the spread records of favorites and underdogs over the last five seasons in the NFL:

The NBA paints a similar picture over the last five seasons, with favorites and underdogs winning at a similar enough clip to where blindly betting either side would have lost bettors money:

Incredibly, in over 5,000 games during the last five seasons, NBA favorites and underdogs are separated by just 15 games. This speaks to the fact that it is not possible to blindly back favorites or underdogs and turn a profit in the long run.

In order to break even in sports betting, bettors need to win 52.38% of their bets at -110 odds, assuming they bet the same amount each game. As you can see, neither favorites or underdogs have won consistently enough over the last five years in the NBA or NFL to meet that percentage.

The key takeaway here is bettors should always look at each game individually and pick favorites and underdogs on a case-by-case basis. This is the only way to turn a profit in sports betting, as sportsbooks have protected themselves against bettors blindly taking favorites or underdogs over a large sample of games.

Changes in the point spread

Point spread numbers are regularly changed in the time leading up to each sporting event. The key for bettors is to understand why those changes in the point spread are happening. There are very different meanings behind some changes in the spread compared to others, and having a grasp on those changes can be useful when determining how to bet based on that information.

Injuries are the most significant driver of point spread line movement, as they directly impact the way that one team or both teams play in a matchup. A star player being injured could force that player’s team to be more conservative, knowing that they do not have their full array of weapons available. It could also prompt their opponent to play more aggressively or conservatively, depending on the decisions made by their coaching staff.

Another form of line movement that does not change the play on the field is the result of which side bettors are on prior to the game. Influential or “sharp” bettors can move the point spread when the bookmakers see their action. It is then up to the rest of the betting public how they wish to wager on the updated point spread.

The importance of line shopping in point spread betting

Line shopping is the process of looking at multiple sportsbooks to find the best possible betting odds for a game. This is an important thing to do before placing any bet, with point spread betting being no exception. While the odds for point spread wagers tend to be consistent from one site to the next, looking for the best possible point spread value could help bettors maximize their profitability in this market.

For example, one sportsbook may make a team a 3.5-point underdog going into a game, while another sportsbook might make that same team a 4.0-point underdog. As long as the odds are the same for both options, taking that team as a 4.0-point underdog would mean an extra half-point to work with. If that team lost by four points, it would be the difference between a push and a losing bet.

How Elias Insights can help with point spread betting

The Elias Game Plan app can help bettors make more informed decisions against the spread daily. Using the research and data that has made the Elias Sports Bureau an integral part of the world of sports, bettors can look at actionable insights pertaining to the point spread in sports such as  the NBA, NFL and MLB. With Game Plan, bettors are covered as they aim to cover the spread.