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Betting Against the Spread Explained

Updated September 15th, 2021
Published March 16, 2018

Most sporting events have a perceived favorite, so applying a spread to the game is the bookmakers’ way of creating an even playing field. This is most often seen when betting on the NFL, but point spreads are common in the NBA as well.

When you bet “against the spread,” it’s not enough for the favorite to win the game; now, they have to win by more than a specified amount (the point spread) in order for them to “cover the spread.”

Let’s go over some of the basics of betting the spread.

What Is Point Spread Betting?

Point spread betting is all about leveling the playing field between two mismatched teams. Rather than picking a team to win outright as you would with a moneyline bet, with spread betting the margin of victory determines the outcome of your wager.

The spread is sometimes referred to as the great equalizer because it’s designed to turn every matchup into a 50/50 proposition. The important thing to remember is that even if your team wins the game, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won your spread bet.

As we explained with moneyline betting, a negative (-) number of points indicates the favorite and a positive (+) number of points indicates the underdog. To “cover the spread,” favorites must win by more points than the spread, while underdogs must not lose by more points than indicated.

ATS (Against the Spread) Betting: Case Study

Let’s walk through a hypothetical NFL game. Here’s the betting line, with the point spread highlighted in red:

As you can see, in the above example, the New England Patriots are the favorite in this game by 7.5 points, since they have a negative number of points. You will often see half-points attached to the point spread to avoid “pushes,” or ties. As we covered in our how to read odds guide, games with half-point spreads are said to contain a “hook.”

In this circumstance, favored New England is said to be “laying” 7.5 points. This means you subtract 7.5 points from their total score when the game concludes. If they still have more points than the Chiefs, then they “covered.” Therefore, the Patriots will have to win the game by at least 8 points for you to win your bet.

While New England is “laying” 7.5 points, Kansas City is “getting” 7.5 points. This means you add 7.5 points to their final score when the game concludes. If, after doing so, they have more points than the Patriots, then they “covered.” So, in order to win your bet, the Chiefs just cannot lose the game by 8 points or more. For example, if the Chiefs only lose by 3 points, you would win if you bet on Kansas City.

Here are a couple of mock outcomes for our matchup, each with a varying margin of victory. The team who covered the spread is displayed in bold.

  • Kansas City 21 – New England 24
  • Kansas City 17 – New England 25
  • Kansas City 3 – New England 41
  • Kansas City 30 – New England 27
  • Kansas City 28 – New England 34

Notice that in two of the above examples, Kansas City lost the game, but won against the spread. This is because they lost by fewer points than the point spread indicated.

What Can Change the Point Spread?

Point spreads are subject to change based on where the money is going and weekly injury reports. To mitigate their own risk, oddsmakers will adjust the betting line if one side is receiving an uneven proportion of the wagers, or if something significant happens to a key player.

For example, if Cam Newton rolls an ankle the day before the game and is unable to suit up, the Patriots may struggle to score touchdowns. So, we’d expect to see the spread in our case study decrease, likely landing around New England -3.5.

In other circumstances, the sportsbook may simply reduce the vig to encourage bets on a particular side of the matchup.

Look out for sports betting sites that offer spreads at -105 odds instead of -110. If you’re lucky, you may even find the occasional point spread bet with +100 odds attached to one team. This represents an even-money wager, meaning the payout if your team covers will be equal to the amount you risked.

Calculating Payouts Against the Spread

Now you may have noticed in the chart above that there is a three-digit number next to each spread, which looks an awful lot like a moneyline. It is, in essence. Those negative numbers (-110 in this case) indicate how much you have to bet in order to win $100. (Sportsbooks still take their cut when you’re betting against the spread.)

Generally, you will see “even bets,” meaning the payout is the same no matter who you bet on. But that’s not always the case, as you’ll see in the chart for our next example.

Here, the Packers are a three-point favorite, but bettors are being charged a premium to take them on the point spread. On the flip side, the sportsbook seems to be encouraging you to place a spread wager on the Seahawks with -105 odds.

If the result of this game is Seattle 21 – Green Bay 28, would you win if you bet on Seattle to cover?

(NO! They lost by more than three points.)

Do Other Sports Have Spread Betting Options?

Betting against the spread on the NFL or college football is undoubtedly the most popular form of spread betting, but there are other options.

You will also see point spreads in basketball, hockey, baseball, and soccer. They are sometimes referred to in different terms, but they refer to the same principle of operation as the spread.

In hockey, the spread is called a puck line; in baseball, it is a run line; and in soccer, it is a goal line.

NHL puck lines and MLB run lines are almost always fixed at 1.5.

Learn the Basics of Sports Betting

Want to learn more about the basics of betting on sports? Educate yourself with sports betting 101 and check out some of the best online sports betting sites while you’re at it!

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