Betting Against the NFL Spread (ATS)
Tired of the lousy return of taking the Patriots on the moneyline every week? It’s time you moved up in the world of football betting to start making some real money betting against the spread!
If you’re new to betting against the spread, or the entire concept of odds, you can visit our Betting Primer for a fulsome introduction. But here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: the team who is deemed the favorite has to “lay” points in a game. This means winning the game outright is no longer enough. The favorite has to win by a certain number of points in order for their backers to win their bets.
Conversely, the underdog “gets” points. This means you can still win your bet even if that team loses the game, so long as they lose by less than the spread. Often you will see a spread with a half-point attached to it, which is called a “hook”. The hook ensures there will not be a “push,” which is just a betting term for a tie. In the case of a push, most bookmakers will return all money wagered, and it is as if the bet never happened. This is why it’s important to know your bookmakers, though, as some count a push as a loss.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s dive deeper into the waters of betting against the spread. We’ll be covering (1) how point spreads are set, (2) why the spread changes during the week, and (3) how you can win betting against the spread.
(1) How Is The Point Spread Set?
The spread was designed to attract equal betting on both teams in a football game. The majority of NFL games have a perceived favorite, and without the addition of a spread, the majority of the money would be placed on that favorite. This would not be profitable for bookmakers unless the underdog wins. You can see why that’s a problem for them.
For example, when you look to the Week 1 matchup between the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears, how many are confident enough to bet money on the Bears winning the game outright? (If you are, just leave your name in the comments section and I’ll take that bet.) However, when you add a (-7) spread for Atlanta to cover, the money will be a lot more evenly dispersed. (To reiterate, the -7 spread means the Falcons must win by at least eight to cover the spread; the Bears just need to lose by less than seven to cover.)
The opening spread for each week is set shortly after the games wrap up on Sunday night. (Week 1 is the exception, with the lines coming out well in advance.) In creating these spreads, the bookmakers are not trying to guess the actual outcome of the game, rather they are only trying to determine the spread which will result in equal money being placed on both teams. In other words, they are reading the public perception of each team and game. Obviously, some math, team stats, and storylines are used, but they are all secondary to reading the public.
Bookmakers are not gamblers, themselves. Instead of letting their money ride on one team in particular, they are happy enough to just collect the “juice” (or “vig”) on each game. When betting the spread, your odds for both teams are often -110. This means the bettor has to wager $110 to win $100. Therefore, if the money is evenly split, the bookmakers profit: they simply pay the winners from the money collected from the losers and pocket the remaining 10%. Let’s use the Week 1 matchup of Kansas City at New England (-7.5) as an example and assume the money is evenly split to further illustrate this.
Let’s say a bookmaker takes 1,000 bets of $110 for New England to cover, and 1,000 bets of $110 for Kansas City to cover. Therefore, each bettor would win $100 if their team covers the spread, since the odds are -110 for each team.
Money bet on New England = 1,000 x $110
Money bet on New England = $110,000
Money bet on Kansas City = 1,000 x $110
Money bet on Kansas City = $110,000
Now let’s assume the Patriots win in blowout fashion, 42-7, covering the spread. All 1,000 individuals who bet $110 on the Pats win $100, while the Chiefs supporters surrender their wager to the bookmaker.
Money paid out to New England bettors: 1,000 x $100
Money paid out to New England bettors: $100,000
Money collected from Kansas City bettors: 1,000 x $110
Money collected from Kansas City bettors: $110,000
After both exchanges, the bookmaker has turned a nice profit ($110,000 – $100,000 = $10,000). And remember, this is only for one game. The more popular sportsbooks are likely taking more than 1,000 bets on each game. That can result in hundreds of thousands in profits each week. You may have now gathered why bookmakers like to include a hook in the spread; a push results in no juice collected. But sometimes half a point can sway the betting too much.
So the next time you’re wondering how a bookmaker came up with the spread for a specific game, just take a good look in the mirror.
(2) Why Do Spreads Change During The Week?
Now that you know how the bookmakers create a spread, it should be easy to understand why the spread changes. Quite simply, a spread changes throughout the week if considerably more money has been bet on one team. The bookmaker will alter the spread to encourage more betting on the other team, so the money evens out and they aren’t at risk of losing money. Here’s another example from Week 1 to help out:
Let’s say Carolina’s starters look really good in their limited action during the first preseason game, and bettors flock to the Panthers (-4.5). The bookmakers’ first response may just be to adjust the odds to -120 for Carolina and even money for San Francisco (meaning bettors have to wager $120 to win $100 when betting Carolina, and only have to wager $100 to win $100 when betting San Francisco). But if the money is too lopsided, you will see the spread increase to -5.5 or -6 for Carolina, to leverage other bettors to start putting their money on San Francisco.
Of course, injuries play a major role in the spread moving, as well. Occasionally you won’t see a spread come out for a particular game until later in the week when the injury reports are released. If a star player’s status is unknown for the following week, bookmakers will just wait until news regarding that player is released. If a star player is ruled out at the last minute, bookmakers will change the spread as quickly as possible (knowing that savvy, attentive bettors will try to get their money down as quickly as possible, hoping to beat the movement in the spread).
Now that you know how spreads are set and why they move, let’s get to how you can win betting against the spread.
(3) How You Can Win Betting Against The Spread
The heading is a little misleading. Unfortunately, there is no formula that results in sure money. (When one does exist, you’ll find it here first. Promise.) There are, however, certain strategies that will help maximize your chances of success.
First off, it’s important to know the general “rule” that a game with two evenly matched teams will often result in an opening 2.5-point spread in favor of the home team. Conventional wisdom is that home-field advantage is worth three points in the NFL.
As we’ve discussed, public perception can and will change the opening spread between two evenly matched teams. Therefore, if you believe two teams are evenly matched and don’t see a 2.5-point spread, then it’s a game to look into.
Here’s a list of some of the other details of a game you should be considering before making a bet against the spread:
• Where is the game being played?
As just mentioned, homefield advantage is a real thing. The spread incorporates that, and so should you.
• Is it a divisional matchup?
Say what you will about the 49ers, who went 2-14 in 2016, but they were 4-2 ATS (against the spread) when playing NFC West foes. Familiarity tends to be an equalizer in football.
• Where and when did each team play the previous week?
After playing on Monday Night Football in a different time zone, even the best teams can look a little sluggish the following week due to getting less time to rest and having to travel across the country.
• Monitor the spreads
Waiting until Sunday morning to make your bets can result in you missing out on a favorable line that was available on Thursday.
• Know your injury reports
Football is the ultimate team game. Thus, it’s not enough to only be aware of the health of each team’s quarterback.
• Be aware of individual matchups
In spite of what I just said in the last tip, some players and coaches just have each other’s numbers. For example, Tom Coughlin is 5-2 when coaching against Bill Belichick.
• Know the teams
Yes, having the knowledge of each team’s strengths and weaknesses seems rather obvious. But also be aware of the popularity of each team. The Packers and Cowboys are often dubbed “public” teams because they have legions of fans who like to bet on them. That can and does push spreads higher when the on-field matchup doesn’t justify it.
• Don’t go overboard on parlays/teasers
A parlay is just a fancy term for a bet that involves more than one team. A teaser is a parlay that allows bettors to adjust the spread in their favor in exchange for a lesser potential payout. These two types of bets are common when betting against the spread, but ensure you’re cautious as to how many teams you’re including in one bet. The potential payout of an eight-team parlay may look tempting, but your odds of winning the parlay are extremely slim. Upsets and unforeseen events occur in the NFL, and you should be counting on them.
Following those eight rules won’t make you a sure winner. As Kevin Garnett so eloquently put it, “anything is possible,” especially in the world of sports. But those considerations will give you a better chance to beat the house.
Now that you have obtained an enviable foundation of knowledge on betting against the spread in the NFL, get out there and give it the old college-try. Perhaps a little more responsibly than the phrase may suggest, though.