What is a Point Spread Bet?

Even if you’re not a big-time sports bettor, you’ve probably heard the term “point spread.” Any time there is a discussion about how much a team is favored by (or not) in a game, it’s referring to “the spread.” Since New York now offers online sports betting sites, you’re guaranteed to come across the point spread bet sooner rather than later.

No sportsbook operates without offering point spread betting. It may, in fact, be the most popular sports bet alongside the basic moneyline bet. So, whether you’re a beginning bettor or a seasoned handicapper, here’s your entry point/reminder about all things point spread related.

Live point spreads at online sportsbooks

See below for live point spreads as posted at online sportsbooks for today’s games. Use the drop-down menu on the left to toggle through the point spreads on NBA, MLB, NHL etc. Use the other menu to see moneyline or totals odds. Click on any odds to jump over to the sportsbook, claim any new player bonus you might be eligible for and start getting your spread bet down. Note: Until NY online sportsbooks are live, this feed will show point spreads offered at NJ online sportsbooks.

What does “the spread” mean in betting?

A point spread is a simple proposition at heart. A sportsbook’s oddsmakers will estimate the eventual margin of victory for a particular game, and bettors wager on the accuracy of that estimate. Within the estimate, of course, is a prediction about which team will win the game. So, in essence, a spread indicates both the eventual winner and the amount the winner is expected to win by.

One team in this estimation is the favorite — i.e., favored to win; the other is the underdog. Bettors wager either that the favorite will win by more points than the predicted margin (“beat the spread”) or that the underdog will avoid losing by more points (“cover the spread”).

It’s important to note that the underdog does not have to win the game for a spread bet on that team to prevail. The actual margin simply needs to be lower than the sportsbook’s number. Any underdog that wins outright also automatically covers the spread.

You can always tell the spread bet options by their listing on the board. Without fail, you will see one- or two-digit numbers next to each team’s name. The only difference is that one of the numbers will have a plus sign next to it, while the other will have a minus sign. The positive number is next to the underdog in the matchup, while the negative number is next to the favorite. Most of the time, the spread will be listed as a half-point decimal. The sportsbook does this in order to prevent a final score perfectly matching the spread.

In casual conversations, you may hear bettors or pundits talk about “the line” on a game. They are talking about the spread for the game when they are doing so. However, do not mix up this discussion with the moneyline. The moneyline is an entirely separate type of bet.

What payouts do spread bets offer?

More or less, every spread bet offers almost a 1:1 payout on your bet. So, for every dollar you wager, you could win almost a dollar.

The “almost” part of that description sticks out, of course. The standard spread bet payout will be 90.91% of your bet amount. In other words, a typical spread bet will pay you $90.91 for every $100 you bet.

We know what this payout is by looking at the number that appears alongside the spread listing itself. If you are familiar with the moneyline format, then it should be familiar to you, but let’s talk about it in depth. Here’s an example from the DraftKings Sportsbook app:

Spread betting at DraftKings

In this listing, the point spread is the option on the left. The Milwaukee Bucks are favored to win their matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves by 10.5 points. The moneyline listing next to the spread denotes the payout ratio for each option.

In this case, both teams are listed at odds of -110, which is the standard number that you will see. These ratios are never going to be positive, but may move up and down to encourage betting on one side or the other.

What we can gather is that DraftKings will pay out $100 for every winning $110 bet, meaning a successful $110 bet would result in a total payout of $210. Of course, you don’t have to bet in these increments. Each sportsbook will use the ratio to create a payout proportional to the size of your wager. So, for instance, if you only want to bet $50, you’d be in line for a profit of $45.45 and a payout of $95.45.

Point spreads and the house edge

The premium that you must pay to make a spread bet (or any other type of wager) represents the sportsbook’s cut of the money. The extra dollars on each wager are known as the vigorish, or “vig,” for short. As you may have gathered, the standard vig on most sports bets is 10% — hence, the standard payout ratio is -110.

If you see payouts that are different from -110, you can deduce whether the book is trying to encourage or reduce betting on one side of the bet or another. Consider this example:

Spread betting at DraftKings Sportsbook

In this game, the Brooklyn Nets are favored over the Sacramento Kings by 6.5 points. However, the payouts associated with each option are not the standard -110. Instead, we see that the Kings are listed at -114 and the Nets at -107.

So, to win $100 on a Kings bet, you would have to wager $114. On the other hand, you only would have to bet $107 to win $100 if you bet on the Nets. What this discrepancy tells us is that DraftKings has likely had much more action on the Sacramento side of the wager.

Since the goal for any sportsbook is to balance the inflow of bets with the outflow plus the vig, DraftKings is trying to encourage betting on the Nets by making it cheaper to bet on that side of the spread than on the Kings side.

10% sounds like a very high house edge

If you’re used to playing other casino games, a 10% house advantage probably sounds ridiculous. Slot machines usually have edges in the single digits, and most basic play options on table games offer a disadvantage of less than 5%. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first reason is purely mathematical. That 10% vig does not correspond with the actual house advantage you must face. Consider the following example:

  • Two teams are both paying -110 and happen to receive the exact same amount in wagers. For the sake of argument, let’s say they both receive $110 in wagers. That makes a total pot of $220.
  • No matter which team wins, the winning bettors will receive a total of $210 — their original wagers ($110) plus the $100 profit.
  • The losers get nothing, and the sportsbook keeps the remaining $10.
nhl spread bet
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

So, out of the $220 wagered, the sportsbook only ends up keeping $10. From those numbers, it turns out that the actual house edge is only 4.54%. Although this edge is higher than some table games, it is much closer to the median for the different options you have.

The second reason is the skill involved. Sports betting is one of the few forms of gambling that people can do as a profession. While we’re not suggesting that you quit your job to bet on games, it is not out of line to say that you can overcome the 4.54% and book a profit at least over the short term.

Spread bet options for hockey, baseball

Of course, not every sport is conducive to point spread betting. After all, you have to have a significant amount of scoring or the swings are too much for both the sportsbook and the bettors. Two sports that don’t fit the bill for spread betting are baseball and hockey, which often feature low final scores.

In order to offer a spread-like option, sportsbooks apps in New York offer the run line for baseball and the puck line for hockey. They work identically to each other and combine elements of both spread betting and moneylines to create their own option.

For baseball and hockey games, the sportsbook sets the standard run/puck line at 1.5 runs or goals. The sportsbook still chooses a favorite and an underdog, but the margin is always the same between the two. Because these sports don’t reliably have an onslaught of scoring and margins of victory, the sportsbook will adjust the payout ratios instead. In this regard, a run line or puck line is more like a moneyline bet, rather than a spread bet.

Look at this example from BetMGM Sportsbook:

Spread betting at BetMGM

The puck line is in the same location where you’d usually find the spread — the left column. As you can see, the spread is fixed at 1.5 goals — the New Jersey Devils are favored to beat the Buffalo Sabres, in this case.

However, you’ll notice that both payout ratios vary much more than usual from the standard -110. You can even see a negative payout amount for the Sabres to cover, meaning that BetMGM and/or the smart money bettors believe that a Sabres cover is the more likely scenario at this point. It’s a little odd, but the main thing to do is try to understand what the numbers tell us.

Spread betting option for soccer – Asian handicap

Sportsbooks also have a bit of a challenge with spread betting as it relates to soccer. In addition to the low scoring issue, many soccer games end in a tie. In fact, according to many sources, a soccer game has, roughly, a one in four chance of ending as a draw. So, blindly assigning a spread or even a run/puck line is problematic.

Enter the Asian handicap. This type of wager gets its name from its source, Indonesia, and its basic structure, which gives the underdog an advantage. The Asian handicap eliminates the draw game as an option and charges the favorite with the task of winning by a certain margin. In a sense, the Asian handicap is closer to a traditional spread bet than the run line or puck line.

So, the most basic listing gives no edge to either team, like this:

Asian handicap in soccer spread betting

“PK” means “pick ’em,” which means that in order for you to win your bet, your chosen team must prevail. However, as you can see, Manchester City is heavily favored over West Ham United. In fact, you would have to pay $1430 to win $100 from a Manchester City victory.

More or less, there’s no difference between this listing and a straightforward moneyline. The only difference is that a tie doesn’t do anything for you or the sportsbook — it would just be a push. However, Asian handicaps often come with many options — much like an alternative line, which we’ll cover in a moment. You might see a group of listings like this:

Soccer spread betting

You can bet on this game ending in a variety of scenarios. The tricky part, however, is that the listed spreads represent the break-even point for the two teams. The favorite must exceed the given spread by at least one goal to result in a successful wager. The outcomes also round up and down and have different results for ties.

Take, for instance, the option where Man City is favored by 0.25 goals. In that scenario, an MC win would be a winning bet. A loss would, obviously, be a loss. However, because of Manchester’s status as the favorite, a tie would result in a “half-loss” — you would receive half your wager amount back.

Conversely, West Ham would need to win by one goal or more to win for its bettors, and a loss would be a loss. However, a tie would give bettors a “half-win.”

Let’s look at another listing there, though. In the scenario where Man City is the favorite at -0.75, the Sky Blues would have to win by two goals to result in a winning bet, since (for the purposes of the spread), it’s the same as if they were at -1. A one-goal win would only yield a half win, and a tie or less would be a loss.

Meanwhile, West Ham could secure a full win for its bettors with a mere tie. A one-goal loss would only lose half for bettors, and it would take a two-goal deficit to lose the full amount.

You also need to take the listed payouts into account, too. According to the listings above, there is high confidence that Man City will prevail by at least two goals, due to the heavily negative payouts.

The Asian handicap bet is not as common in soccer betting as the three-way moneyline (aka 1×2), which offers a draw as a possible outcome. However, if you can make your peace with the wonky payout conditions, betting on soccer in this manner might actually turn out to be a simpler proposition.

Betting the middle with point spreads

Experienced sports bettors, both in New York and the rest of the world, are always on the lookout for opportunities to score big and lose little. Within point spreads, an opportunity that fits the bill pops up from time to time. Eagle-eyed bettors are always watching for an opportunity to bet the middle.

Point spreads, outside of the puck/run line examples above, are rarely set in stone. In fact, it is common for them to move as bettors place their early wagers. Remember, the sportsbook is always looking to balance the action on both sides of the wager, and an early imbalance can indicate that there is some sort of inaccuracy in the prediction.

However, it is within this movement that bettors can sometimes take advantage of the middle. Alternatively, they can also find middling opportunities by shopping at different sportsbooks, although this option is less likely.

Essentially, betting the middle involves making two separate point spread wagers. The two wagers will be on either side of the bet, so there will be no scenario in which you will experience a complete loss. However, if you plan it properly, you can give yourself the chance to win both bets. Here’s how it works.

Example of betting the middle

Let’s say that Team A and Team B are scheduled to play each other. Although different payouts might change the calculation a bit, assume that they are both listed at -110.

A week before the game, a sportsbook issues the following point spread:

  • Team A -6.5      -110
  • Team B +6.5     -110

Let’s say that we like Team B’s recent performances. It may not be able to beat Team A, but we think that it won’t lose by more than six points. So we place a bet on Team B at +6.5.

As it turns out, we’re not alone in our assessment. In fact, the smart money indicates to the sportsbook that the game is likely to be much closer than 6.5 points. So, the day before the game, the sportsbook adjusts the spread to favor Team A to win by 4.5 points.

Now, remember, we’ve bet that Team B will lose by fewer than 6.5 points. However, we also think that Team A will do better than winning by 4.5 points, so we place an equivalent wager on this option.

Going into the game, we now have the following outcomes for our wagers:

  • Team A beats Team B by more than 6.5 points, so we win our bet on Team A but lose on Team B.
  • Team A beats Team B by fewer than 4.5 points (or does not win at all), so we lose our bet on Team A but win on Team B.
  • Team A beats Team B by more than 4.5 points but fewer than 6.5 points, so we win both bets.

This last option is the middle. If Team A can prevail by a five- or six-point margin, we will satisfy the victory conditions for both of our wagers and can collect a double payout. On the other hand, if we can’t hit the middle, we’ll still collect on one wager and will only be out the amount of the sportsbook’s vig.

In short, the middle can be a great way to hedge your bets. The best thing to do is catch a spread listing as early as you can and make a wager, then watch how the line moves as the game approaches. The most likely outcome from middling is a small loss, but that loss is the risk you take for a chance at a double payout.

Alternate spread betting explained

There’s no law that says you have to agree with a sportsbook’s estimated margin of victory. For whatever reason, you may feel as though the advertised spread is inaccurate, and by betting at that position, you’re missing out on value. If that’s the case, alternative spreads may be just the thing for you.

For example, here is a listing from BetMGM:

Alternate spread betting at BetMGM

As usual, the spread listing is in the left column. BetMGM has St. Bonaventure as 1.5-point underdogs to Davidson, and both sides are paying the standard -110 payout. However, what if, as a New Yorker, you’ve been following the Bonnies all season and you know that they play better against teams like Davidson? Maybe you believe that the Bonnies are even money or may actually be a favorite to win. You head to the spreads section of the listings and see the following:

Spread listing

Now you have some options! If you think that the Bonnies will win by two, you can always take the standard spread at +1.5 and have some wiggle room if they come up short. However, you could also look at the -1.5 spread. Instead of laying money, you could get $120 for every $100 you wager.

On the other hand, you may think that St. Bonaventure has looked like it’s entering a slump. Maybe you believe that Davidson will beat the Bonnies by more than just a couple of points. If that’s true, then you could consider one of the choices in the right column. Even a small adjustment to a five-point Davidson win could be worth $145 for every $100 wagered.

Needless to say, you’re increasing your risk if you choose an alternative spread. Oddsmakers are pretty good at what they do and can be eerily accurate at predicting game outcomes. However, if you’ve done your homework on a particular team, division or conference, you might be able to suss out some opportunities for extra value.

By the way, the list above is not comprehensive. BetMGM offers spreads all the way out to 10.5 points on either side of the bet. So, if you believe that the established margin is incredibly incorrect, you can expect to find some well-paying options along the lines of your own estimate. However, you should have a pretty compelling reason to go against the oddsmakers and smart money bettors who analyze sports for a living.

Wrapping up point spread betting

Aside from moneylines, point spreads are likely the simplest type of sports bet you can make. Either the favorite is going to handle its business, or the underdog is going to be feeling spunky, and it’s your job to decide which outcome is more likely. Through a combination of statistical analysis, consideration of expert opinions and a bit of gut feeling, you can probably make some pretty solid estimates about the accuracy of the given betting line on a game. Some people do quite well sticking to the spread, and there’s no reason you can’t do so, too.

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