Is It Better to Bet the Spread or Moneyline?

The crowded sports calendar means that there’s always a range of games to explore at sportsbooks. The same holds true for ways to wager on the contests that you are most interested in. Two of the most popular options are moneylines and spreads.

The moneyline is simple in nature and a great starting point for new bettors as a result, but the potential returns will vary. The spread bet is a bit more complex and requires some seasoning, but the profit potential is more straightforward.

Now that legal single-game wagering is close to becoming a reality in Ontario, it’s a great time to compare and contrast these two ways to wager. This guide will cover how both bets work and what might make the most sense for you.

What’s a moneyline bet?

A moneyline bet is one of the simplest wagers to understand. The aim is to pick the winner from two possible choices, such as which team will come out on top in an NHL game. For example, you could wager on the winner of this matchup.

  • Ottawa Senators +160
  • Toronto Maple Leafs -180

We’ll cover the odds in full detail in a bit. For now, just know that negative odds indicate favourites and positive odds are for underdogs. If you pick the Leafs and they go on to win, you’ve won your bet, as all that matters is which side wins. While simple in nature, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to win moneyline bets. After all, anything can happen when two teams square off.

How does point spread betting work?

The spread refers to a number the sportsbook sets that represents the estimated scoring differential for the game. It’s most common in football and basketball betting, but there are variations of it elsewhere. For example, NHL betting sites will use a puck line, while MLB betting sites use the run line.

In those two sports, the number will generally be 1.5, but some books will offer alternative lines, as well.

When it’s a spread for an NFL, CFL or NBA game, the number can range from the low single digits all the way to 10+ points. As an example, a line for an NFL game might look like this:

  • Seattle Seahawks +2.5 (-110)
  • Buffalo Bills -2.5 (-110)

The wager appears with the spread the sportsbook has set and the actual odds for betting on either side. As with the moneyline, a negative spread points to the favourite and positive indicates the underdog. In our example, the Bills are favoured by 2.5 points over the Seahawks.

When wagering on the spread, the side you choose has to cover the listed number for the bet to win. In the case of the Bills, they have to win the game by three points or more to cover. The Seahawks can lose by two points or fewer or win the game outright to cover.

The spread bet is incredibly popular as it can add meaning to even potentially lopsided games. The variable of which side will cover the spread generates a lot of interest.

Moneyline vs. spread — reading the odds

If the moneyline odds are close — for instance, -120 for the favourite and +110 for the underdog — then the oddsmaker sees a potentially tight game. When there’s a bigger gap — such as -210 and +190 — the game appears to be more of a mismatch, at least on paper.

  • Ottawa Redblacks +120
  • Toronto Argonauts -140

For this CFL game, the odds are somewhat in the middle. The Argonauts are the favourite, but not by an overwhelming amount. Over on the spread, the same rules apply for negative and positive numbers. It’s also the same story when it comes to the size of the spread. A game with a two-point spread indicates a close matchup, while a game with a spread of 11 points equals a clear advantage for the favourite.

  • BC Lions +5.5 (-110)
  • Hamilton Tiger-Cats -5.5 (-110)

In this example, we’re leaning toward the higher end with the Tiger-Cats a clear favourite at 5.5 points on the spread. For the CFL, a spread of under three points is a close one. And games with spreads over seven points are apparent mismatches.

At most books, the starting odds for spread bets will be -110 on both sides. Once bets start to come in, the odds can shift in response, such as -112 on one side and -108 on the other.

Why sports betting lines move

After the initial release of odds, the numbers don’t stand still. You can expect to see at least some movement in the odds right up to game time. The most heavily bet contests will have the most activity and likely several shifts.

There are two main reasons why lines move: in response to betting action or due to a new development for one of the teams. As far as action, bets will start coming in as soon as the numbers come out. If most of the money is going one way, then books can adjust the lines in a bid to level things out. They do this by making the odds on the popular side worse, and giving better odds to the less popular side.

As for developments, it could be an injury to a key player, a question over playing time for a major contributor, potential weather or something else that could impact the proceedings. If it’s enough to potentially influence the outcome, you may see an adjustment.

When handicapping the games you want to bet on, it’s good practice to track the lines from where they opened to where they are now. This can point you to where the public money is heading or to news you may have missed. Also, remember to shop around and compare the odds at multiple books.

Sportsbooks vs. Pro-Line for moneyline bets and spreads

The Pro-Line games from Ontario Lottery and Gaming offer people in the province the chance to wager on sports, albeit with limited options. All of the Pro-Line options are parlay-style bets. This means you have to make multiple choices and be correct on all of them to win.

Single-game wagering at sportsbooks is a different story. You have control over what you want to bet on and in what fashion. In both places, you’ll find moneyline and spread wagers to consider.

On Pro-Line, you’ll wager on what amounts to a parlay card with a range of selections. Meanwhile, sportsbooks will set moneyline and spread odds, and they will adjust from there in response to betting action.

If you have played Pro-Line, any experience you have gained can certainly help with the transition to single-game wagering. Once you see the variety of options and market activity at sportsbooks, the differences between the choices will be clear.

Moneyline vs. spread — where can you win more money?

To turn a profit from betting on sports, you need to win more than you lose, and at a high enough percentage to cover the juice that the sportsbooks charge. Also called vig, sportsbooks build this into the odds, and it amounts to a fee or commission for facilitating the bet.

Since the profit potential depends on your success rate, there is no guarantee that one wager will be more profitable than another. However, you can determine the profit potential for individual bets pretty easily.

Before you place a bet at a sportsbook, you’ll be able to see the potential return. It’s still a good idea, however, to know how to ballpark things yourself. You can do so by looking at the odds and remembering the following:

  • For negative odds, the number represents how much you’d have to wager for the chance at a $100 return. So you would need to wager $110 at odds of -110 for a chance to win $100.
  • For positive odds, the number equals how much you would win on a successful $100 bet. So at odds of +120, you would stand to win $120 if you wagered $100 and won.

In both cases, the ratio remains the same for bigger and smaller bets. For instance, at odds of +120, you would stand to win $12 on a $10 wager.

Since spread bets start with a baseline of -110, it’s easier to project the break-even point and profit points for your wagers. On the moneyline, it’s more challenging as the odds can be all over the map.

In a bid to find more consistency, plenty of seasoned moneyline bettors will only wager when they see value. For example, they’ll be happy to bet on the underdog at positive odds when they like that side, but may have a limit on the odds they’ll wager on for favourites.

No matter your betting style, it’s always good practice to track your results. You can break it down by bet type and see where you’re having success and where you’re coming up short. By tracking results, you’ll see where you may need to adjust your approach.

Are moneylines and spreads available for all sports?

For the major team-based sports, you’ll find moneyline and spread wagers, but remember that the latter may go by different names. Here’s what to look for:

  • CFL, NFL, NBA, college football and college basketball: Moneyline and spread
  • NHL: Moneyline and puck line
  • MLB: Moneyline and run line
  • MLS and other soccer leagues: Moneyline and three-way spread or handicap

As mentioned earlier, spreads are most common with football and basketball betting. The numbers can be all over the place, from low single digits to 10+ points. For the other sports, the spread element is usually a set number, like 1.5 for MLB and NHL or 0.5 for soccer.

You’ll also find forms of both wagers in other sports. For example, you’ll find moneyline bets in head-to-head golf and tennis matchups, as well as for UFC fights. The spread element is also present in tennis, but with games or sets instead of points.

CFL moneyline and spread examples

When you look at an upcoming slate of CFL games at an online sportsbook, you’ll see odds and lines for three bets: moneylines, spreads and totals. For the first two, you’ll see something like this:

  • Montreal Alouettes                    +155                +3.5 (-110)
  • Saskatchewan Roughriders   -175                 -3.5 (-110)

The Roughriders are favoured on the moneyline and a 3.5-point favourite on the spread. A straight-up victory for Saskatchewan is good news for moneyline bettors on that side, but they’ll need to win by four points or more to cover the spread.

If the Alouettes pull off the upset, bettors on that side will get paid at +155 odds. And a victory will cover the spread for Alouette bettors. This will also be the case if Montreal keeps the margin to three points or fewer, such as a 31-30 loss.

For payouts at the listed CFL odds, you’d have to bet $175 at -175 to win $100, while a $100 bet at +155 returns $155 for a winner. On the spread, a winning wager of $110 at -110 returns $100, while a straight $100 bet brings back $90.90 to the winning side.

NBA moneyline and spread examples 

The NBA season is a busy one, but oddsmakers will have odds and lines at the ready for all the games. If there’s ever a delay in the numbers, that means they’re waiting on a key piece of information, such as injury news for one or more players. Here’s an example of a listing:

  • Detroit Pistons      +120   +2.5 (-110)
  • Toronto Raptors   -140    -2.5 (-110) 

Toronto is slightly favoured over Detroit on the moneyline and a 2.5-point favourite on the spread. An outright win means moneyline bettors on the Raptors get paid, while spread bettors need a victory of three points or more. If you bet on the Pistons and they win, you’ll receive winnings at +120.

Detroit would also cover the spread with the upset victory, or by keeping the final score to two points or fewer, such as a 110-108 defeat. When examining odds and lines, note that a tight spread also means that the moneyline odds will be close. On the opposite extreme, a larger spread results in a wider range on the moneyline.

NFL moneyline and spread examples 

All NFL games attract plenty of betting action. The odds and lines will come out early in the week, which means you’ll have time for handicapping. The numbers can move in response to NFL betting action and other factors, but here’s an example of what a game might look like at time of release:

  • Minnesota Vikings     +180            +4.5 (-110)
  • Green Bay Packers     -220             -4.5 (-110)

Green Bay is a home moneyline favourite, and favoured by 4.5 points on the spread. A simple victory is enough for moneyline bettors on that side, but those who wagered on the spread need the team to win by five points or more to cover.

A Minnesota upset win leads to payouts at +180 for bettors on that side, as well as a cover for spread bettors. The Vikings can also cover by not losing by more than four points, such as a 30-27 defeat.

Moneyline vs. spread — which is the better bet?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, but there are factors you can use to determine which wager makes the most sense. At the top of the list, there are two simple points to consider:

  • If you prefer simplicity,  moneyline betting is the way to go. All you need to do is decide which side you think will win the game.
  • Spreads provide more of a challenge, but the reward is that you have a chance at more predictable returns on a long-term basis.

The potential returns are another key consideration, but that comes with a big caveat: You should never place a wager solely based on the profit potential. Instead, it’s about placing yourself in a position to make the best possible decisions.

That said, many seasoned handicappers like the fact that you can project potential returns on a consistent basis with the spread. For example, a $100 bettor knows that the return will be $90.90 at the standard odds of -110.

On the moneyline, potential returns will vary based on the odds. When betting on underdogs, the positive odds are attractive. For favourites, you can certainly find value, but the returns will be muted when wagering on heavily favoured teams.

As an alternative, you could take a selective approach with the moneyline. As an example, you could make the following two guidelines key tenets of your strategy.

  • Keep expectations realistic with underdogs and only wager when you truly believe an upset is coming.
  • Pass on massive favourites and stick to betting on those with odds of -200 or less to generate returns of at least a certain percentage.

Ultimately, you should be looking at all of your wagers on a case-by-case basis. There will be times when your research points you to the moneyline as the appropriate call, and others in which you find an edge on the spread. By having a full grasp of how both bets work and the risk-to-reward ratio, you’ll have a much better handle on what works best for you.