What is Point Spread Betting?

Point spreads are a bet that most everyone likely has encountered. If moneylines are a bet about what will happen, spreads are about how it will happen. Because a point spread wager deals with margin of victory, they act as a shorthand for fans to describe exactly the degree to which one team will beat another.

Point spreads may well be the most common type of sports wager of them all. Every sportsbook uses point spreads as one of its primary bets. In fact, a typical bet listing for a game includes three wagers — the spread, moneyline and total — with the spread bet often appearing first. If you’re planning to bet on sports, then, it’s important to understand the ins and outs of point spreads. If you are new to sports betting in Ontario, then you should use this page as a primer for one of the basic betting types. If you are experienced but rusty, then this page is a terrific reference tool to have in your back pocket.

Either way, the sections below contain everything you ever wanted to know about point spreads.

What are point spreads?

A point spread bet is a wager about the eventual margin of victory. The oddsmaker or sportsbook estimates the likely outcome of a game as a point separation between the two opponents. Bettors then wager whether they think the favoured team will exceed the estimate (aka “beat the spread”) or the underdog will lose by fewer points than the estimate (aka “cover the spread”). An underdog that wins the game outright automatically covers, but it doesn’t have to win for your bet to succeed. What matters is that the underdog avoids losing by more than the given spread.

You’ll see point spreads as identical numbers next to each team name. The only difference is that one of the numbers will be positive and the other will be negative. The positive number indicates the underdog, and the negative number indicates the favourite. It’s a bit easier to describe if you see an example, though, so take a look at the listing below:

From DraftKings

The point spread listing is the first column on the left. The Washington Wizards are at +2.5, while the Toronto Raptors are at -2.5. In other words, the Raptors are 2.5-point favourites. For bettors to collect on the Raptors’ spread, therefore, Toronto must win by more than 2.5 points. Otherwise, bettors on the Wizards will celebrate their team’s coverage of the spread.

The use of a number that ends in .5 is a common tactic to avoid the possibility of the final score landing exactly on the spread number, resulting in a push. Although some spreads do appear as whole numbers, sportsbooks prefer to avoid having to pay back every bet when no one wins and no one loses. The use of the half-point is standard practice for both spreads and totals.

One last thing to know about the basics of the spread bet is that it is often the subject of a misnomer in casual conversations. It is not uncommon for bettors to discuss the action on various games and make frequent references to “the line” on a game. You might think that they are referring to the moneyline. However, in these conversations, they are actually talking about a point spread. So, don’t get “the line” confused with “the moneyline” — they are not the same.

How do point spreads pay out?

Now, you might have noticed the -110 next to each team’s name in the spread column. That number is the payout ratio for winning wagers on that team. As a general rule, a successful spread bet will pay out at a 1:1 ratio minus the cut that the sportsbook keeps for itself. The sportsbook’s profit is called the vigorish, or “vig” for short.

If you’re familiar with how the moneyline works or American odds format, then you can probably guess what the -110 means. However, if you’re new to sports betting, the three-digit number next to each spread bet is the amount of money that you would need to wager to collect $100 in profit on a winning bet. In this case, you would need to bet $110 to realize a $100 gain.

A bet of $110 denotes the $100 that you’re betting on the game plus the 10% vig that the sportsbook requires. This figure, -110, is the standard for most spread bets, and you should think twice about betting at a book with payouts that do not hover around this mark. Generally speaking, every $100 you bet successfully is worth $90.91 in profit, or a total payout of $190.91.

Note that you don’t have to bet in those three-digit increments, however. As we mentioned, it is a ratio, and the sportsbook will automatically scale your potential payout according to how much you bet. If you want to know how much money you could win, divide 100 by the sportsbook’s number and multiply that by your bet size.

The payout ratio’s narrative

Sports betting is a game of information. The bettor or the sportsbook with the best sources and implementation of the available data is the most likely to prevail. This means we need to glean as much knowledge as we can from the available information, and it turns out that the payout ratio tells us a vital piece of the puzzle.

As we mentioned, the standard payout ratio is -110. However, you may notice that certain games or teams have numbers that vary from this mark. The reason is that the sportsbook is adjusting the payout based on the bets that it has already received.

In a sportsbook’s ideal scenario, the bets on a game would be balanced on both sides, and it would keep a bit extra for the vig. This situation doesn’t always happen, however — stories abound of books taking a bath on games with unexpected outcomes. However, as the bets roll in, the sportsbook might decide to encourage or discourage betting on one side or the other.

So, if you see a team with a payout ratio nearer to zero (closer to -100 than -110), then you can deduce that the sportsbook is trying to make wagers on that team more attractive to bettors. That information tells us that the “smart” money — experienced handicappers and professional sports bettors — is backing the other side of the bet and the book is trying to narrow the deficit. Conversely, the book might make a team more expensive to bet on (-111 or less) to dissuade people from backing that side.

What you have to decide, then, is where the better deal is. Smart sports bettors often have solid reasons for betting the way they do, so it can make sense to follow their lead. However, it is also possible that a good bet at -110 is not a good bet at -112 or -114. You must take these variations as crucial information, but not the deciding factor in your betting strategy.

Isn’t 10% a really high percentage?

If you’ve played other casino games before, hearing about a 10% cut for the sportsbook isn’t exactly music to your ears. After all, games like blackjack and craps offer bets that surrender less than a percentage point of edge to the house. Many slot machines, the “one-armed bandits,” advertise a return-to-player rate well above 90%. It doesn’t immediately make sense why you’d ever bet on sports if the house edge is so high.

Well, the good news is that it’s not actually that high. Although each bet is subject to 10% vig, generally speaking, some quick math shows how much the sportsbook is actually keeping. Let’s examine a hypothetical that can help illustrate the point.

Let’s say that two teams are playing, with a spread bet offering -110 for a winning wager on either side. After collecting bets for the week, the book has received exactly $1,100 in bets on Team A and $1,100 in bets on Team B. Altogether, that’s $2,200 in spread bets. The game takes place, and spread bets on Team A win. Here are how the payouts would go:

  • Team A bettors would receive $2,100 total — $1,000 in profit plus the $1,100 that they bet.
  • Team B bettors would receive nothing — they lost.
  • The sportsbook would keep the remaining $100.

So, in fact, the book only kept $100 out of the $2,200 in bets that it collected. That $100 divided by $2,200 indicates a house edge of 4.54%, rather than 10%. To put it another way, if the sportsbook was keeping 10%, it would’ve wound up with $220 from the pot, rather than $100.

Now, 4.54% is still not the lowest house advantage you can find in gambling, to be sure. However, the skill element of sports betting is where wagering on sports can become a net profitable activity. In order to break even, you have to win slightly more than 54.5% of your bets. Top sports bettors, in fact, usually win about 60% of the time. While betting on point spreads is certainly not a sure thing, the house edge is no reason to shy away from it or, for that matter, most other types of sports bets.

Puck lines and run lines

Because point spreads deal with the margin of victory, sports that do not ordinarily produce significant margins are a problem to estimate. After all, for a sport like hockey or baseball, games decided by a single score are a common occurrence. The solution from sportsbooks was the puck line and the run line.

Both of these bets work the same way, so don’t get them confused. The only difference is the sport. The puck line is, obviously, reserved for hockey games, while the run line is for baseball. In terms of structure, puck/run lines are hybrid bets that combine elements of point spreads and moneylines.

In either case, the line begins as a standard 1.5 goals or runs. Of course, no game can end in a 1.5-goal or 1.5-run margin, so you’re choosing between the favourite winning by two (or more) or the underdog losing by one (or winning outright).

The catch is that instead of varying the spread to account for the differences between two teams, the oddsmakers change the payout ratios more dramatically. So, instead of hovering around the standard -110, payouts will look much more like the standard moneylines, with distinct gaps between the two sides. For instance, look at these examples:

From FanDuel
From DraftKings

In the first example, we see the run line for a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays in the first column on the left, exactly where the spread would normally be. Similarly, the matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs features the puck line on the left side. As we mentioned, you can see the odds numbers are much different from a typical spread bet.

One thing that we want to point out, however, is the seeming discrepancy in the Canadiens/Maple Leafs puck line. The Maple Leafs are favoured to win the game by 1.5 goals, sure, but the payout for a successful wager makes that occurrence the underdog (+145). It doesn’t immediately make sense, but remember what the numbers are telling us. The sportsbook is estimating that Toronto is more likely to win the game. However, it also expects the game to be quite close, with a one-goal win by the Maple Leafs as the most likely scenario. Or, to put it another way, the Canadiens are more likely to lose, but not by more than a goal.

As the bettor, your job is to determine how accurate you feel that assessment is. If you think the Leafs will really take it to the Habs, then a bet on that side of the puck line might make sense. If you think the team from Montreal will put up more of a fight, then you might consider going in that direction. Alternatively, if you’d rather drink a cold Tims than bet on the Canadiens and against the Maple Leafs, perhaps you shouldn’t bet on this game.

Asian handicap

The small margins of victory common in hockey and baseball are also regular features in soccer games. Unfortunately, “the beautiful game” takes things a step further and can routinely end in a tie. Obviously, a wager based upon the margin of victory is problematic if there is no margin of victory at all. Oddsmakers get around this problem through the use of the Asian handicap.

This type of bet is so named because of its origin in Indonesia. You’ll find that it makes the favourite’s job much more difficult. Instead of dealing with the fact that soccer games may end in ties, the Asian handicap eliminates the tie as a wagering option and places the onus on the favourite to exceed the listed margin. In doing so, it manages to circle back around and act more like a traditional spread bet than the puck line or run line.

The Asian handicap is much easier to understand if you see a visual representation, so let’s look at some of those. First of all, here’s a basic example:

In this example, there is no handicap for either team. The “pk” is short for “Pick ’em” and means that there isn’t any allowance one way or another. For the most part, these bets are like traditional moneylines. Because there’s no provision for ties, a draw would result in your wager being a push. So, if you’re a soccer bettor and you want a true moneyline (without ties), this bet might be your answer. However, be aware that this option is not always available for Asian handicaps. Instead, the more common listings look like this:

At first glance, you might see no difference between these listings and the spread bets we covered above. However, it’s important to realize a few quirks about this system. The first thing to note is that the given margin in an Asian handicap is actually the condition for a tie. The favourites must win by a full goal over the spread to meet the bettors’ condition for victory. The spreads also round up and down to the nearest goal to decide the outcome, and there are different rules for “ties,” too.

Confused? Don’t worry, it’s not quite that bad. Let’s look at that first listing, where Wolverhampton is favoured by 0.25 goals. Since that rounds down to zero, the Wolves need only to win the game by one goal for bettors to collect. However, things get dicey if Watford manages to tie Wolverhampton. Because the Wolves are favoured, a tie equals a “half loss.” Thus, you would lose half of your stake and have the rest returned to you as a push.

Conversely, Watford bettors would experience a “half win.” They’d receive their full bets back plus a half bet’s worth of profit. The only catch is that the profit is subject to the vig, which is at -105 for this wager. So, for instance, if you bet $100 on Watford and the game was a draw, you’d get your $100 back, but you’d also get $47.61 in profit (100/105 x $50). An outright win for Watford would, of course, be an outright win for you.

Things change dramatically, though, if you shift the handicap by a mere half point to -0.75 for Wolverhampton. Now the Wolves must win by two full goals in order for bets on their side to win since the handicap rounds up to 1. A one-goal win is a full win for the team itself but only a half win for you. Incredibly, in this scenario, a Wolverhampton tie is a loss for bettors on that side.

On the other side, Watford bettors would need only a draw to collect their full win. A one-goal loss would be a half loss, so you’d get half your stake back. Only a loss of two goals or more would equal a complete loss of funds for the Watford faithful.

However, you must see the whole picture before you resolve to bet on the underdog in every game. Even though Watford could win the full bet for you with a tie, its payout ratio stands at -200. In other words, for every $100 in profit, you have to bet $200, so that same $100 bet from above would only return $150 to you in the best of circumstances. Even with the Asian handicap, you still have to do your homework to be successful.

The Asian handicap is a complex solution to a simple problem — how to handle spread betting in soccer without ties. If you can get your head around it, though, you might be able to find some bets you like within the different options available to you.

The middle

Can’t-lose scenarios don’t exist in any type of gambling, sports betting or otherwise. However, it is possible to find win-big, lose-small opportunities from time to time. One such opportunity exists with spread betting. If you know what to do, you might be able to bet the middle.

Point spreads are rarely stable. They move up and down according to the action each side of the bet receives. Furthermore, oddsmakers don’t always agree with one another’s assessments at different books. There is no central oddsmaking committee or anything, although many sportsbooks do use lines generated elsewhere. This means that keeping track of the movement of a spread is smart practice, regardless of whether you’re looking for a middle opportunity. If you can see which way the wind is blowing, it might be easier to place a winning bet.

For the middle, however, you’re looking for a specific set of circumstances. When you decide to try to middle, you are preparing to make two spread bets instead of one. You are actually going to bet on both teams to beat or cover the spread. However, you’re going to do so in such a manner that there are one or more potential outcomes in the game that would allow you to collect both bets.

Like many facets of sports betting, middling is easier to understand with an example. Let’s say that you’re looking to bet the spread on a basketball game between Team 1 and Team 2. Here’s the listing at your favourite sportsbook:

  • Team 1 -4.5      -110
  • Team 2 +4.5     -110

For now, let’s assume that our payouts are going to stay the same. We know they don’t always do so, but they’re not the subject of our study right now. In this scenario, Team 1 is favoured by 4.5 points. We think Team 1 is on a roll and is going to smoke Team 2, so we bet $100 on Team 1 at -4.5.

Now, we let some time go by, and on our way home from work, we stop by our second-favourite sportsbook. Over there, it has the spread for this matchup as follows:

  • Team 1 -8.5      -110
  • Team 2 +8.5     -110

So, clearly, other people think the same about Team 1 as we do. This sportsbook now estimates that Team 1 is favoured by nearly nine points. We still have our bet that Team 1 will win by more than 4.5 across town, so we don’t mind the adjustment. However, if we bet on Team 2 to lose by fewer than 8.5 points, then we can set ourselves up with some excellent outcomes. So we bet $100 on Team 2 at this sportsbook.

Here are our two bets:

  • $100 on Team 1 at -4.5
  • $100 on Team 2 at +8.5

In relation to our bets, the game will then conclude in one of the following ways:

  • Team 1 wins by nine points or more. We win our first bet but lose our second bet. Our overall result is a loss of $9.09.
  • Team 1 wins by four points or fewer or loses outright. We lose our first bet but win our second bet. Our overall result is, again, a loss of $9.09.
  • Team 1 wins by five, six, seven or eight points. We win both bets. Our overall result is a win of $181.82.

Essentially, betting this middle allows us to limit our potential loss on $200 worth of wagers to $9.09. In return, we take the chance that we might realize a profit of $181.82. Thus, betting the middle allows us to hedge against complete losses while maintaining a window of opportunity for big profits. Middling is a common strategy for professional sports bettors for this very reason, so you should probably take advantage of it if it comes up.

Middling is not something that happens every day, though. Furthermore, it usually occurs after the fact for most bettors, rather than as a planned event. Here’s what to look for if you’ve already placed a spread bet:

  • If you have bet on the favourite, then the middle is available if the spread increases.
  • If you have bet on the underdog, then the middle is available if the spread decreases.

You never have to middle if you don’t want to. However, risk reduction is usually a good plan in gambling.

Alternate spreads

Nothing in sports betting is gospel. The published odds are estimates based on experience, statistics and research, but they are still just estimates. As uncannily accurate as they are these days, there are still games where there is some uncertainty and wiggle room. For that matter, you might just have a different opinion on the matter.

Thus, you can often find scores of alternate spread bets if you do a bit of digging. They often appear if you choose to see all the wagers for a particular game. For instance, the first game of the 2021 NFL season featured the Tampa Bay Buccaneers playing the Dallas Cowboys. Here was a published line for that game:

From FanDuel

However, a click on “More wagers” leads to several accordion menus, including one called the “Alternate spread.” Expanding that accordion displays more than 100 spread options, ranging from Dallas at +33.5 (-3000) to Tampa Bay at +18.5 (-5000). In truth, if you think that the true spread is even further outside that range, you could probably contact the sportsbook and ask for it. The point is that you don’t have to settle for the established lines. If your research is telling you that the truth lies at a different mark, there is a way to bet what you want.

Wrapping up

Point spreads are probably the most common sports bet and one that many people understand. You are going to find it or a variant of it (puck line, run line, Asian handicap) for almost every game. However, like all sports bets, the procedure for wagering should start with you and your homework, not what the sportsbook produces. Study the numbers and try to get a feel for how to make your own spreads (or, at least, your own approximation), and make sure to take the clues into account. Some sports bettors make a career out of betting the spread alone, so there’s no shame in focusing on it. Whatever you do, make sure that you play within your limits and don’t let your emotions get the best of you. When emotions win, we usually lose when we bet on sports.