Point Spreads – A Quick How-to

There may not be a more basic sports bet than point spreads. Even casual bettors or non-bettors usually have some knowledge and awareness of this betting type.

No matter the sportsbook app you choose to use in Ontario or any other province, you are going to encounter point spreads. So, here is an informational resource for all things point spread, and how you can incorporate spreads into your wagering portfolio.

What are point spreads?

A point spread is a wager that concerns itself with the margin of victory in a game or match. 

A spread begins with an estimate from the sportsbook about what it perceives the eventual margin will be for an upcoming contest. You, the bettor, are then tasked with choosing whether you believe the favourite will win by more than the book’s estimate, or that the underdog will make it a closer game. If the underdog happens to win the game, then a spread bet on the team is automatically successful.

Like many bets, point spreads do come with their own bit of lingo. A favourite that exceeds the estimated spread in victory is said to have “beaten” the spread. By contrast, an underdog that loses by fewer points than the spread “covers” the spread. 

Spreads are usually the very first wager that you see for every game. Generally, it is the left-most wager of the usual trio – spreads, moneylines, and totals. A typical spread listing might look like this:

  • Team A +3.5 -110
  • Team B -3.5 -110

In this example, the estimated margin of victory is 3.5 points. Sportsbooks usually set spreads in half-points in order to avoid ties, so expect that you’ll have to make a choice when you bet them. The + and – signs next to the numbers denote which team is favoured to win the game. Since the – sign is on Team B’s line, Team B is expected to prevail.

Before you make your choice, it’s important to understand what potential payouts you might receive.

How do payouts work on point spreads?

Alongside the numbers denoting the spread for the game, the sportsbook also publishes the payout ratios for a successful wager. As is often the case, books typically use a three-digit moneyline as a quick-and-easy way to express the potential profit on a bet.

Unlike moneylines, however, it is incredibly rare that you would encounter a positive payout ratio on a point spread. In fact, they are usually going to be identical, and typically only vary a few points from -110.

If you’ve never dealt with moneylines before, it’s important to understand that the negative number you’re seeing is the amount that you must wager in order to win $100 in profit. So, a successful bet at -110 will result in a $210 payout for you – the $100 profit plus the $110 you wagered. 

The moneyline payouts are, as mentioned, ratios. You don’t have to bet in exactly the listed denomination. The book will automatically adjust your potential payout in accordance with the size of your wager.

Incidentally, you do not receive exactly a 1:1 payout on a successful wager because the sportsbook is baking its profit into the payout. Generally speaking, you pay a 10% premium – known as the “vig” – for every spread bet you make.

The middle

Now, there’s nothing wrong with betting one side of the spread or the other. However, spread betting does present an uncommon opportunity from time to time. Occasionally, you may recognize that the option to bet the middle is available.

Betting the middle consists of making two spread wagers at different times in the lead-up to the contest. If you do so correctly, you give yourself the chance to win both wagers. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say that you see the following spread bet listing:

  • Team A -5.5 -110
  • Team B +5.5 -110

You know both of these teams, you’ve done your research, and you think that Team A is going to win the game by more than 5.5 points. So, you place a wager and move on.

Then, a few days later, you see a spread listing for the same game on another sportsbook. It looks like this:

  • Team A -9.5 -110
  • Team B +9.5 -110

Now, you still think that Team A is going to win, but you also believe that Team B is going to make a better game of it than 9.5 points. So, you place an equivalent bet on Team B to cover at 9.5 points.

Congratulations, you’ve just bet the middle! Your very worst possible outcome is that you lose the portion of your bet that goes to vigorish on one of your wagers. Here’s what can happen:

  1. Team A wins by more than 9.5 points. You win your first bet but lose your second bet. Your outcome: -$10
  2. Team B loses by fewer than 9.5 points or wins the game outright. You lose the first bet but win your second bet. Your outcome: -$10
  3. Team A wins by more than 5.5 points but not more than 9.5 points. You win both bets. Your outcome: $420

So, in essence, middling allows you to risk only a small percentage of your actual wager amount and take a chance at a double win. Obviously, you need to do your bet calculations carefully if the two payouts are not the same. 

However, middling can be an excellent way to hedge against losing the entire value of your bet. 

Alternate point spreads

Although sportsbooks publish only a single definitive spread on the front page of their main displays, most of them are willing to accept action on many different spreads. In fact, if you look into the “more wagers” section of the game you want to bet, you’ll often find every single reasonable spread option that you might want to bet. 

Now, you may wonder why you’d want to take an alternate spread over the posted one. The answer is simply that you might want to capitalize on your own perception of how the game will go. If you judge that the sportsbook’s primary estimate is inaccurate, you may be able to find a better bargain for your money.

For instance, let’s say that you know a star player on one team has had a particularly rough week personally. They’ve been battling several nagging injuries. Their last few games have been lacklustre.

Now, if you have a deep understanding of this player, you might be able to determine that either his performance is going to continue to decline, or that he’s going to break out of his slump in this game. Perhaps you remember that he matches up particularly well with his opposite number on the opposing team, and might take the opportunity to get back in the groove. 

Thus, even though his team is favoured to win by 10.5 points, you expect the game to be more of a rout. If he plays as inspired as you believe he will, you can see the game ending with a margin of 15 points. 

So, you seek out the option for betting the team at -14.5 points. In doing so, you make yourself eligible for a payout ratio of even money or better. You may even have the opportunity to win with a positive ratio and get a multiplier effect going for your bet.

Now, to be fair, oddsmakers at sportsbooks are quite good at what they do. So, you shouldn’t grab an alternate point spread unless you have a compelling reason to bet it. However, the main thing to understand is that you do not have to feel obligated to accept the first point spread you see as gospel.

Puck and run lines

If you look for point spreads on certain sports, you may not see them. Notably, hockey and baseball games do not offer the standard spread bet. Oddsmakers offer bets known as the puck line and the run line, respectively.

Although hockey and baseball are quite different from each other, they bear one key similarity. Both of them routinely have matches that end with a one goal/one run margin. Thus, they are quite difficult for oddsmakers to set their marks for the typical spread.

Instead, you find the puck/run line as an option. In this type of wager, the spread is set at a standard 1.5 goals or runs, regardless of what the margin might actually be between the two teams. 

To account for the differences between the teams, then, the oddsmakers vary the payout ratios far more dramatically than they do for regular spread bets. You’ll see payout options that are much closer to moneylines, in fact. If you want to think about puck and run lines as hybrids of moneylines and spreads, that’s not a bad approach.

Tips for betting point spreads

You may have wagered on point spreads before. They are one of the most common sports bets available. However, if you’ve never tried the spread or haven’t felt comfortable with it when you have, here are a few pointers (no pun intended) for ways to make your spread experience more pleasant.

Formulate rough spreads of your own first

Although you’ll undoubtedly see the sportsbook’s lines before you do anything else, try not to be influenced by them. Instead, if you see a matchup you may want to bet, see if you can make a rough guess about the eventual margin of victory.

Although your estimate is unlikely to be as accurate as the pros’ guesses, making a rough guess is a good way to get your mind working about the elements that go into a spread bet. Check out the standings, check out each team’s record, and look at their recent game histories. 

Get the official lines as early as possible

Note the sportsbooks’ spreads for your chosen game as early as possible. Ideally, you get them mere hours after the completion of each team’s previous game. 

Don’t act on them just yet. That’s not why we need them. 

Compare your spreads and the initial odds

Once you have the initial odds in hand, start comparing them to your rough estimate. See how your guess compares to the professionals’ take on the game. 

Interestingly enough, the accuracy of your own spread isn’t terribly important. What we want to do is investigate the differences between the way you see the game and the way oddsmakers do. Why do they think the game will go differently? What are they giving more credence? What are they thinking is going to have less of an effect?

Look for news coming out of both teams’ camps. Look at injury reports. You have to be a bit of a detective in order to suss out the reasons behind the lines.

Wait and watch the lines

Spreads are not static measures. They move as the game approaches. They move because bettors are placing wagers on one side of the bet or the other, and the sportsbook is attempting to balance its payout liabilities on either side. 

In other words, the movement of the spread can give valuable information about which way the “smart money” believes that the game will go. If you see the spread getting larger, then professional handicappers believe the favourite is set to win the game handily. If the spread shrinks, then it’s going to be a tighter matchup, and a bet on the underdog might make more sense.

Take a close look at both teams

Think holistically about the teams involved in the upcoming matchup, too. After all, a team’s record doesn’t tell the whole story about how the team will play in its next game.

Examine how the teams are playing most recently. Are they slumping? Are they on the rise? Did a key player get injured or return from injury? Is there any external turmoil or distraction that might affect the team’s performance?

You should also take a look at how the teams play against one another. Have they met earlier in the season? Did the winner look dominant? Does it seem as though the loser is spoiling for revenge? How do they stack up with one another? Does one team seem tailor-made to beat the other? Are the teams rivals with one another, as rivals tend to play closer to each other, regardless of how good they are otherwise.

You get the idea. Your answers may not change much about how you (and the books) see the game, but you might be able to detect some good betting opportunities if it seems like one book or another has missed something.

Shop for the best lines

We mentioned the fact that you might be seeing the spreads on several different books at a time. This practice – shopping the lines – is an essential step and the last one you should perform before you wager.

So, if you’ve decided that you want to bet the favourite and you can find options at both -7.5 and -6.5, you should bet the latter option because the victory conditions for your wager are one step closer. Remember – the varying spread doesn’t have anything to do with the actual outcome of the game. If you’re willing to bet a team at -7.5 anyway, you should jump at the chance to knock a point off the requirement.

Conversely, if you believe the underdog is going to cover (and/or win outright), you should want the spread to be as large as it can be. If you believe that the underdogs will lose by no more than 8 points, a bet at +12.5 would look pretty appetizing.

Maximize your advantage whenever you can. It’s hard to win at sports betting, and you have to grab equity wherever you can find it. Your bankroll will thank you for it in the long run.

Bet within your limits

The final tip is a universal one for all types of sports betting. At no time should you bet with money that you need for, literally, anything else in your life. Even money that is earmarked for kids’ toys or dinner out with your significant other should remain saved for those purposes over betting with it.

Staying within your limits is true for both individual wagers and in the aggregate. Because online sports betting moves so quickly – especially with regard to live wagering – you have to watch your bankroll and make sure you don’t overextend yourself. Whether you lose it all in one fell swoop or go broke $5 at a time, you still put yourself in an unfortunate position.

If you find that you are routinely exceeding the money or time limits that you set for yourself, you should take a break from betting. If you need more assistance beyond that, be sure to reach out to the numerous responsible gambling resources available to you in Canada.

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