You’ve got plenty of betting options when you want to make a bet on which team you think is going to win a game. But what happens if you want to bet on a team that you think is going to lose? What if you want to bet on a team that you think is going to outperform the sportsbook’s expectations, but you don’t think has a shot to win? Are you out of luck or is there a way to capitalize on your prediction?
This is where spread bets come in. Essentially, a spread bet is a wager that allows you to bet on which team you think is going to outperform the sportsbook’s expectations. This has nothing to do with who wins or loses the game. It only has to do with which team shows up and plays a better game than the book expects.
In every game when it comes to the score, one team is going to overperform, and one team is going to underperform. Spread bets quantify this performance level and allow you to cash in when you know which team is going to have the better day.
In this guide, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about spread bets. We’ll discuss how they work, how to read them at the book, the strategies you need to win, and cover the overall benefits of this type of bet. By the end of this guide, you’ll be an expert on spread bets and be ready to employ them in your betting strategy.
Breaking Down a Spread Bet
So, how exactly do spread bets work and how does the sportsbook quantify performance levels?
The sportsbook accomplishes this by first deciding which team they think is going to win a game. Then, they decide by how many points, runs, or goals they think that team is going to win by. That number is known as the line or the spread. This allows the book to quantify performance using an easy to follow metric. Beat the other team by a larger point margin than expected… you outperformed. Lose by fewer points than you were expected to… you outperformed. Win, but by fewer points than you were expected too… you underperformed. Lose by more points than you were expected to… you underperformed.
Here’s an example to clarify things. Let’s look at an NFL game between the Patriots and the Eagles. Hint: for those of you that think this spread looks familiar, it is from a past Super Bowl. Here is what the spread for that game looks like.
- New England Patriots -6 (-110)
- Philadelphia Eagles +6 (-110)
This is what the spread will look like at any sportsbook you choose to bet at. We see four different pieces of data that we need to break down so you can fully understand spread bets. The first piece of data is which team you are betting on. The top line would be a bet on the Patriots, and the bottom line would be a bet on the Eagles. After the team name, you see either a plus or minus sign that signifies who is the favorite and who is the underdog. The team with the plus sign is the underdog, and the team with the minus sign is the favorite.
The number that follows the plus or minus signs is the spread number. This is how many points the sportsbook thinks each team is going to win by or lose by. Notice, the number is the same for both teams. This should logically make sense as if one team wins the game by a certain amount, the other team has to lose the game by the same amount. A team can’t win a game by 10, and the other team loses the same game by 5 points. If a team wins by 10 points, the other team loses by 10 points.
In the above example, this means that the sportsbook thinks that the Patriots are going to win the game by 6 points and the Eagles are going to lose the game by 6 points. The last number is the payout number. This number tells you how much you will be paid out if you correctly picked that team.
As you can see, the payouts are exactly the same for both teams which is very common with spread betting. With moneyline bets, the sportsbook alters the payout odds to encourage and discourage action on the different teams. With spread bets, instead of altering the payouts, the sportsbooks change the spread number to encourage and discourage action appropriately.
In some sports where fewer points, runs, or goals are scored, you may see different payouts for each side of the bet. For example, hockey and baseball will typically have varied payouts for their versions of the spread bet.
As we said earlier, the way to win a spread bet is to bet on the team that outperforms their expected results. In our example, the Patriots are expected to win by 6 points. This means, to outperform their expectations, they are going to need to win by more than 6 points. So, if they win the game by 7 or more points, they outperformed their expectations, and you win your spread bet!
In our example, the Eagles are expected to lose the game by 6 points. In order to outperform their expectations, they need to either win the game or lose by less than 6 points. This means that if they lose the game by 5 or fewer points, they did better than they were supposed to. If they win the game, they also obviously did way better than they were supposed and you would win your spread bet.
Remember, though, a team does not have to win the game to win a spread bet. All they have to do is outperform their expected results.
You may be asking what happens if they win or lose the game by the exact amount that they are supposed to. In these situations, the game would be a push, and you would get your money back. If the Patriots won by 6, that would mean the Eagles lost by 6. This is exactly what was “supposed to happen” so all bettors would receive their full bets back with no profit or loss on either team.
If no one wins, the sportsbook can’t take their small percentage off the top for profit. To combat this, they will often set the spread lines by half points. So, instead of +-6, you might see the line at +-5 ½. Since there are no half points, runs, or goals in most sports, this will ensure that one side wins the bet.
With spread bets, keep in mind that the spread line will occasionally move from the time betting opens to the time it closes. If there are too many bets coming in on one team, the sportsbook will adjust the spread line to discourage any betting on that team. At the same time, this will encourage more action on the other team. If that does not even things out, the sportsbook will continue to move the line until it does.
The bottom line is that a spread bet is a bet on which team will outperform what the odds say they are supposed to do. It has nothing to do with which team wins or loses the game.
How Spread Bets Pay Out
As we stated earlier, most spread bets are going to pay out the same on both sides of the bet. It’s extremely common to see the payout odds on both sides of the bet be (-110). This means that for a $100 wager, you should expect to return a profit of $90.91. The difference there is the profit that the sportsbook is taking off the top, which is commonly known as the rake, juice, or house edge.
With moneyline bets, the sportsbook will try and shift action by changing the payout odds. With spread bets, though, they’ll attempt to encourage and discourage action by adjusting the actual spread number. Sometimes, they will even choose to adjust the payout odds slightly when they don’t want to move off of a number.
For example, a spread at 3 points is fairly common in NFL football, but it’s a number the book does not like to move down from. They never want to move to a +-2.5 because it usually causes an avalanche of action that they’re not looking for. Let’s look at an example and see how the sportsbook would choose to react.
- Denver Broncos -3 (-110)
- Dallas Cowboys +3 (-110)
Let’s say that action is pouring in on the Cowboys. The sportsbook goal is always to have the same amount of money bet on both sides of the bet. Normally, they would shift the point spread to Cowboys +2.5 and the Broncos -2.5 to try and discourage Cowboys action and encourage Broncos action. The problem as we stated, though, is this might work too well. So, in response, the book may slightly shift the payout odds so they can stay with the same point spread. Here is what it could look like.
- Denver Broncos -3 (Ev)
- Dallas Cowboys +3 (-120)
This means that now a $100 bet on the Broncos will pay $100 in profit instead of just $90.91. A $100 bet on the Cowboys will now pay $83.33 instead of $90.91. You’ll see in our strategy section that this can sometimes be a good indicator of a potential last-minute line shift to 2.5.
In some sports, the number of points, runs, or goals scored are going to be way too low to be able to not move the payouts. Hockey, baseball, and soccer are three big examples of sports where you’re going to see varying payouts accompanying the spreads.
In soccer, you might only see a few goals scored in a game. 1-0 or 2-1 are very common scores. This doesn’t leave the sportsbook a lot of room to move the spread around. Instead, they’ll usually set it at a particular line and shift the payout odds to accommodate the incoming action.
The bottom line is that you should never assume that the payouts are always going to be the same. You should always take two seconds to take a look at what you’re going to get paid out and make sure that it fits with what you’re looking to bet.
Special Spreads and Payouts
Additionally, some sports and some games will offer you the ability to bet special spreads for different payouts. These are great spots to make extra money if you think that the spread is way off. For example, let’s look at our Broncos and Cowboys example from earlier. The Cowboys are +3 at (-110). But, you may have the following options to bet.
- Cowboys -3 (+210)
- Cowboys -10 (+600)
Since it’s much more unlikely (according to the sportsbook) for the Cowboys to win by 3 or by 10 points, they’re going to pay you much better if you correctly pick those. In football, you’ll usually just see this on some special games, but in sports like soccer, you will commonly see these different lines for every game. Remember, the reason they pay better is that they should be less likely to hit. If you have a prediction that the line is way off, though, go for it and get that extra cash!
Benefits of Spread Bets
We want to take a few moments and walk you through some of the benefits of spread bets. These benefits should help to give you an idea of why these bets are important to your overall betting strategy and how you can employ them effectively.
The Ability to Bet on Team’s You Think Will Lose
This little bit of betting flexibility is incredible. It allows you to bet on virtually any team in any game regardless of who you think the winner will be. Without spread bets, knowledge that a team was being undervalued was worthless. It only mattered if you thought the team would be able to overcome the favorite and win.
This not only allows you to make more money, but it’s a lot of fun if you’re a recreational bettor who loves to bet on your favorite team. Maybe your team isn’t the best in the business, but you can now root for them and win money as long as they outperform their expectations. If you think the sportsbooks and the public aren’t showing your team enough love, you can get even financially.
Easier to Assess Value
You can find value with any type of bet. Value simply means that the sportsbook is either paying you out more money than you deserve or or giving you a better shot to win than you really should be getting. With moneyline bets, you’ll need to use math to figure out value. You’ll need to convert the moneyline into an implied probability and then calculate a predicted probability that you think is correct. You’ll then need to compare those numbers to find value.
Things are a lot easier and can be done with the naked eye when it comes to spread bets. All you need to do is predict who you think is going to win the game and by how many points. If the sportsbook is giving you a better spread line than that, you’ve found value. Remember, sometimes this will only be the difference of a point or half a point. Value can sometimes be thin, but if you’re constantly right, you’re going to be a long-term winner.
Spread Bet Strategies
Below you’ll find a collection of strategies that should help you to capitalize on spread bets. Keep in mind that you’ll still need to do adequate research when making your picks. Just because value is easier to spot with spread bets does not mean they are any easier to pick winners with.
Watch for Line Movement
Once you place your bet, you are locked in at the current spread. After you place your bet, you have no control or ability to change the spread you bet. For example, let’s say that you bet the Eagles at (+6) but the whole rest of the world disagrees with you and money starts piling in on the Patriots. The sportsbook might change the line where it’s now Patriots (-6.5) and Eagles (+6.5) instead of just (+6). This is going to make fewer people want to bet on the Patriots, and more people want to bet on the Eagles.
Even though this new line is better for you, you are stuck with the Eagles (+6). You can always make another bet if you want to, but you can’t void your current ticket and get the better line. Remember, this will annoy you when the line moves against you, but you’re going to love it the times the line moves in your favor.
That being said, you do have some control over when you place your bet. You have to remember that the spread line will move based on where the money is coming in at. This means that if you’re able to predict line movement, you can decide whether it is smarter to bet immediately or wait and hope to get a better line.
Predicting line movement is going to take some practice and a lot of due diligence. If you can successfully judge when the betting public and when the sharps might be betting you can usually make an educated prediction about which direction the line is going to move. If you think that it’s going to move against you, fire your bet off right away. If you think there is a good chance that it moves in your favor giving you more points, then you should wait and look for that better line.
Keep in mind that you’re not going to be right all the time when it comes to line movement especially at the beginning of your sports betting career. With time you will get better, but it’s all a learning curve. If you wait on a bet and the line doesn’t move, you can still make your bet with the same favorable line that you already liked. If the line moves in the wrong direction, you’ll need to reassess your position. If you still like the odds, you can go ahead and make the bet.
But, don’t be scared to “miss out” on a bet because you waited for a better line. It’s okay to not bet and chalk it up as a learning experience. Whatever you do, don’t fire the bet if the line moves and you no longer think there is value.
Specifically, Watch for Moves Off of (-110)
One of the benefits of betting online or with an app is that you’re able to check lines and payout odds as frequently as you want to. This means that you can see line movements in real-time and have the best opportunity to take advantage of favorable movements. Something that you should be looking for is instances where the sportsbook shifts the payout odds of bets where both sides are normally at (-110).
For example, imagine that this is a line that you see on an upcoming NFL game.
- Green Bay Packers +5 ½ (-110)
- Denver Broncos -5 ½ (-110)
Before you make your bet, you see that line has changed to this.
- Green Bay Packers +5 ½ (-120)
- Denver Broncos -5 ½ (Ev)
Let’s also say that you’re wanting to bet on the Denver Broncos. Should you take the bet now? Well, it’s up to you, but we do have our recommendation. You see, you could take the bet here and get the better payout. However, this may be an indicator that the line is going to move to (-5). The sportsbook is trying to entice action on the Broncos without having to move the line. In our opinion, you should always take the better point spread over the better payout when presented with the option.
In this instance, we would recommend waiting to see if the line does move to (-5). Yes, it might not move and might shift back to Broncos (-5 ½) at (-110). But, if it does make the move to (-5), you’ll be pretty happy with your additional half point at (-110).
Early Moves are Usually Sharps
As we’ve stated, you should be aware of when you think the line is going to move and in which direction. While this is not a hard and fast rule, early moves to the lines are usually sharp sports bettors (the pros) firing big bets at a bad line. If you can jump on a line as it moves from the sharps, that’s always a good side of the bet to be on.
You can also use it as a source of information to let you know where the experts putting their money where their mouth is think the line should be. Ideally, you’ll eventually want to be one of those sharps that hits the line before every other expert bet enough to move it to where it should be. The greatest check and balance to a bad line are the sharps.
Favorites Usually Get Hammered Late by the Public
Again, this is not a hard and fast rule but one that you should heavily consider when choosing when to bet. For some reason, the betting public (the amateur bettors) love to bet late, and they typically love to bet on the favorites. Why? Well, most of them don’t remember to place their bet until the last minute and aren’t usually concerned with where the line is. They think of games in terms of black and white and winners and losers.
Amateur and recreational bettors also love to win. However, a lot of them equate a win with the team winning as well. They’re also sheep to the media and tend to get behind the big favorites, and that’s where their money usually ends up. Again, this is not a 100% of the time thing, but it does frequently happen especially on higher profile games and events. This means that if you’re looking to bet on the underdog of a high-profile game, you may be wise to wait until closer to game time to make your bet. The worst thing that happens is you get the line at the same number, or you miss out on making one bet. It’s not the end of the world especially as sports betting should be viewed as a long-term endeavor.
Spread bets are a great addition to your betting toolbox and are bets that you most likely will make many times throughout your betting career. The ability to bet on teams that you think are going to lose and the easier to spot value make these bets enticing to beginners as well as professional bettors. Feel free to bookmark this page in case you ever need a refresher course on spread bets or how to properly employ them within your betting strategy.