Sports Betting: Understanding Point Spreads

Point Spreads in Football and Basketball

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Moody, Allen. "Sports Betting: Understanding Point Spreads." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/sports-betting-understanding-point-spreads-3116853. Moody, Allen. (2017, August 23). Sports Betting: Understanding Point Spreads. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sports-betting-understanding-point-spreads-3116853 Moody, Allen. "Sports Betting: Understanding Point Spreads." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sports-betting-understanding-point-spreads-3116853 (accessed October 24, 2017).
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Sports betting would be easy — or maybe just easier — if all that was required was to correctly pick the winning team. Gambling institutions, sportsbooks and bookies fall back on point spreads to make the process a little more difficult and to create the ultimate wagering challenge. You'll need a solid understanding of the point spread system if you hope to have a profitable season.

How the Point Spread Works

The point spread is a handicap placed on one team for betting purposes only — it has no place in the game itself.

It's designed to give both teams an equal chance at winning in the context of wagers. Think of it this way: If last season's Super Bowl champion was playing a basement-dweller team that hadn't won a game all year, that's a shoo-in bet. Of course, you're going to take the Super Bowl champs, and in all likelihood, you're going to win. What's the fun in that? Even your bragging rights would be next to nil.

But what if the basement-dweller team were spotted 24 points? That's the concept behind the point spread. When two teams meet on the football field or a basketball court, one team is typically better than the other. If all bettors had to do was to pick the winning team, everybody would simply wager on the best team and collect their money. Gambling institutions, sportsbooks and bookies would soon go broke. 

A Real Life Example 

The Carolina Panthers played the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.

Few people doubted that Carolina was the better of the two teams, so the majority of bettors would have taken the Panthers if they had only been required to pick the winning team.

So the sportsbooks and bookies created a point spread to make both teams equally attractive in the eyes of bettors. Carolina was installed as a 6-point favorite, which is commonly written as Carolina -6.

Denver, the underdog, is commonly written as Denver +6. In other words, Denver would be credited with whatever points they actually scored — plus six. If you bet the favorite, the Panthers would have to win by 7 points or more for you to win your wager. And remember, the Panthers are favored by 6 points, so we have to subtract 6 points from their final score for betting purposes.

If Carolina were to win 24-17, Panthers bettors would win their wager. If the Panthers were to win 21-17, Carolina bettors would lose because they did not win by more than those 6 points.

If you bet the underdog, you'd win your bet if the Broncos won the game outright or if they lost by 5 points or less. Because the Broncos are the underdogs, we would add 6 points to their final score for betting purposes.

If the Panthers were to win the game by exactly 6 points, 23-17, it would be a tie and all wagers would be refunded to bettors.

Money Lines Vs. Point Spreads

You'll also usually be given the option to wager on the game with the money line in football and basketball. In this case, all you have to do is pick the winner of the contest, but there's one drawback. If you bet on the team that's expected to win, you can find yourself risking much more money than you stand to win.

Each team is assigned odds, much like in a horse race where a 2-1 favorite will pay out much less than a 15-1 longshot. This method also evens the playing field for bookies, sportsbooks and other gambling institutions.

Deciding when to bet using the point spread and when to use the money line is just one of the decisions bettors have to make on an ongoing basis if they want to play the game. There are no rules etched in stone.