Betting against the spread
Point spread betting in the United States is very popular for certain sporting events. It is the standard for NFL and NBA sports betting, and there are point spreads established for college football and basketball games. You will hear experienced bettors use terminology like “covering the spread” and making a bet “against the spread.”
For starters, you should know that a spread is established to level the playing field between teams of different quality. The team that is least likely to win will start the game with an imaginary head start for spread betting purposes.
You can win your bet on a team that loses the game (the underdog) as long as they do not lose by a certain amount. This number is established by the bookmakers when they calculate the betting odds for games that will be on the betting board.
How do they come up with the point spread? Years ago, before there were personal computers, sportsbook managers would keep records and assign power ratings to all the teams. They would compare the power ratings for a given matchup, and the difference would be the point spread.
Now, there are complex computer sports betting algorithms utilized to set a predetermined margin, and the oddsmakers are given the latitude to make minor adjustments.
What is Against the Spread Betting (ATS)?
We will use point spread examples to give you a solid understanding of how odds work on the spread. This is what a matchup will look like on a sports betting site:
Kansas City Chiefs +3 (-114)
New England Patriots -3 (-106)
The visiting team is always on the top of the two teams, and the home team is listed below them. In the above example, the New England Patriots (note the negative sign) are the three-point favorites, and the Kansas City Chiefs (plus sign) are receiving three extra points.
If the Patriots win the game outright by more than three points, a wager on them is a winner. If Kansas City loses by less than three, they will cover, and their backers will be paid. When there is a tie on the spread, the bet is a “push,” and wagers on both sides are refunded.
The other numbers are the money line that has been set for this point spread bet. You have to bet $114 to win $100 on the Chiefs, and you would put up $106 to win $100 on New England. These numbers are both negative in this instance to apply the vigorish.
This is the way that sportsbooks make money. Let’s say that you bet $114 on the Chiefs, and your friend bets $106 on the Patriots. You would win $100 if the Chiefs cover, and your friend would lose C$106. The book made a $6 profit, and you can multiply this by thousands when they take a lot of bets.
Why does the point spread change?
Point spreads are changed by the sportsbooks in an effort to “balance the action.” As we have explained, their objective is to take equal wagers on both sides in any given matchup.
The opening line is established before the games begins, and football betting lines are initially posted a week in advance. If one side is taking more bets than the other based on the opening line, the sportsbook is going to have unbalanced action. They will be exposed to losses.
At that point, they will change the point spread to make the under-supported side more appealing. An adjustment in the moneyline that is attached to the point spread will be the first approach. If that doesn’t work, they will adjust the actual spread itself by half a point.
There can be several different line movements over a period of time, especially if the odds were posted well in advance. For this reason, if a betting line looks too good, you may want to act immediately before the betting odds change.
How to Bet Against the Spread?
When you make a money bet against the spread, you select one team that you want to bet on. At the online sportsbooks, you will click or tap a button that represents the wager. It will be transferred to a bet slip, and you will be prompted to fill in the amount that you want to bet.
If you are in a traditional brick-and-mortar sportsbook, there are different unique identifying numbers assigned to each betting interest.
Kansas City Chiefs +3 -114
Green Bay Packers -3 -106
When you place your bet, you give the sportsbook writer the number and the amount of your bet. In this case, if you want to bet the $106 on the Green Bay Packers, you would say “1181 for $106.”
You can alternately make a straight moneyline bet. There will be no point spread, and you just have to pick the team that will win outright. However, when you make a moneyline bet, the negative odds for favorites can get quite high.
How to Pick Football Games Against the Spread
A spread bet is the most popular form of wagering that is available for football. We have provided an example of how an NFL football point spread works in a general sense in the previous section. Aside from the basics, there are some additional things you should know about football point spread betting.
When you are looking at the schedule from a betting perspective, you will find that it is difficult to see any obvious openings. The point spread exists to make the teams evenly matched in spite of the win probabilities based on past performances.
Experienced bettors will tell you that the sportsbooks have always been amazingly accurate, but that is no reason to be discouraged. Since there are a lot of games to choose from on a college football Saturday or a pro football Sunday, you can usually identify a play that you like. If you can pick one winner, you are ahead of the game, so you should stick to limited high probability selections.
How to Pick Against the Spread in Basketball
Point spread betting on NBA basketball is the same basic structure as spread betting for other sports, but there is a major difference. The final score of an NFL football game will typically be between 25 and 55 points. This is not very high compared to a basketball game.
Because there can be over 200 points scored in an NBA game, you will often see bigger point spreads than you would typically find for NFL games. NCAA basketball spreads can get quite extreme. A 20-point spread is not entirely uncommon, but you will rarely see an NFL point spread higher than 10 or so.
When you are handicapping basketball games against the spread, you have to look at all angles. To use an example, let’s say the Golden State Warriors are 12-point favorites at home over the Thunder. Golden State may be able to win the game by more than 12 if they had to, but it’s not really necessary. Players are not always motivated to try to run up the score against inferior teams.
Betting against the Spread in the NHL
Due to the lower scoring nature of the NHL, you wouldn’t see a large point spread in hockey games. With hockey and the NHL, you will see the point spread be referred to as a puckline, because hockey doesn’t track points, they track goals.
San Jose Sharks +1.5 -215
New Jersey Devil -1.5 +172
You read it just like you would interpret a point spread for football or basketball. The 1.5 line is the standard, but it can be adjusted. It is set based on a predictive analysis of the outcome, so it can be .5, or it can be as high as 2.0 or more.
How to Pick against the Spread in Baseball
With baseball point spread betting, this is another situation where they are called a different name because baseball doesn’t track points, they track runs - this is why it’s called the runline.
This is exactly the same as the puck line in hockey. The runlines are still rather low compared to basketball or football, hovering in the 0.5 to even six for the most part, and there is an accompanying odds. Baseball is unique because lines that are set have everything to do with the starting pitching matchup.
A last-place team that has an authentic ace pitching at home against a good team will be the favorite. The run line is an option, but the moneyline is the standard type of bet that is placed on major-league baseball games.
What does it mean to Cover the Spread?
When you make a point spread bet, your chosen team does not necessarily have to win the game outright. With point spread betting, the favorite is essentially behind for betting purposes when the game begins. They are surrendering points, and the other team is getting points to add to the final score.
Let’s say that the Buffalo Bills are playing the Dolphins, and the Bills are seven-point favorites. The Bills win by a final score of 21-10. They won by 11 points, and the line was seven, so they covered the spread. On the other hand, the Dolphins did not cover the spread because they lost by more than seven points.
While there is skill involved in point spread betting, you will almost always need a bit of luck when you make a spread bet in sports betting. A team that was outplayed may score a meaningless touchdown at the very end of the game to cover the spread, or a starting quarterback can be injured on the first play.
There are definitely risks involved when you make point spread bets because unexpected things can happen. That just comes with the territory, and you have to be prepared to accept the twists and turns because you are the beneficiary in some cases.
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