What is a Spread in Betting? Complete Guide to Spread Betting


Introduction to Spread Betting 

Spread betting is a popular type of sports bet, and a fundamental concept in sports betting. Spread betting, which is also simply referred to as the spread, spreads, or handicapping, is a common betting market offered by sportsbooks which usually appears alongside the moneyline, and over/under bets. In this article, we explain what a spread is in betting, what the + and – mean in spread betting, why spreads include half points (.5), in addition to how spread betting works. In all, we explain:

What Is A Spread In Betting?

Spread betting is to bet on how many points the favourite will win by. Typically, a spread bet is used to help level the playing field between two teams of very different skill levels. When you bet on a point spread, you are betting on whether the favourite can win the game by a certain number of points, with the required number of points indicated by the value of the spread. Which team wins outright does not determine whether a spread bet is successful or not – only if the winner wins by a certain number of points. 

A spread bet will always have two values: the number of points the favourite must win by, and the odds attached to the spread. Think of it like the spread value is the condition that must be met to win, while the odds are the cost to bet on that condition. Unlike the moneyline, each side of a spread bet will almost always have equal odds. This is because spread bets are set in a way that makes it just as likely for either side of the bet to be successful.

What Does The + And – Mean In Sports Betting Spreads?

Spread bets are usually written as – points for one team, and + the same amount of points for the other team. The minus sign will always be attached to the favourite, while the plus will be attached to the underdog. Think of it like the minus is subtracting those points from the favourite – instead of the game starting at 0-0, it’s starting at -5.5 to 0, or -1.5 to 0, or whatever the value of the spread listed to 0.

A screenshot showing a spread betting example.

Because the underdog is starting the game however many points ahead of the favourite, it gives each side of the bet an equal chance of winning the spread. If the favourite wins by at least the number of points in the spread, bettors who wagered on the favourite win. If the favourite wins by less points than the amount in the spread or if the underdog wins, bettors who wagered on the underdog will win their bet. 

The spread is also sometimes referred to as a handicap because it essentially removes points from the favourite, making success more difficult for them. While the favourite can win the game, they have to win with a condition attached to it in order for the bettor to win. Think of it like giving someone a head start in a race. The point spread is similarly a handicapping tool used to level the playing field between two teams that may have different skill levels or perceived strengths. 

What Does Covering The Spread Mean?

The conditions to win a spread are different depending on which team you bet on. If you bet on the favourite, or the team with a negative spread, your team has to “cover the spread” which means to win by at least the number of points listed. If the spread is -5.5, your team has to win by at least 6 points to cover the spread.

If instead you bet on the underdog (the team with a positive spread) you will win your bet if the favourite wins by less than the points listed – in other words, the favourite has failed to cover the spread. In our example above, the favourite could win the game by 4 points, but at a spread of -5.5, they would fail to cover. When betting on the underdog, you would also win your bet if the underdog won the game outright. Again, this is because you are not betting on the winner of the game, you are betting on how much the favourite will win by. 

Why Do Sportsbooks Handicap Odds?

Sportsbooks offer spread betting with the goal of attracting balanced betting action on both sides of a particular game. By analysing past winning history of the teams competing, the sportsbook can determine how many points the favourite will have to win by. This balance ensures that they can profit from the vigorish, which is the built-in fee charged for betting. 

Imagine a scenario where you have an NFL powerhouse going head-to-head with a team that has been struggling recently. In a matchup like this, it’s obvious that the first team will be the clear favourite, and the outcome of the game feels predictable. 

If you remember how sportsbooks make money, ie. through the vigorish, you can see the issue with a matchup like the one above. The sportsbook sets a vig which assumes bettors will bet somewhat equally on either team. However, in the example above, no logical bettor would put money down on the struggling team to win the match. In addition, if the majority of bets are placed on the favourite, this leaves the sportsbook at risk of a significant loss if the underdog somehow managed to win. So, if every logical bettor were to wager money on the clear winner, how would the sportsbook manage to make any money?

How Spread Betting Levels the Playing Field

This is where the point spread comes into play. It’s designed to create a level playing field which essentially gives each team a hypothetical handicap. In turn, this encourages bettors to take an interest in both sides, whether it’s for the clear winner or loser of the match. A bettor could bet that the favourite will win by 10 or more points, or less than 10 points – but either bet is just as likely to occur. In this instance, bettors can wager on either side of the contest without there being a clear winning bet, because a team winning doesn’t necessarily mean your bet will win – just the margin has to be correct. 

The actual number chosen for the spread will be an amount that seems likely to sway in either direction. For instance, if Team A has historically beat Team B by an average of 15 points on every single game, then a spread of -5.5 wouldn’t do much to sway bettors. In this instance, every bettor would choose the favourite because historically, they have always won by much more than 5.5 points. Instead, the sportsbook may choose a spread of -15.5, which makes choosing a side less obvious. Bettors would need to know how each team currently stacks up. They should pay particular attention to any factors that make the favourite stronger or weaker at the moment, and therefore likely to go over or under 15.5 points.

Why Do Spreads Always Have a .5? Why Spread Betting Uses Half-Points

Spreads are almost always written in a decimal form with a .5 attached to them. This is to prevent a push from happening. A push occurs when the final result of an event aligns exactly with the point spread that was set by the oddsmakers. When a push occurs, neither the bettor nor the sportsbook wins or loses the wager. Instead, the bet is considered void, and the stake is typically returned to the bettor. Sportsbooks want to avoid a push from occurring because they do not make any profit when they happen.

For example, if the spread were listed as -5 and the favourite won by exactly 5 points, neither side of bettors would be successful. Even though there was a winner for the game, this is not what determines a successful spread bet. 

To avoid a push, sportsbooks will include a half point in the spread to ensure the final result is always above or below the amount required to cover. In our example of a -5.5 spread, the favourite team can either win the game by 5 points or less (failing to cover) or by 6 points or more (covering the spread), but they will never win by 5.5 points because sports games do not include half points.

Spread Betting Example

Let’s look at an example. Suppose the Philadelphia Eagles are playing the Cleveland Browns, and the sportsbook sets a point spread of -7.5 for the Eagles at odds of -200, and +7.5 for the Browns at odds of +200. 

Here’s what these numbers mean:

Philadelphia Eagles (-7.5 at -200): The – sign on the spread means that the Eagles are the favourites in the game. Let’s say you select the Eagles and bet $200 on the spread. The Eagles must win the game by 8 points or more. If the final score is Eagles 28 – Browns 20, then the Eagles have covered the spread because they won by 8 points, and you win $100 in profit. If the Eagles win the game 21-20, you will lose your bet because the Eagles only won by 1 point. That said, if you had bet on the moneyline, you would have won your bet.

Cleveland Browns (+7.5 at +250): The Browns are the underdogs in this scenario because of the + sign. Let’s say you bet $100 on the Browns’ spread. They can lose the game by up to 7 points, and you would still win your bet. If the final score is Eagles 26, Browns 20, then the Eagles won but they have failed to cover the spread, and you would win $200 in profit. If the Browns managed an upset and won the game, you would also win $200 in profit (because any score that is not 7 or more in favour of the Eagles means they failed to cover).