Reading and Understanding Point Spreads

Emily loves sports – college football, NFL, and NBA. She knows a lot of people have a blast betting sports and wants to join the fun. But Emily is unsure of how to get started with sports gambling. In the newspapers and on the Internet she always sees “point spreads” (sometimes called “lines”) on the games but isn’t exactly sure what the numbers mean.

Understanding point spreads is a key first step to learning about sports betting. Emily’s not alone in needing the basics of point spreads explained, so let’s all learn how to read point spreads together. Then we’ll be on our way to enjoying the fun of sports betting.

What Is the Point Spread?

In any football or basketball game (the main sports that use point spreads) there are two teams playing against each other.

Those teams, though, are rarely exactly evenly matched – meaning that typically one team has a better chance than the other to win the game. If bettors were allowed to bet on who was simply going to win the game, smart ones would obviously bet on the better team (likely winning more than 50% of the time in the process).

If winning were that easy the Las Vegas and offshore sportsbooks would stop taking any bets! This is where the point spread comes in: the basic function of the point spread is to balance the likelihood of each team “winning” by adjusting the final score by the point spread. After this adjustment is made you get the Against The Spread result (ATS result for short).

Let’s look at Super Bowl XXXIX, New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles. Most people believed the defending champ Patriots to be the better team – so if betting were simply based upon which team would win the game, an uneven majority of people would have wagered on New England . But, by using the point spread, the bookmakers adjusted the terms of the bet, evening the proposition so about half the people believed the Pats to be the smart bet, while the other half considered Philly to be the smart bet.

How to Read the Point Spread

New England Patriots -7 vs. Philadelphia Eagles

The better team, called the Favorite, is expected to win the game and must “give” or “lay” points to the weaker team. The favorite is listed with a minus sign and the number of points they are favored by (e.g., New England -7)

In the case of our example, New England must not only win the game, but they must win by more than 7 points for Pats bettors to have a winning ATS result. An Eagles bettor wins his bet either if:

Philly wins the actual game by any amount of points
Philly loses the game by less than 7 points.

There was also the possibility that the final score could land exactly on the spread number (for example, the Pats winning 28-21 when -7), which is called a “push” or “no action” and a refund is then issued to bettors of both teams.

The same game with the same point spread can be considered from the weaker team’s perspective: The Underdog (Philly in the case of our example) is not expected to win the game and thus receives or “gets” points given by the stronger team. When a game is stated from the underdog’s perspective the team is listed with a plus sign and the number of points they are underdogs by:

Philadelphia Eagles +7 vs. New England Patriots

Keep in mind that Philadelphia +7 and New England -7 is the same point spread on the same game, simply stated differently. The first is from the underdog’s perspective; the later is from the favorite’s.
For Those Who Like to Consider Things Mathematically

Not a must, but for some a mathematical approach is insightful. You can determine the ATS winner by either:

Subtracting the point spread from the favorite’s score (thus the minus sign before the number) and then compare to the underdog’s score
Adding the point spread to the underdog’s score (thus the plus sign before the number) and then compare to the favorite’s score

Who Really “Won” the Super Bowl?

Let’s look at the actual result of Super Bowl XXXIX: New England 24 Philadelphia 21

The favorite, New England , won the game but not by more than the point spread they were favored by (7), so the ATS result was a LOSS for Pats bettors.

Looking at it from the underdog’s perspective, Philly did not win the game, but they lost by less than the point spread (7), so the ATS result was a WIN for Eagle bettors.

Mathematically considered, 24 for the favorite Pats minus 7 equals 17, which is less than the 20 the Eagles scored, so the underdog Eagles win the ATS result (or you could figure 20 plus 7 equals 27 for the Eagles, which is more than 24 for the Pats).

Emily’s boyfriend understood the point spread and wagered $100 on the Eagles at +7. The Eagles may not have gotten a Super Bowl ring, but since they won the ATS result Emily’s boyfriend cashed his bet – giving him money to take her out to a nice dinner.

And now hopefully you understand how to read point spreads, putting you one step closer to joining the fun of sports betting.