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Gambling 101: What is Covering the Spread?

Our Gambling 101 series continues with an explanation of what covering the spread means. How does that happen and why do bettors wager on spreads in the first place?

Simply put, covering the spread is the goal of every bettor who has placed a point spread bet. This SI Gambling 101 feature explains what it takes to cover the spread.

What is a Point Spread?

Designed to create action on both sides when one is deemed superior to the other, point spread betting was invented by mathematician Charles K. McNeil and introduced in the early 1940s. Against the spread (ATS) wagering is part of the standard big three betting options, which also includes moneylines and totals. Points spreads are a popular gambling choice in pro and college football as well as basketball. Here are some examples of ATS betting odds from the NCAA, NBA and NFL.

NCAA Football Point Spread

Clemson 5.5 (-110)
LSU -5.5 (-110)

NBA Point Spread

Houston Rockets +6 (-110)
Los Angeles Lakers -6 (-110)

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NFL Point Spread

Green Bay Packers +3 (-110)
Minnesota Vikings -3 (-110)

How Does a Bet Cover the Spread?

LSU (-5.5) was posted as the point spread favorite against Clemson (+5.5) during the 2020 NCAA football National Championship game. That means LSU needed to not only beat Clemson, but win by more than 5.5 points in order to cover the spread. After falling behind, 17-7 in the second quarter, Joe Burrow and LSU stormed back and crushed Clemson 42-25. Bettors who wagered on LSU easily covered the spread because the Tigers won by 17.

Favorites are always listed with a negative (-) point spread line while the underdog is posted with positive (+) odds. In the NBA example above, Los Angeles needed to win by more than six points to cover the spread versus Houston. If the Lakers won by exactly six points, the bet would be ruled a push and whatever money was wagered would be returned to the bettor.

Why Bet a Spread?

Many bettors like betting spreads because they either get a better return on their investment wagering on a favorite or because they like the underdog to keep the game close but not necessarily win. In the three examples above, bettors would earn a $100 return on a $110 wager on any of the teams to cover the spread. Betting on the Vikings to win outright as a three-point favorite would likely come at the cost of -150 odds as opposed to -110. That means you’d have to bet $150 to win the same $100. In other terms, a $100 bet on the Vikings to cover the spread would net a return of $90.90, while that same bet on the Vikings just to win (moneyline) would net a return of $66.70.