Gambling 101: What is a Point Spread?

Learn the finer details of point spreads and how bettors use them to place wagers across the big four major sports.
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Sports often provide an escape from the everyday grind. While the games alone are great entertainment - betting on the action adds an extra level of excitement. Including point spreads, moneylines, and game totals, bettors have a variety of wager options. This SI Gambling 101 feature focuses on against the spread odds as odds and prices vary across the Big Four North American sports.

Point spread odds act as an equalizer for perceived inferior teams when they face superior squads. Point spread pricing is available on basketball and football game. The spread varies depending on the matchup. Puck lines replace the point spread in hockey and run lines are used in baseball. NHL and MLB odds are -1.5 on the favorite and +1.5 on the underdog. Juice, also know as vigorish, is added in various amounts to all point spread lines.

What Are NFL Point Spread Betting Odds?

From preseason futures to regular season action and four rounds of playoffs, NFL betting options are available all year long. As with all sports, bookmakers attempt to get equal action on both sides when they post NFL point spreads. Without ATS pricing, few if any bettors would wager on a 1-12 team that's facing a squad with a 10-3 record. To 'level’ the playing field, bookmakers give the underdog side a point spread ‘head start’ before the game begins. Here is an example from 2019:

New England was a -10.5 (-110) favorite when they visited Cincinnati during Week 15 action. That meant the Patriots needed to win by a least 11 points for New England bettors to cash winning tickets. The juice (-110) attached to the point spread means a $110 wager generates a $100 return. The venue affected the line above, as the Patriots ATS odds would have been closer to -17 if this match were played in New England. Original wagers are returned on all winning point spread tickets.

What Are MLB Point Spread Betting Odds?

Rather than a point spread, bookmakers offer run line odds on baseball action. Run line favorites are posted at -1.5, and juice usually is a plus number. Run line underdogs are listed at +1.5, and the vigorish is often a negative number. If two teams have comparable stats and records, the return on the favorite gains value and the underdog return drops. When top teams play lower-ranked squads, the value on the favorite is reduced, and bettors are tempted with a higher return on the underdog.

  • New York Yankees +1.5 (-127)
  • @ Boston Red Sox -1.5 (+107)
  • Boston Red Sox +1.5 (-145)
  • @ New York Yankees -1.5 (+125)

In the first example above, bettors who backed the Yankees earned a $100 return on $127 wager. Had Boston covered, the return would have been $107 on a $100 bet. Home field advantage affects how bookmakers set run line pricing. The games above were played seven days apart, and the pitching matchup was the same in both contests. The favorite flipped when the venue changed in the second game, and New York paid $125 on $100 wagers when the Yankees won 4-2 in the Bronx.

What Are NBA Point Spread Betting Odds?

Point spread odds vary from EVEN to 20 points or more on NBA betting boards. While it can be slightly higher or lower, the juice is usually set at -110 on both sides. Home court advantage is a big deal in the NBA, and point spreads often get jacked up on top-ranked home teams. The odds below are from a Los Angeles versus Oklahoma City home-and-home series in 2019. The Lakers were -11 point favorites in the first game at Staples Center arena but dropped to a -4.5 chalk three nights later on the road.

  • Los Angeles Lakers 4.5 (-110)
  • @ Oklahoma City Thunder -4.5 (-110)

When betting on NBA point spreads, it's wise to research how teams perform at home and on the road against the number. The Miami Heat is an excellent example as they were 20-12-0 ATS at home but just 13-19-1 as visitors during the first 65 games of the 2019 NBA season. Some teams are over-valued at home but pay out more often against the number on the road. Oklahoma City is an example as the Thunder went 17-16-0 ATS at home but posted a sparkling 23-8-0 point spread record on the road.

What Are NHL Point Spread Betting Odds?

Similar to run lines in baseball, puck line odds replace point spread pricing on NHL betting boards. Favorites enter the game with a -1.5 deficit, and the juice is often listed as a positive number. Underdogs receive +1.5 goals, and the vig usually is set at a negative price. In the example below, Toronto is the favorite, and bettors receive a $210 return on $100 bets if the Maple Leafs win by at least two goals. Boston backers would earn a $40 profit on $100 bets if the Bruins win or lose by one goal.

  • Boston Bruins +1.5 (-250)
  • @ Toronto Maple Leafs -1.5 (+210)

Bettors need to pay attention to statistics when considering puck line wagers. The best time to lay pucks is when high-scoring squads play teams that struggle to light the lamp. Empty net goals help puck line bettors as they can turn losing tickets into winners with as little as one second left on the game clock. Teams trailing by one or more goals will often pull the goalie to add an extra skater as time winds down. Countless puck line tickets have been saved when teams score into the empty net.

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