Sports Betting Explained: A Look at The Spread
Aaron Bruce

With many different types of ways to bet on sports, using the pointspread for a particular matchup is one of the most popular. It’s a way to even out the odds on both sides, even if it is a mismatch when comparing the two teams.

For some, getting started with sports betting and using the spread might seem a little complicated first. Getting some knowledge and know-how will make people feel much more confident about placing bets. This is a look at the basics, and how to identify the correct times to place a wager.

What is a Point Spread?

The basic concept of a point spread is to provide the best guess on just how much separates two different teams or competitors. If it’s a true toss-up matchup, then there will be no point spread at all, or a very small spread like half of a point (+ or 0 0.5). If it is a mismatch in every way, the point spread can be huge (ex. + or – 15).

Professional sports tend to have point spreads that are relatively close, since the talent level is evened out with a relatively small amount of teams. The big point spreads are usually reserved for college sports, amateur sports, and other matchups pitting one lackluster team against a vastly superior one.

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How Sports Betting Works With a Point Spread

Sports betting generally uses a lot of shorthand to explain what all is offered. For example, the spread is usually a single number, while there could be other numbers such as the money line, over/under, and more. For this example, we’re just looking at the point spread in sports betting.

To better explain how sports betting works, this is a made up line involving the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants. This is all that a sports book would list.

Cowboys +3.5

Giants -3.5

In this scenario, the Dallas Cowboys are about to travel to play the New York Giants (standard format is that the home team is the bottom team). Dallas is the underdog in this hypothetical matchup, getting 3.5 points to even things out. The Giants are 3.5-point favorites, meaning that they must win by at least an amount for the bet to go to them.

Slang in this term is that the Cowboys are getting 3.5 points as the underdog, while the Giants are giving 3.5 points in the matchup. With a point spread, both teams have close to the same payout, since it acts as a way to make the matchup as even as possible.

So what bet wins depending on score? Here’s a simple look at sample outcomes, and the bet winner.

Cowboys 20

Giants 17

The Cowboys won the game, so the Cowboys +3.5 pick wins the bet. Any outright win by the Cowboys in this scenario would have the same point spread pick outcome.

Cowboys 17

Giants 20

The Giants win the game, but by just three points. Since the spread is 3.5 points, the Cowboys +3.5 pick still wins the bet.

Cowboys 17

Giants 21

The Giants won by more than 3.5 points, so the Giants -3.5 pick wins the bet. Any margin of victory greater than four would be the same result.

How are Point Spreads Determined?

A lot of work goes into developing point spreads in sports betting. After all, the point spreads need to be accurate so that there is roughly equal amounts of money on both sides. That’s how sports books are going to make their money, which is why the point spread will fluctuate from time to time before the game starts.


The number one factor in any point spread is always going to be the matchup. After all, this is a competition between two different sides. No matter what factors might also play a role into a point spread, the two sides battle.

If there’s any history between the two teams, that plays a huge factor in looking at the matchup. If they’ve yet to play, having similar opponents and seeing how they do can help break down the matchup as well. It might seem a little challenging to the average person to accurately break down a matchup and not show any bias, but it’s what these people do as professionals in the industry.

Since it is truly treated as a profession, the point spread is often a better way to gauge a contest than listening to experts in the media. They always have some level of bias in trying to pick a winner. Sports books are much more numbers-based to pick a favorite.


The location of any contest will help determine the point spread. In team sports, the home team has a little bit of an edge over the away team compared to a neutral site. For example, in the NFL, the general consensus is that teams will get an extra two or three points from a home crowd boost. Essentially, if the point spread is in that 2.5 to 3.5 range in favor of the home team, the two sides are virtually even. 

Location also plays a role depending on how the conditions will be. Again, using football as an example, the point spread can change quite a bit when comparing a game in sunny and 90° temperatures, compared to snowy and 10°. Precipitation can slop a game up, and during the three or four hours of the game, weather can change quite a bit.


In our example earlier, we took a look at the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants. These are two of the most popular teams in the NFL, so popularity is pretty much canceled out between them.

However, if there is a matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and say, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the popularity of the Cowboys could influence the point spread.

Generally speaking, people like to place bets on the popular teams. It’s even worse if they are perceived as the better team in the matchup. For sports books to make money, they may change the line as time goes on to get roughly the same action on both sides. That’s why the Dallas Cowboys could start out as -4 favorites in a hypothetical matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and then it slowly moves to -5 or -6. Until a happy medium is found, they will continue to change the point spread.

What Type of Commission is Usually Paid on Point Spread Bets?

Generally speaking, there’s usually about a 5% to 10% commission on a bet. Also known as juice or vigorish, this is how the sports book always makes money.

They are some sports books that will change the payout instead of adjusting the point spread. For example, if one team is getting most of the bets, the other side could get a slightly better payout while keeping the points the same.

Paying a commission is standard procedure, so no one should worry too much about that amount. It makes things not a true even bet, but it comes with the industry as a whole.

Why a Point Spread Works

The point spread in sports has been around for a long time, and it’s a pretty easy way to understand a matchup. Even for those who don’t place bets, a point spread is an easy way to show how far apart two teams are.

When is the best time to place a bet with a point spread? It all depends on how a person feels about a matchup. Some gamblers will make sure that they lock in a bet as soon as possible if they like the point spread. Others might wait until it reaches a certain point, and then go from there. Keep in mind the point spreads are always evolving, and there’s no right or wrong time to capitalize.



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