Football Point Spreads Explained

visualization of oddsHave you ever seen this number attached to a football game?

  • Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (+4.5)

When it comes to football betting, if you’ve ever watched a game, looked up a schedule, or simply read the news, then you’ve probably seen a positive or negative number attached to one of the two teams.

But what does this mean in relation to football?

Well, in the example, the (+4.5) is what’s is known as a “point spread.”

What is a point spread?

A point spread is a number that can be bet on and is given by sportsbooks, displaying the number a favored team is expected to beat the underdog team.

When it comes to the spread, there are two ways you might see it:

  • Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (+4.5)
  • Green Bay Packers (-4.5) at Minnesota Vikings

The two examples mean the same thing because in both examples the point spread indicates the Green Bay Packers are favored by 4.5 points over the Minnesota Vikings.

The negative number always indicates the favorite and the positive number always indicates the underdog.

There are no half points in football, so in the example, betting on the Packers means they must win by 5 or more points for the bet to be won. Betting on the Vikings means they can win outright or lose by 4 or fewer points to have a winning wager.

What is a push?

A tie or “push” in a point spread refers to neither team covering due to the margin of victory landing on the exact number of the point spread.

  • Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants (+6)
  • Dallas Cowboys (-6) at New York Giants

Again, both examples mean the same thing. However, this margin of victory is possible since it includes a whole number.

To win a bet on the Cowboys in this point spread, they must win by 7 or more points, and to win a bet on the Giants, they must win outright or lose by no more than 5 points.

If the outcome of the game ends with the Cowboys winning by exactly 6 points, the sportsbook refunds all bets, since neither side won.

What is a pick’em game?

A “pick’em” or “PK” game occurs when the game between to two football teams is predicted to be so close that neither side is given points in a point spread. To win a bet when this happens, you only must pick which team will win the game without factoring in a margin of victory.

What is the payout on a point spread?

Once you’ve decided to place a bet at a sportsbook, you’ll see the second number next to the point spread.

  • Auburn Tigers (+7) (-110)
  • Alabama Crimson Tide (-7) (-110)

The bottom team is always the home team, and as stated above, the negative number indicates the favorite.

However, what does the (-110) next to the point spread mean?

This number is known as the odds and more specifically to NFL betting or college football betting, it’s known as “American Odds.” The odds will be either a positive or negative number.

  • (-110) means betting $110 to win $100 for a total of $210.
  • (+110) means betting $100 to win $110 for a total of $210.

In terms of odds in the point spread, positive numbers are rare, since the sportsbook is already giving you points in the margin of victory for picking the underdog.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to bet exactly $110 when you see (-110). The odds are determined as a percentage. Here are some other examples:

  • A $1.10 bet wins $1.00
  • A $11 bet wins $10
  • A $1,100 bet wins $1,000

How do sportsbooks determine a point spread?

Both land-based and online sportsbooks hire oddsmakers and have algorithms to determine the initial point spread.

The goal of a sportsbook is to set the line perfectly and encourage the same amount of money to be placed on both football teams, which will guarantee a profit regardless of the winner. The reason for this is because the sportsbook adds a small amount of “juice” or “vigorish” to the odds, which is like a small tax or fee for letting you place a bet on the spread.

  • Michigan Wolverines (+7) (-110)
  • Ohio State Buckeyes (-7) (-110)

The amount of money that is bet on a game is known as “action,” and let’s say $2 million is bet on Ohio State and $1 million is bet on Michigan on the first day the point spread is displayed. Here is what the sportsbook would see:

If Ohio State (-7) (-110) wins by 8 or more, then the sportsbook:

  • Takes in $3,000,000 total ($2,000,000 from bets on Ohio State)
  • Loses $1,818,000 to winning Ohio State bets
  • Gains $1,000,000 from losing Michigan bets
  • Results in losing $818,000 total from Ohio State winning

If Michigan (+7) (-110) wins outright or loses by 6 or fewer points, then the sportsbook:

  • Takes in $3,000,000 total ($1,000,000 from bets on Michigan)
  • Loses $909,000 to winning Michigan bets
  • Gains $2,000,000 from losing Ohio State bets
  • Results in profiting 1,091,000 total from Michigan winning

If Michigan, the underdog, wins then the sportsbook makes a huge profit, but if Ohio State, the favorite, wins then the sportsbook will suffer a major loss. The sportsbook can’t risk losing this heavily or else they’d go out of business.

Why does the point spread change?

To encourage an even amount of money on both sides, sportsbooks will adjust the point as the game gets closer to encourage more money to be bet on the side receiving less “action.”

Again, let’s say $2 million is bet on Ohio State and $1 million is bet on Michigan on the first day. The next day, the spread might change to look like this:

  • Michigan Wolverines (+12) (-110)
  • Ohio State Buckeyes (-12) (-110)

As a result, more money will likely be bet on Michigan, since the value of the underdog has increased (going from +7 to +12) because they are given more points in the spread, making it more likely for them to cover.

Now, let’s assume this new spread replaced the original spread and an even amount of money before the line closed at kickoff. And let’s say an even $5 million was bet on each team, giving the sportsbook this outlook:

If Ohio State (-12) (-110) wins by 13 or more, then the sportsbook:

  • Takes in $10,000,000 total ($5,000,000 from bets on Ohio State)
  • Loses $4,545,000 to winning Ohio State bets
  • Gains $5,000,000 from losing Michigan bets
  • Results in profiting $465,000 total from Ohio State winning

If Michigan (+12) (-110) wins outright or loses by 11 or fewer points, then the sportsbook:

  • Takes in $10,000,000 total ($5,000,000 from bets on Michigan)
  • Loses $4,545,00 to winning Michigan bets
  • Gains $5,000,000 from losing Ohio State bets
  • Results in profiting $465,000 total from Michigan winning

In both scenarios, the sportsbook is guaranteed a profit of $465,000 because the exact amount of money was bet on both sides.

If money still isn’t coming in on the underdog, the sportsbook will either increase the spread further or change the odds, giving more value to the underdog.

  • Michigan Wolverines (+14) (-105)
  • Ohio State Buckeyes (-14) (-115)

Now, not only is Michigan given a larger point spread, but they are given better odds and payout. Before at (-110) a $110 bet wins $100, but now only a $105 bet is needed to win $100. On the flipside, Ohio State must win by even more and you must risk more money to win the same amount with a $115 bet now needed to win $100.

This goes both ways too. If the public believes the favorite is being overvalued, and more money is placed on the underdog, the margin of victory will close and possibly even flip to the underdog being favored.

Point Spread Summary

The key thing to realize is the point spread is not the predicted margin of victory between two teams like media and news outlets often portray.

In reality, the point spread is the margin of victory given to the favorite that will encourage both the favorite and the underdog to have an even amount of money bet on them, guaranteeing the sportsbook a profit as a result. If a sportsbook loses any money on a point spread, then the line or odds were not set correctly by the oddsmaker.

If you’re knowledgeable about football, then you could take advantage of a good or bad point spread. Just remember you aren’t actually betting against the sportsbook but rather against the money coming in on one of the two sides of the matchup determining the spread. You likely have a predicted outcome in mind for the matchup you want to bet on, but to be successful, you must find value when the odds and the point spread, betting only once both are in your favor.

The point spread is one of many wagering options available to bettors.  Check out our page covering NFL betting options for more insight into how to bet on football.

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