Betting Football Point Spreads

Football Betting Point Spread

There are several different types of football wager you can place, and two of them are significantly more popular than the others. The most popular of all is the point spread wager, followed by the totals wager. In this article, we're focusing on the point spread.

If you have any interest at all in betting on football, then you really should know how to bet the point spread effectively. It's not necessarily the "best" type of wager in terms of the potential for winning money, but it's relatively simple and does present some profitable opportunities if you know what you're doing.

On this page we teach you the basics of betting football point spreads. We explain how they work, and why they're so popular. We also explain the challenges involved in making money from them. Finally, we offer some tips and strategy advice for placing wagers of this type.

Football Point Spreads: How They Work

The theory with point spreads is that a wager on either team to win a football game is as close to a 505/50 shot as possible. You're not actually betting on which team will win the game, you're betting on which team will "cover the spread". The favorite has to win by at least a certain number of points for a wager on them to be successful, and the underdog has to lose by less than the same number of points for a wager on them to be successful.

Another way to view it is that, for the purposes of the betting, the favorite has points deducted from their score and the underdog has points added to their final score. The number of points varies, depending on the gap in quality between two teams. If one team is much stronger than the other, the number of points can be quite high (a big spread). If the two teams are more evenly matched, the number of points is low (a small spread).

Here's an example of a point spread that a bookmaker or betting site might offer for a football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Bronco.

Pittsburgh Steelers
vs
Denver Broncos
Point Spread
Steelers (+6)
-110
Broncos (-6)
-110

The +6 for the Steelers means that they'll have six points effectively added to their score. They're the underdog here. The -6 for the Broncos means that they'll have six points effectively deducted from their score, as they're the favorite. You can choose to bet on the Steelers with their points advantage, or on the Broncos with their points deduction. The following outcomes are possible.

  • A wager on the Steelers pays out if they win the game, or lose by less than six points
  • A wager on the Steelers loses if they lose by more than six points
  • A wager on the Broncos pays out if the win the game by more than six points
  • A wager on the Broncos loses if they lose the game, or win by less than six points
  • All wagers would push (stake gets returned) if the Broncos win by exactly six points

That, in essence, is all there is to betting football point spreads. All successful wagers are paid out at the relevant odds, which are typically -110. The odds can vary, but they're almost always fairly close to even money. One further thing we should mention is that spreads will often include half a point. So, for example, you might see a team at +6.5. This makes a push impossible.

Why Football Point Spreads Are Popular

It's difficult to say for sure why point spreads are so popular, but there are probably a number of reasons. We suspect that the following are the most relevant for the majority of bettors.

1Betting on even money propositions is appealing
2Point spreads are very simple
3Point spreads make betting on "lopsided" games more interesting
4The perception is that it's easy to make money from point spreads

The first reason listed here applies primarily to recreational bettors. Those who are serious about their betting don't really care what the odds are per se, they are primarily concerned with whether value exists or not. And value can exist in both heavy favorites and complete outsiders in the right circumstances. For those that bet just for fun, though, the concept of value is largely an irrelevance. They just want to know that they have a fair chance of winning their wagers, and that's exactly what point spreads offer. Even if you just picked teams at random you could expect to win close to 50% of your wagers over the long run.

The second reason is also an appealing one for recreational bettors. Although most of them do want to win money, of course, they're not generally bothered about having to think too much about their betting. It's all about the fun, and so wagers that are nice and simple are ideal for them. Point spreads are an easy way to throw a few bucks on a game, without having to put in a great deal of effort.

Making lopsided games more interesting is a clear advantage of the point spread, to all types of bettors. Without this type of wager, there would rarely be much fun or value in betting on games where there is a very clear favorite. Backing the favorite would offer very low odds, to the extent that it probably wouldn't be worth it, and the underdog would be so unlikely to win that there'd be no point in backing them either.

The final reason mentioned here is actually not a good reason to bet football point spreads at all. Many people do believe it's a relatively easy way to make money, but the reality is that it is not. We'll now explain why.

The Challenge of Football Point Spreads

Seeing as we've said that you have a roughly 50% chance of winning a point spread wager even if picking a team at random, you could be forgiven for thinking that with even a little bit of knowledge you should be able to make money from this type of wager. You may well be able to, but it's certainly not easy. There are two main reasons for this.

1Bookmakers charge vig
2Bookmakers are very good at what they do

If you're not familiar with vig, please read our article on how bookmakers make money. Very briefly though, vig is basically a commission that bookmakers charge. It's effectively built into the odds, which is why point spread wagers typically are at odds of around -110. You've got to risk $110 to win $100, which means you have to win more than half of your wagers just to break even.

And winning more than your half of your wagers is tough, because the bookmakers are generally very accurate when setting their lines. The spreads they publish are consistently very close to reflecting what actually happens in games. This makes it very difficult to regularly predict which team is going to cover the spread in a game.It's certainly rare that you'll see games where the outcome is obvious enough that you can genuinely state with real confidence that one or the other team is going to cover.

Tips & Strategy Advice

There is an argument to say that there is little strategy involved in betting football point spreads these days. This is primarily because of what we've outlined above, in that the lines are set so tightly by bookmakers that football point spreads are basically coin flips. However, our view is that they can be profitable with the right approach.

For one thing, bookmakers are not infallible. Although they're very good at what they do, they still get it wrong from time to time. And, even when they don't, it's still possible to get a high enough win percentage to effectively "beat the vig". It's not easy, but it can be done.

We round off this article with some tips and strategy advice that may help you to get better results when betting football point spreads.

Learn how to handicap football games

This advice applies to virtually any form of football betting really. If you're going to make money, then you need to need to understand what's involved in handicapping football games.A lot of bettors don't bother to learn about handicapping, often simply because they believe it's really complicated. It's not. There are some complicated aspects to it, yes, but the fundamental concept is relatively straightforward.

In fact, there's a very good chance that you're already handicapping games without even realizing it. Handicapping doesn't have to involve using amazingly advanced scientific systems, it can be as simple as taking into account a few factors that are likely to affect the outcome of a game and then working out where the value lies. There's obviously a bit more to it than that, but that's basically what it's about.

Recommended Reading

Please take the time to read our article explaining how to handicap football. We can almost guarantee that it will teach you at least some aspects of football betting that you're not aware of.

Ignore a team's ATS record

Statistics can be very valuable when betting football spreads. There are certain statistics in particular that canreally help you compare two teams and make informed judgements about how they are likely to perform against each other. However, there are other stats that are relatively useless. This doesn't stop some bettors relying on them though.

One such stat is a team's ATS (against the spread) record. This basically refers to a team's performance against the lines set by the bookmakers, rather than their actual results. Let's look at some hypothetical data to explain this further. Here's a team's results of the first six games of the regular season, along with their spread for each of those games.

Game Number
1
2
3
4
5
6
Win/Loss Margin
Lost by 1 point
Won by 5 points
Won by 12 points
Won by 3 points
Lost by 3 points
Won by 3 points
Spread
-3
-6
-7
-4
-3
-4

In the first game, the team was -3 on the spread, so technically "should" have won by three points. It lost, so it failed to cover the spread. It won the next game, but only by five points when it was -6 on the spread. So, again, it failed to cover the spread. In the following game it won by 12 when -7 on the spread, so it did cover the spread here. In the following three games it failed to cover the spread again, despite winning two of them.

Now, a lot of bettors would read a lot into this. The team has only covered the spread once in six games, despite a record of 4-2 on the field. The seemingly obvious conclusion here is that backing this team on the spread is a bad idea. This is not necessarily true though, for one simple reason.

ATS data has no predictive value at all

That's right. The ATS data for a team is one of those instances where the numbers really do lie. The fact that a team has been failing to cover the spread for the majority of its games means absolutely nothing in terms of how likely it is cover to the spread in the future.

You'll hear advice contrary to this, but please ignore it. Relying on ATS data to make future predictions is a big mistake.

Don't bet on every game

There is pretty much a 0% chance that you'll be able to maintain a good win rate if you bet the spreads on every single football game. Being selective is absolutely vital if you want to win consistently. The more games you bet on, the harder you'll find it to maintain a high enough win percentage. And your win percentage is everything when it comes to betting football spreads. As we've already stated, you'll mostly be betting at around -110 and will need to win above 50% of your picks just to overcome the vig.

Successful point spread betting is a marathon, not a sprint.

Trying to win a ton of bets each and every week is a recipe for failure. You need to be patient and wait for the right opportunities. Unless you are an absolute genius (in which case you don't need our help anyway), at best you'll find just a handful of games where there's a good reason to bet the spread. There will likely be some weeks where there are no good spots at all, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with saving your money and waiting for better opportunities.

There are certain types of games that you should generally try to avoid too. These are as follows.

  • Games between very closely matched opponents
  • Games involving "hyped" teams or especially popular teams
  • Games with double digit spreads (i.e. a spread of 10 or more)

Please note that we're not saying you should NEVER bet the spread in games falling into the above categories. Just be cautious of them. Games between very closely matched opponents are notoriously difficult to predict, and games involving hyped or popular teams often have very misleading lines. Games with double digit spreads are risky because there's always a chance that the favorite will coast through a game once they've all but secured the win. They may be easily capable of winning by ten or more points, but that doesn't mean they're going to give it their all to do so.

Think outside the NFL

Many bettors focus solely on the NFL, and this is basically making things a lot harder than they need to be. Finding value on NFL games is very difficult, due to the tight lines mentioned earlier, and when there is value it doesn't tend to last very long. This is because there are so many people looking for the right spots. As soon as a bookmaker or betting publishes an attractive line, sharp bettors will be on it almost immediately. The line will then be moved accordingly, and the value will disappear.

There is regularly more value to be had in college football and even the Canadian Football League, as the bookmakers are not generally quite as expert on those games. This means there's more opportunities to find good spots. The fact that there are less people betting also means that those good spots don't tend to disappear quite so quickly.

Please note that we're not saying it's easy to win money betting on college football and the CFL. We're just saying that there's certainly an argument that it's not as hard as the NFL. You'll need to make sure you know as much as possible about the relevant teams and players though. That's where you can potentially gain an edge over the bookmakers.

Consider betting teasers

Many bettors focus solely on the NFL, and this is basically making things a lot harder than they need to be. Finding value on NFL games is very difficult, due to the tight lines mentioned earlier, and when there is value it doesn't tend to last very long. This is because there are so many people looking for the right spots. As soon as a bookmaker or betting publishes an attractive line, sharp bettors will be on it almost immediately. The line will then be moved accordingly, and the value will disappear.

There is regularly more value to be had in college football and even the Canadian Football League, as the bookmakers are not generally quite as expert on those games. This means there's more opportunities to find good spots. The fact that there are less people betting also means that those good spots don't tend to disappear quite so quickly.

Further Information

You can find more detailed strategy advice for this type of wager in our articles on NFL teasers and college football teasers.

Shop around

Many bettors focus solely on the NFL, and this is basically making things a lot harder than they need to be. Finding value on NFL games is very difficult, due to the tight lines mentioned earlier, and when there is value it doesn't tend to last very long. This is because there are so many people looking for the right spots. As soon as a bookmaker or betting publishes an attractive line, sharp bettors will be on it almost immediately. The line will then be moved accordingly, and the value will disappear.

There is regularly more value to be had in college football and even the Canadian Football League, as the bookmakers are not generally quite as expert on those games. This means there's more opportunities to find good spots. The fact that there are less people betting also means that those good spots don't tend to disappear quite so quickly.


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