In sports, we rarely (if ever) see two opponents in a contest that are evenly matched in every way. Some players are better than others. Some teams have star players on the injury list. Some teams excel at offense, while others hold steady defense. Some teams are “hot” right now. The point: teams do not arrive at the start of a game on equal footing.
Given that fact, when individuals want to bet on the game there is often a common acknowledgement that one team is more likely to win than the other.
Oddsmakers, however, do not want a large percentage of the public to simply bet on the likely winner. Instead, they want to try and level the scales and have even betting action on both teams. So, how do oddsmakers get balanced betting if most of the public agrees on which team is likely to win? They introduce a spread.
A Spread is a Point Penalty
To achieve balanced betting they place a spread on the game, which essentially means putting a point penalty on the favored team.
How to Read the Spread
In a football game between Team Blue and Team Red:
If the spread reads: Team Blue -7, you would read that as: “it’s a seven point spread,” or “Team Blue is a seven point favorite.”
Writing a spread as Team Blue -7 is the same as writing Team Red +7.
Team Blue -7 = Team Red +7
As a bettor, you are not going to affirm both. You write or say the spread based on the side you are betting.
For example, if you believe Team Blue is actually going to win the game AND you believe they will win by more than seven points you are betting on the favorite and you say: “I am going to take Team Blue -7.” You are telling the oddsmakers that you believe Team Blue can overcome that seven point penalty at the end of the game.
If you think Team Red is going to win OR you think Team Blue is going to win, but not by 7 or more points, then you say, “I am going to take Team Red +7.”
At the end of the the game, you then apply the spread.
Let’s say you bet on Team Blue -7: you subtract seven points from Team Blue’s final score, and that generates a new betting score.
Game Score: Team Blue = 21, Team Red = 10
Spread = Team Blue -7
Betting Score: Team Blue = 14, Team Two = 10
Team Blue WINS (and you win your bet!)
Game Score: Team Blue = 14, Team Red = 10
Spread = Team Blue -7
Betting Score: Team Blue = 7, Team Red = 10
Team Blue LOSES (and you lose your bet.)
Even though Team Blue won the football game in real life (14 to 10), your bet of Team Blue -7 accepted a seven point penalty at the end of the game. When you subtract seven points from Team Blue’s score in Example 2, you see they did not overcome expectations. Therefore, you lose the Team Blue -7 bet.
In sports betting, you create an alternate game score at the end of a real life matchup. It might be easy for the public to know that Team Blue is a better team.
What you’re betting on as a bettor is “will they be winning the game by more than expected”?
And that’s where things get tougher and tougher. Oddsmakers try to set a spread that is going to put a sufficient penalty on the favorite team that forces bettors to ask themselves not just if a team is better than another team, but if the favorite to win is that much better than the other team.
Oddsmakers set the spread for each individual matchup. It will not always be -7 (or +7) as it was in our example. If Vegas looks at an upcoming game and thinks, “this one’s going to be really close,” they will place a smaller spread such as -3. Alternately, if they think the favorite in a game is likely to produce a blowout, they place the spread at -21. Bookmakers try to find a spread number where the penalty to the favorite team is sufficient enough that they can anticipate relatively equal betting action on both sides.
When Vegas sets a spread it can also be said that they are setting the line.