Plus, How to Place a Strong Bet Based on the Spread
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 of the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, based on those strengths and weaknesses, the public often has a consensus about who will likely win the matchup.
Oddsmakers, however, do not want a large percentage of the public to simply bet on the likely winner. If Team Red and Team Blue are playing each other, and most of the public believes Team Blue will win and bets on Team Blue, then oddsmakers have a large financial liability. If Team Blue does, in fact, win the oddsmakers have to pay out all of those winnings which will dramatically exceed what they collect from the losing bets. That’s how oddsmakers go out of business!
For this reason, oddsmakers—most currently based in Vegas—want to try and level the scales and have even betting action on both teams. They don’t want to have a large number of people betting Team Blue and very few people betting Team Red. Rather, they’d like to end the betting period with approximately 50 percent of the bets on Team Blue and 50 percent of the bets on Team Red.
So, how do oddsmakers get balanced betting if most of the public agrees Team Blue is likely to win? They introduce a spread.
A Language Note, For the Purpose of this Post
Bookmakers are individuals or teams who apply information and statistical analysis to set betting spreads and lines, attempting to influence betting behavior. Bookmakers work for a Sportsbook, which is the organization or group that will pay out winnings and collect losses. A sportsbook will manage huge numbers of ongoing bets. Most legal sportsbooks in the United States are currently based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Many of us in the sports betting world simply refer to “Vegas” as a group when we talk about about who is setting the odds or doing the influencing. Even as sports betting becomes legal in more areas of the United States, we’re likely to still reference Vegas as the hive mind of sports betting. The term Vegas and oddsmakers may be used interchangeably.
A spread may be applied to a number of sports matchups including football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer. In this post we typically use a football game as our example.
A Spread is a Point Penalty
Oddsmakers recognize when one team is better than another, or when situations are more favorable for one team (playing on their home field, no starting players on the injury list, playing in snow against of warm weather team, etc.). To achieve balanced betting they place a spread on the game, which essentially means putting a point penalty on one of the teams.
Using football as our example sport, if Vegas thinks Team Blue is “about a touchdown better” than Team Red—or likely to win by about seven points—what they do is put a spread on the game. Such as spread would read: Team Blue -7.
How to Read the Spread
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. If you take Team Blue -7 this means you are accepting a seven point penalty at the end of the game; your betting score will be the real life game score minus 7 from Team Blue. Conversely, if you take the underdog Team Red +7 you are getting a seven point boost; your betting score will be the real life game score plus 7 to Team Red.
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.
At the end of the the game, you then apply the spread. Sticking with our example (where you took 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 Red = 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.
Adding Points to the Underdog
If you bet Team Red +7 and the final real life score is Team Blue = 21 and Team Red = 24, you still add the seven points to Team Red. Thus, the betting score is Team Blue = 21 and Team Red = 31. We see bettors have a hard time with this concept because they are adding points to the team that already won in real life. The underdog that you bet did not even need those extra points, but still you add them to get your final betting score. You won your bet!
Each sport has key figures that represent likely ways for one side or another to accumulate points. In football, for example, you can score a field goal for three points and a touchdown for seven points.
When oddsmakers attempt to set a spread (or line) that is going to get equal betting action on both side, they are going to set lines around those key figures. Thus, in football bettors will see a lot of spreads where a team is a favorite by 3, 7, 10, and 14 points (these would read as Favorite Team -3, Favorite Team -7, Favorite Team -10, and Favorite Team -14). It would be strange to see a football spread that has a favorite by 12.
Moving the Line: Changing the Spread
Sometimes the bookmaker will set a line that they expect to generate equal action, but they get it wrong. The public, instead, bets heavily on one side.
If you have the opening line at Team Blue -7, and most early bettors take that bet—that Team Blue will win by more than seven points—oddsmakers will want to discourage additional people from taking that bet. Thus, their bookmakers will increase the penalty to try and discourage bets on that side. Typically, the penalty shifts in half point increments.
The Value of Half Points
Let’s say you locked in Team Red +7. If the real life final score is Team Blue = 21 and Team Red = 17, then your betting score is actually Team Blue = 21 and Team Red = 24. You win!
However, let’s say the real life final score is Team Blue = 25 and Team Red = 17. With your Team Two +7 your betting score is Team Blue = 25 and Team Red = 24. You lose. In this instance, you would have been better off waiting to see if the spread moved to Team Red +8 (a tie) or Team Two +8.5 (a win!). Over the long run, getting these half points make more difference than you initially think.
Half points are an extra boost of penalty or encouragement for one side or another. If you have Team Red +7.5, the importance of that extra half point is a really big deal in football, as 7 is a key figure. What happens is that if Team Red loses by a touchdown? You still win because you have the extra half point!
Likewise, if you have Team Red +6.5 that is a much weaker betting position than Team Red +7. If they lose by a single touchdown, you lose your bet with just 6.5 points added to their score. Whereas a +7 betting position would garner you a tie.
The value of half points is sport specific. In some sports, such as basketball, a team may score several points quickly and easily so half points are not critical. In football, however, scoring three points or seven points is a relatively difficult thing to do for a team and half points are significant.
If the betting score is a tie, the boar is reset and the bettor gets their bet money back. This is called a push. If the real life score is Team Blue = 24 and Team Red = 17 and your bet was Team Two +7, your betting score is Team Blue = 24 and Team Red = 24. This is a push.
More on Moving the Line
Shifting the spread or moving the line is both art and science. Most often, the bookmaker starts the line within a point or two of where they needed to be to get equal action. They move the spread for a particular game only a half point at a time typically; for example, from Team Blue -7 to Team Blue -7.5. If that initial half point move still did not encourage equal action they would continue moving to Team Blue -8 and Team Blue -8.5 until they found a near equal number of bets on both sides of the line.
It’s a notable event in sports when oddsmakers move the line off of a key figure. We might think of that type of action as an option of last resort. If they take a football spread from 7 to 7.5, we can interpret that oddsmakers are very uncomfortable with the current betting action and they are taking a dramatic step to balance out the betting action. Experts in the sports betting world pay close attention to the key figures and how the line moves around those figures.
When bettors watch the betting line move, it is an attempt to read tea leaves. If you’re a novice or average bettor, you are not likely to know how the public at large is betting. For advanced bettors, there is data available that reveals all of that public betting information. Sports Insights is one such example.
Locking in A Bet
Bettors keep the bet they set, regardless of how the line moves after they place their bet. If you recognize that Team Blue is an excellent team and that the spread set at Team Blue -7 is a very good bet, you can take that bet and lock it in early! If the bookmakers see too many early bettors take that bet and eventually move the line, you get to keep the bet you locked in at Team Blue -7, even if it ultimately moves to Team Blue -10 or Team Blue -21.
No matter where the lines moves to, bettors keep the bet from the point in time they locked it in at.
On the other side of this token, imagine that a you took Team Red +7 and the spread subsequently moves to Team Red +7.5 or Team Red +8. You are, unfortunately, still stuck with Team Red +7. In this example, you would have been better off waiting because you would have gotten more points towards your betting score at the end. When you think about adding to the score you’re hoping to add as many points as possible.