What Is a Point Spread? Explanation, NFL, NBA & MLB Examples

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. / Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When betting on a sporting event, there are several different wagers that a bettor can place on a game. 

You can bet on the spread, moneyline, total or decide to wager on some prop bets. Whatever you choose to bet on, it is important that you understand what each type of bet means and what needs to happen in order for you to win.

Here is everything you need to know about betting on the point spread.

Point Spread Explained & How Point Spreads Work

When betting on a point spread, you are betting on the margin of victory in a sporting event. This is the most popular bet when betting on the NFL, College Football, College Basketball or NBA. 

There are two sides to every point spread. 

First, there is the favorite, or the team that is expected to win the game/perceived as the better team. In order to win a bet on the point spread with a favorite, the team must win by a certain number of points/goals/runs for the bet to cash. 

There is also the underdog, which is the team that is perceived as the weaker team and expected to lose the matchup. In order to win a bet on the point spread with an underdog, they must lose by fewer points than the point spread or win the game outright. 

In this Week 17 matchup of the 2021 NFL season, the Kansas City Chiefs are 5-point favorites at WynnBET Sportsbook against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Bettors who wager on the Chiefs need them to win this matchup by more than five points in order to cover the point spread. Any bettor that wagers on the Bengals point spread will need them to lose by fewer than five points or win the game outright. 

Point Spread Definition

A point spread is a wager on the margin of victory in a sporting event.

The team that has the minus sign, such as in the example above (-5), is the favorite. 

The team that has the plus sign, such as in the example above (+5), is the underdog. 

Next to the point spread, or in this case at WynnBET, below the point spread, will be the American odds that correspond to each wager. 

In this matchup, a wager on the Kansas City Chiefs -5 would allow bettors to win $1 for every $1.10 wagered. The same goes for a bettor who wished to wager on Bengals +5.

NFL Points Spread Examples

Here are a few examples to understand how the point spread works when betting.

Let’s start with the Los Angeles Rams vs. Baltimore Ravens matchup in NFL Week 17 of the 2021 season.

  • Rams -3.5 (need to win by four or more)
  • Ravens +3.5 (need to lose by three or less, or win)

The final score decides the outcome of the bet, so let’s say hypothetically the Ravens lose, 31-24.

In that case, the Rams would cover the -3.5 point spread.

Here’s another example: 

In NFL Week 16, the Los Angeles Chargers were 10.5-point favorites against the Houston Texans. 

  • Chargers -10.5 (must win by 11 points or more)
  • Texans +10.5 (must lose by 10 points or less, or win). 

The Texans ended up defeating the Chargers 41-29. 

Therefore, the Texans covered the +10.5 point spread.

NBA Point Spread Example

Point spreads work the same in the NBA and College Basketball. 

In this matchup, the New York Knicks are 7.5-point favorites against the Detroit Pistons.

  • Knicks -7.5 (must win by eight or more points) 
  • Pistons +7.5 (must lose by seven or fewer points, or win)

Hypothetical Final Score: Knicks 112, Pistons 102

In this scenario, the Knicks would cover the -7.5 point spread since they won by 10 points. 

MLB Points Spread Examples

Sports with less scoring, such as baseball and hockey, have point spreads that are almost always set at +1.5 and -1.5. 

Here’s a hypothetical example to understand run lines in baseball. 

  • Yankees -1.5 (+100)
  • Red Sox +1.5 (-130)

In this example, bettors would need to wager more to win $1 for the Red Sox to lose by one run or less than betting on the Yankees to win by two runs or more. The American odds next to the set run line will fluctuate based on the strength of the teams. 

How Are Point Spreads Made? 

There are several factors that go into building a point spread.

First off, oddsmakers have mathematically calculated ratings on each team entering a given season. As the team continues to play games, oddsmakers will adjust based on the team’s performance and other factors. 

For example, a team like the Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Durant and James Harden is going to be rated higher and favored more often than a young team like the Pistons who finished with one of the NBA’s worst records in the 2020-21 season. 

Secondly, oddsmakers take these ratings into account while also looking at other external factors. Those can include, but are not limited to, home field advantage, injuries, rest and opponent strength. That will allow them to create a point spread prior to the scheduled game. 

From there, the spread will change based on how bettors begin wagering on the event. This will help the spread get to an even more accurate number. If one team is receiving most of the spread bets, oddsmakers will adjust the spread as they see fit to even out the matchup. 

What Does It Mean to Cover the Spread?

When a team “covers the spread” it means that it simply one a point spread bet. When going back to our examples above, the Knicks would have covered the spread with that hypothetical final score against the Pistons. 

ATS Definition and Explanation

Here at BetSided and in other publications you will see the term “ATS” such as “The Knicks are 9-7 ATS on the road this season.”

ATS stands for “against the spread.” A team’s ATS record is simply their record against the spread that season. For example, the Knicks have covered the spread nine times on the road and have failed to cover it seven times on the road. 

What Are Run Lines and Puck Lines?

Sports with less scoring, such as baseball and hockey, have point spreads that are almost always set at +1.5 and -1.5. 

In baseball, the point spread is also referred to as the “Run Line” and in hockey it is referred to as the “Puck Line.”

The odds on the Run Line or Puck Line will change based on the ability of the team and won’t be the standard -110 as they usually are in football or basketball.

Learn more about sports betting in the US in our Sports Betting Education guide.