How Does Spread Betting Work?

With the legalization of sports betting in Virginia in 2021, many Virginia residents are looking into betting on sports for the first time. The point spreads listed next to team names can be confusing when you are first getting started. But fortunately, point spread betting is easy to understand once you get the hang of it. It is one of the most popular forms of betting on sports, especially in basketball and football games.

This guide will walk you through exactly how point spread betting works so that you can feel comfortable handicapping and betting your favorite sports against the spread.

What is a spread in betting?

The point spread is a point handicap designed to make a game between two teams evenly matched. It is very rare that two teams are perceived to have an equal chance of winning a game; there is almost always going to be one team that has more talent, a better record, home field advantage, a hot quarterback or starting pitcher, or any other number of reasons why they are more likely to win than their opponent. The team that is considered to be more likely to win is referred to as the favorite, while the team that is less likely to win is called an underdog.

Spread betting in sports evens the game out by giving the favorite a point handicap it must overcome to “cover the spread” and win the bet. For example, say that the New England Patriots are favored over the Miami Dolphins at home and are given a point spread of “-4”. This means that in order for a point spread bet on New England to win, the Patriots have to win by at least five points. Miami at +4 will win the bet if the Dolphins win outright or lose by three points or less. The NFL spread bet will be a push (a draw) if it ends with New England winning by exactly four points.

If Miami’s starting quarterback was injured during practice and Miami was perceived to be an even bigger underdog, the line might be set at Miami (+11.5) vs. New England (-11.5) instead.  The point spread can be set as high or as low as the sportsbook believes it needs to be set to make the matchup even for both sides. Check out more examples on how point spread betting works in the following section.

How to bet the spread (with examples)

Say that the Washington Wizards are on the road against the Los Angeles Lakers. With Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy, the Lakers are extremely tough to beat, especially on their home court. A Wizards fan in Virginia may not be interested in betting on Washington to defeat the Lakers outright. However, say the game is listed at Washington Wizards (+9.5) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (-9.5) instead. Now all of a sudden this is a much more interesting game to handicap.

All the Wizards have to do to cover the spread as betting underdogs is lose by nine points or less. A Washington win will also do the trick, but any single-digit loss will also pay bettors who bet on Washington +9.5. A 107-100 Lakers win comes out to 109.5-107 in Washington’s favor when you add the 9.5 points.

On the other side, Lakers bettors will get a much better price betting on Los Angeles against the spread at -9.5 instead of simply betting on them to win the game outright, which is an extremely likely outcome that won’t pay well. Any Los Angeles win by 10 points or more will result in the Lakers’ -9.5 side winning. If the Lakers win in a 121-103 blowout, they still win even if you subtract the 9.5 points from their total by a score of 111.5-103.

Point spreads in basketball and football vary widely from game to game, especially in college leagues where teams are much more lopsided. By contrast, in baseball and hockey, the point spread is always set at 1.5 runs and 1.5 goals, with the favorite going off at -1.5 and the underdog getting +1.5.

For example, say that Stephen Strasburg is on the mound for the Washington Nationals, who are a -220 moneyline favorite (bet $220 to win $100) at home against the Colorado Rockies at +180 (bet $100 to win $180). The point spread (referred to as the runline in baseball and the puckline in hockey) in this game might be listed as follows: Colorado Rockies (+1.5, -140) vs. Washington Nationals (-1.5, +120).

MLB bettors that believe the Nationals are going to roll to a win would likely be much happier betting on them to cover the 1.5-run spread at +120 (betting $100 to win $120) than they would paying so much extra juice on the moneyline at -220. Of course, betting on the spread has its risks, as Washington must win by two runs or more for the Nationals’ -1.5 wager to be graded a winner. On the other side of this wager, a Colorado +1.5 bettor can win if the Rockies win the game outright or if they lose the game by one run.

Where to bet the spread online in Virginia?

There are already a handful of great sportsbooks and betting apps available for you to legally bet on point spreads in Virginia. Here are few of your top options:

DraftKings Sportsbook app

DraftKings quickly rose to fame as a daily fantasy sports provider shortly after being founded in 2012 and has since become one of the nation’s best and most reliable sportsbook options. When sports betting was legalized in New Jersey in 2018, DraftKings Sportsbook was the first company to offer mobile and online sports betting in the state. It has since expanded into many states around the country and has a deposit bonus of up to $1,000 for new sports betting customers in Virginia.

FanDuel Sportsbook app

Like DraftKings, FanDuel is a household name due to its success in the daily fantasy sports realm. In 2018, the company was acquired by Paddy Power Betfair, a sports betting powerhouse based out of Ireland. Paddy Power Betfair (now Flutter Entertainment) had years of experience in offering an outstanding online and mobile betting experience to its customers overseas long before sports betting was legalized across the United States. The FanDuel Sportsbook app and website are both very user-friendly. New customers can earn a risk free first bet of up to $1,000 on their first deposit.

BetMGM Sportsbook app

While the rest of the country is just catching up, sports betting has been legal in Nevada for decades. MGM Resorts International is one of the most successful businesses in Las Vegas with multiple destination resorts on the Las Vegas strip including the Bellagio, MGM Grand, and the Mandalay Bay. Now with their BetMGM Sportsbooks and app they are able to take the betting action to customers around the country. Virginia residents can earn up to a $1,000 free bet on their first deposit and can take advantage of $10 free bets every week to practice point spread betting with.

PointsBet Sportsbook app

What PointsBet lacks in name recognition, it makes up for in innovation. PointsBet Sportsbook allows bettors an innovative new way to bet against the spread using pointsbetting, that creates bigger wins or losses based on how much a team covers the spread (or fails to do so). For example, a four-point favorite that wins by 10 points on a $10 points bet would pay $60 ($10 x 6 for covering the spread by six points) while a win by 30 points would pay $260 ($10 x 26). This unique style of points spread betting is worth a try for Virginia sports bettors that love action.

Difference between the moneyline and spread

Moneyline betting is arguably the purest method of sports betting, as you are simply betting on which side will win. Two teams that are perceived to have an equal chance of winning a game would both have equal moneyline odds of -110 (bet $110 to win $100). The reason both sides are not listed at even money (+100, bet $100 to win $100) is due to the sportsbook’s vigorish, which is charged on each side.

As the two teams get further apart in skill and perceived odds of winning, the moneyline gets larger and larger on the favorite. A strong NBA or NFL favorite at home might be going off at -600 (bet $600 to win $100) to win, while the underdog of that game might be listed at +450 (bet $100 to win $450). It is in these more lopsided games that point spread betting becomes a much more viable option.

Laying $60 to win only $10 on a -600 favorite isn’t going to be all that appealing to many bettors, especially casual ones. Even if the favorite is a very reliable one, anything can happen in sports, and the risk to reward isn’t very good in this type of scenario. Similarly, while the +450 odds on the underdog might look nice, it is just so unlikely that that team wins outright, that wagering hard-earned dollars on a moneyline win could be perceived as too risky.

Instead of betting on the Washington Football Team at +450 or the Kansas City Chiefs at -600 on the moneyline, bettors could instead bet on this hypothetical matchup with point spread betting. Say the point spread was set at Washington +11.5 vs. Kansas City -11.5, with both sides listed at -110. Now Kansas City bettors have a much more palatable price at -110 and Washington bettors have many more paths to victory than just an outright upset with 11.5 points.

Line movements in spread betting explained

Points spreads on games fluctuate in the days and hours leading up to game time. It is important to note that your wager is locked in at whatever point spread you bet it at. So if you bet on the New York Giants at +4.5 and they eventually move up to +6.5 on the betting board, you will still have them at your set price of +4.5. This can work in your favor too as the line could move the other way down to New York +3 and you’d still have the extra 1.5 points.

The biggest line movements often occur when there is breaking news on a game. A star player getting injured, traded, or benched could heavily affect the line, especially in a star-driven league like the NBA. However, line movements occur throughout the week even when there aren’t any news stories or injuries attached, and this is due to betting action.

Sportsbooks charge vigorish on both sides of every game because they are providing a service in offering betting odds on all games. This leaves them vulnerable to losing a lot of their own money if a very popular betting side wins. In most cases, the sportsbook wants both teams to generate about the same amount of betting action.

Take, for example, a hypothetical matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Say that 1000 bets of $110 to win $100 are placed on each team. The sportsbook, in this instance, would make $10,000 no matter who won, as $110 x 1,000 = $110,000 and $100 x 1000 = $100,000. With perfectly even betting action, the losing side would always pay the winning side and leave the sportsbook with a risk free win.

But in reality, betting action is rarely so even. One side is often more popular than the other and will generate a lot more bets, putting the sportsbook at risk to lose big if that popular team wins. In an attempt to entice bettors to bet on the other side, sportsbooks will change the line. If the Ravens are generating too many bets at -3.5, the line could be moved to -4 or even -4.5 in hopes of slowing down the action on Baltimore and bringing in more action on Pittsburgh +4 or +4.5 to lower the sportsbook’s risk.

How to handicap spread bets for beginners

Winning games outright and winning games against the spread are two totally different things. Some teams that always win close games make for excellent moneyline bets, but unreliable bets as point spread-betting favorites. The same goes for betting underdogs, as some teams with losing records fight hard and stay competitive game-to-game, while others are more prone to roll over and die when the going gets tough.

Betting favorites aren’t concerned about covering the spread; they are just focused on winning the game. If you plan on partaking in point spread betting, it’s important to handicap how certain teams and coaches play with the lead, from the types of plays they run to their habits resting players.

Your goal in handicapping the point spread is to find favorites that will win big enough to cover, and underdogs that will keep the game close enough to cover or win outright. This may seem obvious, but it is a valuable distinction to drive home. Some bettors simply bet on any favorite that they like against the spread without actually thinking about the likelihood of that team covering the spread.

Say that you handicap a game between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks in which the Bucks are a 6.5-point favorite. You deduce that the Bucks will win by seven or more 40% of the time, by six or less 35% of the time, and will lose the game 25% of the time. So here, even though you think the Bucks will beat the Celtics an impressive 75% of the time, you’d actually be better off betting on Boston at +6.5, as you are projecting the Celtics to cover the spread 60% of the time.


Point spread betting is an excellent option to have in your sports betting arsenal. One of the best things about sports betting is that you don’t have to settle on just one bet type. If you handicap a game and can’t decide which team will win, but feel confident that it’s going to be a high-scoring game, you can bet on the “over” in totals betting. If you like an underdog to win a game outright, you can go for a better payout on they moneyline instead of taking the points on the spread.

Each game on the betting board is its own unique puzzle. Now that you have a better understanding of how the point spread works, you can decide for yourself on a case-by-case basis whether point spread betting is right for the game in question.