How to Read NFL Betting Lines: The Point Spread

There are plenty of sites around telling you how to analyze the lines, and plenty telling you what to do in order to choose the best value and so forth. But for those that want to get their feet wet with sports betting, they’ll need to understand how to read the lines before they go about betting them. There are plenty of different lines for all kinds of sports.

Different parts of the betting lines include the point spread (also known as the run line for baseball, or goal line for soccer and hockey). There’s also totals and the money line. In this post we’ll cover just the spread (no pun intended, you’ll get it later on).

But this being a football site, let’s focus just on football betting lines and the point spread. Here is an example of an NFL betting line featured on SBG Global:

Fri, 04 Sep 2009
07:05 PM This game is circled.
137 Texans +3 (-120) OV 34 (-110) +135
138 Buccaneers -3 (EV) UN 34 (-110) -155

Of course, on top it tells you which league you’re betting on, in this case NFL. Underneath that are the teams being featured in this specific line. Pay no attention to the numbers on the far left, they’re just the rotation number or game ID. They have no effect on the lines themselves.

Next to it is the column for the Point Spread (SP/RL). Depending on the sport, you will see different ranges of numbers on the spread. For NFL football it’s common to see smaller numbers like 3, 6, 5½, etc., maybe even 13 points if the team is a large favorite. The favorite is identified as the team with the negative number in the spread, and as the name suggests, is the team most bettors and handicappers consider the most likely to win. The underdog is identified by the positive number, and is the team expected to lose. In this case the Bucs are “laying” 3 points, which means that they must win by more than 3 points in order for the bet to win. The Texans, however, are not allowed to lose by more than 3 points. They can lose by less than 3, tie the game, or even straight up win and a bet on them would win.

An easy way to calculate whether or not your bet “covered the spread” is to either add the points to the underdog’s final score or to subtract the points from the favorite’s final score.

So if the Buccaneers won 21-20, sure they won the game, but they didn’t win by the 3 points. So a bet on them would lose.

What the spread does is balance the action. If there were no spread and you just had to pick the straight up winner, everyone in this case would bet the Bucs, and if they won, so would the bet. That’s a very dangerous situation for sportbooks, so the spread was put into place in order to get people to think more about their bet. The bettor says to himself “OK, the Bucs are going to win, I’m confident about that. But will they win by more than 3 points?”

The (-120) and the (EV) is the juice on the game. Juice (vig) is what the sportsbook charges to bet with them. Normally, it’s (-110) for both teams, so a 100 dollar bet would mean you risk 110 to win 100. In this case, betting on the Texans has 20% juice and betting on the Bucs has no juice, so a bet on the won’t cost you a penny.

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