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Cover the Spread

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What Does “Cover the Spread” Mean?

In sports betting, to “cover the spread” means to win a point spread bet. When two teams match up, one is an underdog and one is a favorite. A point spread is dictated by a sportsbook that determines by how many points the favorite is expected to win the game. Bettors can then wager on whether the favorite “covers” that point spread; if they bet on the favorite to win a game, then the favorite must win by more than the point spread.

As such, a bettor’s goal is to cover the spread when they make a point spread bet. Point spread bets are among the most popular methods of sports betting and are particularly common gambling options among fans of both college and professional football and basketball. While a spread is determined for most sports matchups, football and basketball are the most popular among bettors because teams tend to score more points, potentially making betting the spread more competitive.

Key Takeaways

  • In sports betting, sportsbooks calculate a point spread between two teams, providing a determination of which is the favorite and which is the underdog.
  • To cover the spread, a bettor must either bet on the favorite or the underdog, and to win their wager, the team must cover the point spread—or, win by more than the point spread.
  • Betting the point spread is one of the most popular sports betting methods, along with money line bets, and over/under (total) bets.
  • Gambling always involves a negative expected return—the house always has the advantage.

Understanding “Cover the Spread”

For bettors to cover the spread, the spread itself needs to be determined. That’s done by the sportsbooks, which are the oddsmakers in the betting sphere—on the street, they’re often referred to as bookies. There are numerous sportsbooks out there, ranging from casinos in Las Vegas to new, digital sportsbooks that are operated in certain states by companies like FanDuel and DraftKings, among many others.

When a sports matchup is announced, the sportsbooks then get to work. “When sportsbooks calculate the odds, they put together a line, or, they determine what the spread is in a given game,” says Becky Harris, a Distinguished Fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and a former chair of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. “The reason that books are interested in creating the spread is that it creates action on both sides of the line—there are incentives to bet on the favorite and on the underdog,” she says.

Effectively, the spread evens the playing field a bit for bettors. If one team appears to be vastly better than another, then they’re more likely to win, offering little incentive to do so for bettors trying to score a bigger pot. But a point spread means that the favorite not only needs to win but also needs to be victorious by a certain amount of points (or, cover the spread) for bettors backing the favorite to win their bet.

“The point spread is the perceived margin between two teams on the scoreboard,” says Jason Logan, a senior industry analyst at Covers.com, a sports betting information website. “Everyone knows that the top team in a league [will likely] beat the worst team, but the question is, by how much? That’s where the spread comes into play.”

It’s also important to note that the sportsbooks can change the spread up until game time, depending on certain factors, Logan says. If a star player has an injury, or if adverse weather conditions are anticipated on game day, for example, then it may change the outlook of the game, and the sportsbooks could adjust the line accordingly.

Betting the spread is perhaps the most popular wager in sports, says Harris, because it offers a better potential return on their wager compared with other bets, like betting “the total,” or making a money line bet. It also allows bettors to wager on a slight underdog, especially if they think it’ll be a close game.

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, call the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700, or visit ncpgambling.org/chat to chat with a helpline specialist.

In Action: Betting the Spread

Here’s an example of how a bettor could bet the point spread, and potentially win if they cover the spread.

In this hypothetical situation, the NFL playoffs are in full swing, and the AFC and NFC champions have just been crowned: the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. These two teams will meet in two weeks in the Super Bowl, and now that everyone knows what the matchup is, the sportsbooks get to work creating the line and the spread.

The Seahawks were 15-2 this year—far better than the Broncos, who were 9-8, and had to win a triple-overtime game to reach the Super Bowl. As such, the Seahawks appear to be an easy favorite, so the sportsbooks determine that the Seahawks are a 13-point favorite (-13, as it’s often stylized) to win. In this case, the point spread is 13 points.

If a bettor placed a bet on the Seahawks to cover the spread, Seattle would need to win by 14 or more points. If a bettor instead bets on the Broncos, the Broncos would need to either win the game or lose by less than 13 points. 

Say the game is played, and Seattle wins by 21 points. In that case, the Seahawks covered the spread, and a bettor betting on the favorite would have won their bet, while someone betting on the Broncos would have lost. However, if the Seahawks win by exactly 13 points, then the game is a “push,” and no one wins. In that case, all money wagered is returned to the bettors.

The term “vigorish” (often called the vig or juice) refers to the fee that a sportsbook charges for taking a wager from a bettor. It’s usually charged as a commission on winning bets and is one of the primary ways that sportsbooks make a profit.

Betting the Spread vs. Betting the Moneyline and the Total

There is a multitude of ways to place a wager on a given sports matchup, and betting the point spread is one of the most common and popular. Two of the other most popular types of wagers are betting the moneyline and betting “the total.”

Betting on the Moneyline

A moneyline bet is as simple as it gets: It’s a wager that one team will win a given game, against given odds. For example, a bettor makes a wager that the Broncos, not the Seahawks, will win the Super Bowl. If the Broncos win, then the bettor wins the wager, but if the Broncos lose, then the bettor loses the wager. The payouts for moneyline bets can be minimal, especially if the bettor wagers that the favorite will win.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court gave states permission to legalize sports betting if they wish to do so. It remains illegal in 8 states, including California and Texas.

Betting the Total

Betting “the total” is also known as an over/under wager. This is a bet on the total amount of points that both teams will score in a game, combined. The sportsbooks will determine the over/under figure (say, 55 points), and bettors can wager that the total points scored in the game will be either more or less than that figure.

In Which States Is Sports Betting Legal?

Sports betting is legal in 38 states plus Washington, D.C.

What Is a Sportsbook?

A sportsbook is a company or entity accepting bets from individual sports bettors. Bets are accepted on most major sports, both at the college and professional level. 

Is a Sportsbook the Same As a Bookie?

A sportsbook is technically a bookmaker or a bookie. However, those terms tend to refer to individuals and the term “sportsbook” often refers to a company. 

The Bottom Line

In sports betting, to cover the spread means that a team has beaten the point spread devised by a sportsbook. Each team has a favorite and an underdog, and if a bettor wagers that the favorite will win by more than the point spread, thereby covering the spread, then they’ll win their bet. A point spread bet is one of three primary betting types and typically offers a bettor the highest possible return on their wager.

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