Spread Betting in Sports Book Wagers

If you frequent sports book websites, you may have heard the expression ‘cover the spread.’ What is this spread they’re talking about? Depending on your luck, deciding on a winner may be hard enough, but others seem to enjoy making wagering more challenging and interesting, and spread betting is right up their alley. Instead of simply betting on the outcome of a sporting event, people bet on something even more specific, such as the amount of points scored by a team, and the difference between the opposing teams’ scores.

Spread betting was created in the 40’s by Connecticut mathematics teacher turned Chicago bookmaker Charles K. McNeil, and it has grown in popularity ever since, especially in the British sports book industry. Much like over-under betting, spread bookies and bettors are hardly interested in who wins and who loses a game. They are only interested in whether or not a team covers the spread. That’s the second time we’ve used that expression, so it may be time that we devoted a few lines to explaining what exactly that means.

The point spread is a specific number the bookmaker chooses, and once it is made known the gambler bets on one of two teams which are labeled ‘favorite’ and ‘underdog.’ If you bet on the former you’d be said to give the points; if on the latter, you take the points. If the favorite’s score, after subtracting the spread, is higher than the underdog’s score, the favorite covers the spread. If the underdog’s score, after adding the spread, is higher than the favorite’s score, then the underdog covers the spread.

 Let’s say for example that a sports book website announces a 10 point spread in a hypothetical Miami Heat-L.A. Lakers game, in which Los Angeles is the favorite and the Heat is the underdog. The final board says L.A. 95-Miami 80; the Lakers’ score minus the spread is 85, higher than the Heat’s 80. However, if the score was 88-80 the Lakers would still win the match but fail to cover the spread. If you bet on L.A. you’d win in the first instance and lose in the second. And if you bet on Miami, you would win in the second case; because 80 plus the 10 point spread equal 90, higher than L.A.’s 88, but you would lose in the first case because even with the addition of the spread they would still fall five points short.

As you can see, you can still lose a bet even if you gamble on a winning team, and win even if you wager on a losing one. The goal is not to make betting more complicated, but to keep it from becoming too simplified. If the win-lose outcome was the only thing that mattered, everyone would bet on the favorite and no one on the underdog, with very few exceptions.