NFL Spread Betting

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You may not have heard of Charles K. McNeil, but he’s one of the most important people in betting history. McNeil is the man credited with inventing the point spread in the early 1940s. Before he came along, people used moneyline odds to bet on football. McNeil’s “wholesaling odds” concept, as he called it, proved even more popular; by attaching a point spread to the game, McNeil turned the outcome into something close to a 50/50 flip, with the chances of either team covering about the same.

This turned out to be a revolutionary concept. Betting on NFL spreads is easy for people to understand – either your team covers or it doesn’t, and if it does, you get paid out at even money, minus the juice (also known as vigorish or vig) you pay the sportsbook to process your wager. The spread also makes it easier for the bookies to do their work. Ideally, the same amount of money will be bet on either team, and when it’s time to cash out, the winning bettors will receive the money supplied by the losing bettors, with the book keeping the juice as their commission. When the action on a game is unbalanced, the sportsbook puts itself at risk of exposure.



What is an NFL Point Spread?

Even if you’re brand new to betting on football, you’ve probably seen NFL point spreads published online or talked about on TV. The point spread levels the playing field, making betting on either the favorite or the underdog equally attractive. Either the favorite has to win by the margin listed, or the underdog has a buffer to lose the game by that margin, or win it outright.

As an example, let’s look at the point spread for the very first Super Bowl game (then known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game) between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, played in 1967 at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles:

Chiefs  +14 (–110)
Packers  –14 (–110)

The Packers were the designated home team for Super Bowl I, so they’re listed at the bottom. They were also the favorites in this game, representing the mighty NFL; the –14 you see above indicates that Green Bay was a 14-point favorite, meaning they had to win by more than 14 points to cover the spread. The Chiefs, representing the upstart AFL, were 14-point underdogs. If they had won the Super Bowl, or lost by fewer than 14 points, they would have covered instead. A Packers win of exactly 14 points would have resulted in a push, with all monies returned. In the end, Green Bay won the Super Bowl 35-10 and covered the spread.

As you can see, there’s another number in our example above. The –110 in parentheses refers to the juice; this figure is expressed in the same fashion as moneyline odds, with either a negative or positive sign in front of the number. In this case, in order to place a wager on either side, you would have bet $110 to win $100. If the juice on Kansas City had been +110, you would have bet $100 to win $110. Most game lines ask you to pay the standard –110 vigorish. If you don’t see any particular figure attached to the spread, the usual –110 vig applies.



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How Do NFL Spreads Work?

While most football fans have seen an NFL point spread before, not everyone understands how they work. There’s a common misconception that the oddsmakers are trying to outsmart their customers by posting the spread and getting people to bet on the wrong side. At the same time, many bettors think that their goal is to “beat the bookie.” This is false; as mentioned, the sportsbook is incentivized to keep the action on either team as balanced as possible, in order to limit exposure.

To achieve this balance, the book can move the spread and/or the juice at any time after the first lines hit the NFL odds board, all the way up until kick-off. If there had been too much action on the Packers at Super Bowl 1, the oddsmakers could have made Kansas City a 15-point underdog (+15), in order to encourage more people to bet on the Chiefs. They also could have kept the spread at 14 points and moved the juice, perhaps to –105 for Kansas City and -115 for Green Bay. You’ll often see the books adjust the juice first when the spread is three points; since so many NFL games end in a winning margin of three points (roughly one in six games), moving the spread from 3 to 3.5 points is a pretty big deal, and it might tilt the balance too far in the other direction.

Once you understand how the NFL point spread works, you can make smarter choices when it comes to sports betting online. The most important takeaway: It’s not you against the bookie. Think of NFL spread betting in terms of a marketplace, where customers tend to overvalue some teams and undervalue others. Figure out which teams those are, and you’ll find where the profit margin is.

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