How to Bet on Sports: Sports Betting Explained

Everything you need to know about betting on sports, including how to read odds, different ways to bet and popular terms, plus tips and strategies.

Senior Betting Analyst
Mar 14, 2023 • 06:51 ET • 4 min read
NFL football on field.
Photo By - USA Today

The most important thing to know about betting on sports is that it’s fun. And it’s always been fun.

Well before the legalization of sports betting in 2018, which set off a boom in the United States ($13 billion bet legally in 2019), sports fans enjoyed gambling on their favorite events and teams.

While sports betting is quickly becoming a piece of mainstream sports culture, people new to it should still have that one key objective before placing their first bet: have fun.

How does sports betting work?

There are thousands of sports betting options out there, but the basic premise behind it all is simply predicting that something will happen during a game or event and risking money on the chances of that occurring. 

Sportsbooks will set odds on these occurrences based on their probability of happening, allowing you to bet on the side you think will win with the sportsbook essentially taking the opposite of that opinion. 

If something has a high probability of occurring, it has a lower risk and won’t pay out as much as something with a lower probability and greater risk. The greater the risk the bigger the reward but… the greater the risk.

Most sports betting options offer two sides, such as team vs. team or Yes vs. No. However, some bets can have multiple options to wager on, such as picking which team will win the championship before the season begins. NBA Championship odds are a perfect example of this: 

Favorites and Underdogs

Two of the most common sports betting terms are favorite and underdog, which are often the two sides to a bet that you can wager on. 

The favorite is the one side, team, or outcome that has the higher probability of winning or happening. Due to the lower risk, the return from betting on the favorite is smaller.

The underdog has a lower probability of winning. Due to the higher risk, the return from betting on the underdog is bigger. In the example below, the Boston Red Sox are the underdog and the New York Yankees are the favorite.

Team Run Line Total Moneyline
Yankees New York Yankees -1.5 (+110) O 11.5 (-115) -145
Red Sox Boston Red Sox +1.5 (-130) U 11.5 (-105) +125

If both sides have the same chances of winning, then the odds can be even for both and is often referred to as a pick or pick’em.

Types of bets

As we mentioned, while the premise of sports betting is simple – betting on one outcome or another – there are thousands of ways to bet on sports. These are the most common types of bets:

Spread bets

Spread bets, or point spreads, are used to make uneven games even. A point spread is assigned to a game based on the expected difference in the final score or result, and bettors must decide how much stronger one team is than the other.

Oddsmakers set a handicap between the two sides, forcing the favorite to win by a certain number of points (also known as cover the spread) in order to win the bet while allowing the underdog to win outright or lose by a certain number and still win the bet.

The point spread favorite will have a negative (-) value to its spread while the underdog will have a positive (+) value to its spread. If a game is too close to set a spread and both sides are perceived as even, the game will be deemed a pick or pick’em and you simply select which side will win outright.

Moneyline bets

Moneyline bets are the most basic type of sports wager: simply pick the winner. Moneylines are based on the implied probability of a result, such as one team beating another. 

There are no spreads or handicaps involved to even the game, so a moneyline reflects the probability of the result, with low-risk moneylines (favorites) paying smaller returns and higher-risk moneylines (underdogs) paying bigger returns. 

Moneyline favorites are indicated by a negative value (-) next to their odds and moneyline underdogs are indicated by a positive value (+) next to their odds.

Over/Under bets

Over/Under bets or totals are formulated from the projected total amount of points, runs or goals scored by both sides in a game.

Oddsmakers will assign a total to a game and bettors can choose whether the actual final score will go Over or Under that projected total. If a total is set at 50 points, a bet on the Over would need 51 or more combined points to win while a bet on the Under would need 49 or fewer combined points to win.

Team Moneyline Spread Total
Bengals Cincinnati Bengals +110 +3 (-110) O 50 (-110)
Rams Los Angeles Rams -130 -3 (-110) U 50 (-110)

If the final score produces exactly the same amount of points as the Over/Under total, it’s graded a push and bets are returned.

Parlay bets

Parlay bets are a combination of two or more bets tied together for a larger potential payout. However, for the parlay bet to win, all bets involved must be correct.

The more bets added to a parlay, the greater the risk and the bigger the potential return. But, even if only one of the bets involved in the parlay is wrong, the entire parlay is graded as a loss.

Parlays can involve multiple types of bets, including point spreads, moneylines and Over/Under totals. If you're trying to decide on what bets to parlay and want an idea what kind of payout it will yield, try using our parlay calculator.

Same-Game Parlays

Many sportsbooks have started to allow bettors to construct parlays with events and outcomes found within the same game.

Parlays allow bettors to combine different bet types or outcomes of multiple sporting events within a single stake. Each outcome the bettor selects (referred to as legs) must be correct for the bet to succeed. Of course, getting all of the selections in a parlay correct is significantly more challenging. Still, if you do, your payoff can be immense.

A same-game parlay lets you connect the outcome of multiple events within a single game in a parlay. As in a regular parlay, you must correctly select the outcome of every leg for the bet to be successful.

Suppose you wager on the moneyline of the Tampa Bay Lightning beating the New York Rangers and the goal total of the game being +5.5. In that case, both events must occur for the parlay to pay out.

What does -110 mean?

In sports betting, -110 means that for every $1 a bettor wants to win, they must risk $1.10. If a bettor wanted to win $100 on -110 odds, they would need to risk $110.

This odds format is known as American Odds and is most commonly used in North American sportsbooks and casinos. The -110 odds are commonly used with point spreads, with both sides of the spread listed at -110, also known as flat.

Team Moneyline Odds
Browns Philadelphia 76ers -110
Celtics Boston Celtics -110

The negative value (-) before the American Odds indicates that the bettor must risk more than the return. If the American Odds have a positive value (+) before them, then the bettor can return more than the risk. At +110, a bettor could win $1.10 for every $1 wagered. There are other types of odds formats available, such as decimal or fraction, and if you'd like to see how American Odds translate into those formats, use our odds converter.

How to bet on sports online

You can bet on sports online by first finding the legal options available based on your area. Some regions allow for online sports betting and there are various online sportsbooks available. Other areas don’t allow for online sports betting or offer mobile sports betting sites linked to retail sportsbooks and casinos, which require deposits and withdraws in person.

Depositing into an online sportsbook is very quick and simple, with most accepting major credit cards, traditional and electronic bank transfers, as well as popular transfer methods like PayPal. Withdrawing winnings is just as simple, with funds returned through those common banking methods.

Best online sportsbooks

The best online sportsbooks are established and trusted brands that offer multiple methods for ease of depositing and withdrawing along with safe and secure privacy protection.

The best online sportsbooks have large menus of options for various sports, leagues, events and different bet types while providing fair odds and return on these markets.

How to bet on sports in Vegas

Betting on sports in Las Vegas is one of the best experiences a sports fan can have outside of being in the stands. Most casinos offer incredible viewing experiences, with giant TV screens, lounge seating and multiple food and drink options.

Placing an in-person bet at a Las Vegas sportsbook requires you to know the ID or rotation numbers assigned to a particular game, with each side having a dedicated number. You tell the sportsbook ticket writer the rotation number, type of bet and size of wager, and they will give you a paper ticket for that bet that will be redeemed for money should it win.

How much should you wager on a bet?

The amount you should wager on a sports bet depends on various factors, including your bankroll, the odds of the bet landing, and the level of risk you're willing to accept. It's something we refer to as sports betting bankroll management and ROI.

One common strategy is to use a unit system where you bet a certain percentage of your bankroll on each bet. For example, you might bet 1% or 2% of your bankroll on each bet, so if you have a $1,000 bankroll, you would bet $10 or $20 per bet. This helps to minimize the risk of losing your entire bankroll on a single bet.

Another approach is to consider the odds of the bet and the probability of winning. If you believe a bet has a high probability of winning, you might be willing to bet more than if you think the bet is more of a long shot. However, it's important to remember that even "sure bets" can go sideways, so you should never bet more than you can afford to lose.

Ultimately, the amount you wager on a sports bet should be determined by your own personal financial situation, risk tolerance, and strategy. Start small and gradually increase your bets as you gain experience and confidence in your abilities.

Sports betting tips

There are endless strategies out there, but if you’re just dipping toes in the sports betting pool for the first time these are some basic sports tips to keep in mind:

  • Be selective: You don’t need to bet every single game. The best bettors rank their potential picks in terms of confidence and from there decide which ones are worth the wager. One of the rare edges bettors have versus the sportsbook is that bookies must set odds for every game. Bettors, however, can pick and choose which bets they want to place.
  • Home/Away: Where the game is being played can have a big impact on the outcome. Some teams perform better in their own venue and some struggle away from home. Home field or home court is something that oddsmakers work into the point spread and moneyline odds for host teams.
  • Line moves: Sports betting odds are constantly adjusting to the action coming in at the sportsbook as well as other factors like injuries or weather. Getting the best odds for your opinion is vital to having success in sports betting and that means timing when you place your bet, either betting before or after the line moves.
  • Injuries/Weather: Injuries to key players and multiple positions can impact the outcome of the game. Bettors must keep a close eye on any notable injuries that could affect their wagers. Weather is another factor to consider when betting on outdoor sports, like baseball and football. Rain, snow and wind can all influence the outcome.
  • Money management: Depending on how much money you have set aside for sports betting, you will want to dedicate a certain bet size to each wager as to not deplete your bankroll with one bad day of wagering. Some suggest risking between 1 and 5 percent of your bankroll on each bet, depending on your confidence in the play. If you have $100 for a bankroll, you should keep your individual bets between $1 and $5.
  • Betting trends: Tread lightly when it comes to betting trends. There’s a surplus of betting trends out there for just about every side of a wager. The best betting trends are built over the long term and have a narrative or reason to support their results. Beware banking on sporadic short-term betting trends built on small sample sizes.
  • Know when to stop: One of the best tips for new sports bettors is knowing when to stop. There’s a temptation to bet more to make up for past losses, also known as chasing your bets when you have a bad day. Emotionally-charged wagers aren’t always smart wagers, so it’s best to step back, regroup, and shift focus to properly researching tomorrow’s games.

  • Shop around: Download multiple sports betting apps on your phone and search for the best lines available before gametime. Use our legal sports betting tracker and then click on your state to find a list of all the legal sports betting sites in your region. 

  • Bet with your head, not your heart: One of the keys to being a winning sports bettor is to remain objective. Look at the numbers and the unique circumstances and refrain from betting on teams simply because you've been rooting for them since you were a kid. Take your emotions out of the equation and you'll start making smarter wagers.

  • Respect the market: We hate to break it to you, but you are not smarter than the betting market. Don’t chase bets when the market goes against you.

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