The Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to overturn the federal ban on sports betting has led to a surge in the popularity of wagering in the United States. This landmark ruling paved the way for individual states to legalize betting on sports which led to a boom of interest from fans and enthusiasts.
Learning how sports betting lines work can be intimidating at first, but our guide will teach you how to read the odds in no time! This primer is designed for beginners who are curious about common wagering practices and terms.
If you are just getting started with sports gambling you should know there are two primary objectives: to have fun and to make a little extra money. Your passion for certain teams or leagues gives you the specialized knowledge to be more accurate with your predictions than the books, but only if you know what you are doing.
That is why I’m here to help you learn the sports betting ropes, understand the nuances of different bets, and get acquainted with strategies that increase your chances of beating the odds. By gambling responsibly you can ensure a fun and entertaining sports betting experience, where the excitement of the game is enjoyed to the fullest.
Understanding the Basics of How to Sports Bet
When looking at making wagers there are two things to know: the multiple bet types you have the option to wager on and the different formats odds can be displayed in. Let’s take a look at both in this section.
What Does the Plus (+) and Minus (-) Mean in Sports Betting?
One of the first and most important aspects of sports betting every new player must learn is what the different symbols mean. A plus or a minus can mean different things in different situations. They are used for both point spread and money line betting, as well as for the price/juice of each bet.
This is explained in more detail below, but the most important thing to be aware of is that negative numbers represent favorites, while positive numbers represent underdogs. The same is true whether you are looking at a spread or a moneyline, but how these numbers are used is very different.
You also need to know that prices on spreads/totals do not impact who/what is favored, it is used to determine how much the bet pays out. Read on for the complete explanation of each of these concepts.
Odds Formats for Betting Sports and How They Work
Below are the common ways the sportsbooks display their odds. While it’s important to know how to read each line you can also use our odds calculator to convert them into the format that’s easiest for you.
American odds, also known as moneyline odds, are most commonly used in the United States. They are presented with positive and negative values. Positive values denote how much profit you can make from a $100 bet, while negative values indicate how much you need to bet to make a $100 profit. For instance, if the odds are +150, a $100 bet could win you $150. Conversely, if the odds are -150, you would need to bet $150 to win $100.
Decimal odds are widely used in Europe, Canada, and Australia. They represent the total payout instead of profit. To find out your potential profit, you multiply your stake by the decimal odds. For example, if the decimal odds are 2.50, a $100 bet would yield a $250 return, which includes your $100 stake plus a $150 profit.
Fractional odds are commonly used in the UK and Ireland or with futures wagers. They are represented as fractions, such as 5/1 (read as “five to one”). The numerator (the first number) represents how much you will win from a bet of the size of the denominator (the second number). So, a 5/1 bet means you can win $5 for every $1 bet, plus your stake back.
How to Read Sports Betting Lines by Bet Types
There are nearly infinite ways to bet on sports. If you can think of something to bet on, there is a good chance you can find somewhere to bet on it. What we are going to focus on is the most common types of wagers: point spreads, over/unders (totals), and money lines.
Point Spreads Explained
The point spread is the projected number of points that separate two teams. A game with a spread will have a favorite (the team expected to win) and an underdog (the team expected to lose). A favorite “gives” points and is identified with a minus sign next to their point spread. The underdog “gets” points and is identified with a plus sign next to their point spread.
|New York Jets
|New England Patriots
In the example above, the point spread is 7 points. Patriots are favored by 7 points against the Jets.
If you bet on the Jets +7, they must either win the game outright or lose by 6 points or less. If they lose by exactly 7 points, the bet is considered a push and is canceled.
If you bet on the Patriots -7, they must win the game outright by more than 7 points. If they win by exactly 7 points, it’s a push.
While point spreads are most popular in football and basketball other sports have their own version. We cover run line betting, how to bet puck lines, and explain Asian handicaps in detail for those interested in learning more.
Bet Prices: What Does -110 Mean? If I Bet $100, What Do I Win?
The 3-digit numbers to the far right are the listed prices for these bets. This is also called the odds, vig, or juice. An easy way to think of it is the amount you must risk to win $100 on this wager. In our example, -110 means you must risk $110 if you want to win $100. -110 is pretty standard, but you will find different options. We will cover those in more depth when we talk about money lines. The price of the bet has no impact on which team is favored. Only the plus or minus on the point spread matters. This is handled differently when you bet strictly on the moneyline.
Not all point spreads are created equal. If you think about football, it’s more likely that a game lands on a three or seven-point differential due to how the scoring works. You can check out our guide to gambling key numbers to learn more.
What is the Money Line? (How Moneyline Betting Works)
A moneyline bet is on a team to win the game outright (without a point spread) at an adjusted cost. Just like with point spread betting, the favorite will have negative odds, while the underdog will have positive odds. The difference here is in the price or payout depending on which team you take.
|New York Jets
|New England Patriots
A favorite (e.g. Patriots -280) on the money line works just like our bet price example above. In our new example, the Patriots are listed at -280, meaning you would need to risk $280 for a return of $100 on them. It follows that a winning bet on the Pats pays $100 (plus your initial investment of $280 back). This added risk is why betting the spread is usually more popular, especially on favorites.
Underdogs (e.g. Jets +240) work a bit differently. Instead of showing how much you need to risk to win $100, this line tells you how much you stand to win on a $100 wager. That means if you bet $100 on the Jets, and they win, you would win $240. If the Jets lose, you are only out your original $100 wager.
Totals: What Over/Under Means in Sports Betting
The terms “total” and “over/under” are synonymous when placing wagers. This type of bet is on the sum of the points scored by both teams in a game. The bookie sets the number for the total, then you predict whether they will score more or less points than the set number.
|New York Jets
|New England Patriots
The over/under in this example has been set at 42.5. If you project the Jets and Patriots to combine to score more than 42.5 points, you would place a wager on the over. If you think they will score less than 42.5 points, you would bet the under. Let’s say the final score of this game is Patriots 27, Jets 24. Which bet would lose and which bet would win? The sum of all points scored is 27 + 24 = 51, so an over bet wins and an under bet loses.
When you place a parlay bet, you are betting on the combined outcome of two or more different wagers. It is a high-risk, high-reward type of bet because all selections must win for the parlay to be a winner. For instance, if you place a parlay bet on four different football games, all four teams must win for you to secure a victory on your bet.
A simple way to explain parlays is to imagine if you take three different teams playing at different times. A 3-team parlay would be the same thing as betting the first game, and if it wins doubling down on the second game. If that game wins you double down again on the third.
Obviously, if any of your games had lost doing that you would be out your original wager. If all three games win your payout would be very similar to the parlays payout.
We built a parlay payout calculator so you know how much of a return you’ll get for each sports bet you make and if you want to learn more you can read our understanding parlay bets article. There you’ll learn about round robin betting and how it can be a fun way to take a shot at a big payout without quite the same risk of an all-or-nothing wager.
Most pundits tell you to stay away from these types of bets but I don’t fully agree. For instance, if you can place correlated parlays you are going to make a hefty profit.
Teaser bets are a unique way to engage with point spread and totals when sports betting. A teaser is a type of bet that allows you to adjust the point spread or total line in your favor.
Essentially, it is a parlay bet with a twist, where you get to manipulate the lines to decrease the risk involved. Teasers can only be placed in sports where point spreads and totals are applicable, such as football and basketball.
Teasers work by choosing two or more teams, just like a parlay, but you then get to adjust the point spread or total line to give yourself a more favorable position. This adjustment is uniform across all selections in the teaser.
For instance, in a 6-point teaser in football, you could adjust the spread from -7 to -1 for a favorite, making it easier for them to cover the spread because you are crossing over multiple key numbers.
The primary advantage of teaser bets is that they reduce the risk compared to standard parlays, giving you a buffer through the adjusted lines. This can make it easier to predict the outcomes correctly, thus increasing your chances of winning the bet.
While teaser bets reduce risk, they also come with reduced payouts compared to standard parlays. The more you adjust the lines in your favor, the lower the potential payout becomes. Moreover, like parlays, all selections in a teaser must win for the bet to be successful, which still involves a considerable level of risk.
Our teaser betting guide goes into more detail if you are still interested in adding this wager to your sports betting arsenal.
Propositions (Prop Bets)
Proposition bets, commonly known as prop bets, offer a fun and diverse way to engage with various aspects of a sports event beyond the traditional bets on the outcome. They are wagers placed on specific occurrences or non-occurrences during a game or larger event.
These bets can be related to the performance of individual players, teams, or even more nuanced aspects of the game such as the number of corners in a soccer match, or the number of strikeouts a pitcher will have in a baseball game.
Prop bets can be categorized into two types: skill-based and fun-based. Skill-based prop bets require knowledge and analysis of the game, focusing on statistical outcomes such as a player’s performance metrics. Fun-based prop bets, on the other hand, focus on more random outcomes and can sometimes involve elements that are not directly related to the gameplay, such as the length of the national anthem at a major event.
Sportsbooks will offer a variety of prop bets, each with different odds based on the likelihood of the event happening to add an extra layer of excitement to sports betting, allowing bettors to engage with various facets of the game. They offer a more casual and entertaining approach to betting, especially the fun-based prop bets that focus on unconventional aspects of the event.
The problem with prop bets is that normally they carry more juice than your more widespread bet types. The reasons for that are two-fold: the books don’t have as solid of numbers on these, and there isn’t as much action on them so they can’t balance things out.
Futures bets offer a long-term investment opportunity for bettors, allowing them to wager on the outcomes of events that will happen in the future, often far in advance of the event itself. These events could range from who will win a championship, to which player will win the MVP award, or how many games a team will win in a season. Essentially, it is a bet on an event that will be resolved in the future, hence the name.
The odds for futures bets are set by sportsbooks and can change over time based on how likely the event is to happen. For example, betting on a team to win the Super Bowl before the season starts will generally offer better odds compared to betting on them when they are already dominating in the playoffs.
One of the main reasons bettors are drawn to futures bets is the potential for high payouts. Since these bets often involve predicting outcomes well in advance, they come with a higher degree of difficulty and, consequently, higher potential rewards. It also adds an element of excitement, allowing you to root for your chosen team or player over the course of a season.
The downside to futures bets is that your money is tied up for a longer period, and predicting outcomes so far in advance comes with a higher level of uncertainty. Moreover, many unforeseen factors such as injuries, trades, or changes in team dynamics can significantly affect the outcome and are nearly impossible to forecast.
Where to Bet on Sports: Best Apps, Places Online & in Person
For starters, you will need somewhere to place bets. If you are in Vegas, great! You can bet at one of the sportsbooks in their casinos. As more and more states pass laws to legalize sports betting, you will also be able to place wagers at local casinos in your area. You could also find a local bookie to bet through, but we recommend betting online.
Reputable and Reliable Online Sportsbooks
We have an excellent list of the top places to bet online (that take U.S. customers). If you are looking to maximize your first deposit, we also have a great comparison of the best sportsbooks signup bonuses for you. Once you’ve read the primer below on reading the odds, you will have no problem navigating these sites.
If you got started betting on sports in the early 2000s then you probably used an online sportsbook. You made a deposit, got a hefty signup bonus, and placed all of your wagers either online or by calling their customer service call centers. A lot of these places don’t exist anymore. Some got shut down, some went broke, and others consolidated.
There are still a few that are worth using, but you will need to check on the legality of betting offshore before you do so. Don’t take this recommendation as legal advice since I have no idea where in the world you are reading this from.
One of the benefits of betting on an online sportsbook is convenience. You won’t have to worry about geofencing since they take bets from almost anywhere in the world and they are up 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
There are a lot of wagering options, but they also accept higher limits than most places. They do move the lines when sharp bets come in, making their lines more accurate and tougher to beat. However, most other books follow their lead and use odds that are very close to the same anyway.
States Where Betting Apps Have Been Legalized
The best part about betting at a licensed, state-regulated sportsbook is that you know your money is safe. You know you are going to get paid when you win. The other good news is that transferring money in and out of the books is easier since the financial institutions are working with them instead of against them.
With multiple apps in most states, there is fierce competition. This is good for the bettor because the books will offer a steady dose of promos and welcome packages to gain market share and keep the bettors that they already have. Make good use of these promotions!
Las Vegas Sports Betting at the Ticket Window
Betting sports in Vegas is likely going to be the option with the biggest learning curve. You will understand the odds after reading this article, but there are a few other rules and common practices you want to be familiar with that are specific to Vegas.
Many books now offer their own betting apps that make this process a little bit easier, however, the drawbacks are that you must make a deposit upfront for how much you want to bet with, plus you don’t get free drink tickets when you place bets on the app. We’ll step through how you would place a bet in person at the ticket window.
Step-by-Step Guide to Placing Sports Wagers in Vegas
“I’ll take number 403, Cowboys -8, for $110 straight up.”
- Use the rotation number/numbers and the name of the team/teams you want to bet on. The rotation number appears to the left of each team (see image above) and is used as a unique identifier so that there is no confusion about what you want.
- State the amount you would like to bet. This is how much you are wagering, not how much you want to win. Most books use -110 odds (more on this later), so if you want to win $100, you’d state $110 as your wager amount.
- Indicate the type of bet you are placing. For individual bets, just say “straight” or “straight up”, otherwise you will need to explain that you are taking a parlay or some other bet type.
- Repeat as necessary.
Finding and Betting Through Local Bookies
It used to be that if you didn’t live in Las Vegas the only way to place a bet was through a local bookie. The legality of betting through locals is beyond the scope of this article, as it largely has to do with your jurisdiction. So I’ll leave it up to you if you want to go this route, but here’s some advice if you do.
Finding Local Bookies
Finding a local bookie often involves word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family, or acquaintances who are already involved in the betting scene. Local bookies tend to operate in communities where they are known and trusted. It is important to exercise caution and ensure that you are dealing with a reputable individual to avoid potential scams. Always remember that the number one thing you need to worry about is if you are going to get paid when you win.
Pay-Per-Head Software Local Bookies Use
Most bookies now use what are called pay-per-head (PPH) sites to manage everything. As a bettor, you log in to the site and place all your wagers. The only time you would contact your guy is when it’s time to pay or get paid. This cuts down on communication and allows you more freedom and flexibility.
You’ll want to make sure the book is set up for what you need. Make sure they offer odds as early as you normally like to bet, on the offerings that you require, and with sufficient credit and wager limits.
Local bookies often deal in cash, but with the advancement of technology, many are now accepting digital payments as well. It is important to establish a clear understanding of the payment methods accepted and to ensure timely payments to maintain a good relationship with the bookie.
There can be advantages to betting with a local bookie. They typically work on credit so you don’t have to post up your cash upfront. They also don’t ask for your government ID so there is a little more privacy. They also might offer better odds and unique betting opportunities based on their understanding of the local betting landscape.
There are downsides though. Not all of them are licensed and the legality can be questionable. There is also a non-zero chance the book goes under, the bookie dies or gets arrested and you end up getting stiffed out of your winnings.
Fantasy Sports Betting as an Alternative
Season Long Leagues
In season-long fantasy sports betting, you draft a team of players before the season begins and compete based on their stats over the course of an entire season. This was the traditional format of fantasy sports where a group of friends would get together for a live draft and then battle it out over several months using the same players.
These are slower-paced and thus not as popular with the sports bettors who are looking for an edge. It takes longer to get paid out, and if something goes bad to one of your top players, you can have a bad run over the course of an entire season. That’s why there are more pros in daily fantasy than season-long.
Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS)
A different way to bet on sports is with daily fantasy. You pay an entry fee to enter contests where you build a lineup of players while adhering to a predetermined salary cap.
There are multiple different types of contests: head-to-heads, 50/50s or double-ups, guaranteed prize pools, and multipliers. Head-to-heads and 50/50s are closer to traditional sports betting because you are trying to beat your opponent (or half the field) and double up your money. Guaranteed prize pools are high-risk/high-reward plays that have large prizes but thousands of entrants. Multipliers vary in size but you can win a multiple of your entry fee if you finish in a winning position.
The most popular DFS sites are DraftKings and FanDuel. Some sports are more popular than others on each site so you’ll have to check the available contests for what you are interested in before depositing.
Daily Fantasy is legal in almost all of the states now and makes for a fun alternative to traditional sports betting.
Strategies and Tips for Winning More of Your Sports Bets
Researching and Handicapping Games on Your Own
Our complete guide on how to handicap sports has all the details for you to research and predict games on your own but I’ll give a short breakdown here.
It all starts with stats. You have to be able to analyze the stats for both players and teams. You need to know how they perform in the situations they are in for the upcoming game, how they have done recently, and how they have done head-to-head with similar opponents they are facing.
There are other situational factors to consider like the weather or venue. There is also a psychological component of the team’s morale and if the public perception is causing the line to be skewed one way or another. Of course, you want to factor in your own cognitive biases to see if you are missing something you should be seeing.
If you are going to handicap games on your own, then keep track of your sports bets and why you took that game. This way you can look back and analyze what is working and what isn’t.
Getting Help Betting from the Best Sports Handicappers
There’s no easier way to start winning with your sports betting than to get help from the experts. Our site has the best sports handicappers in the world and they are here to help you build your bankroll.
You can get started with the free sports picks offered. These predictions aren’t the best bets on the board, but they are plays that our tipsters have placed smaller wagers on and are a great way for you to feel out which ones you like to follow and which don’t match your style.
Then when you are ready you should look at buying a premium picks subscription. These are the top best bets that the pros use to hammer their books and increase their cash flow.
Bankroll Management: Optimize Your Risk Strategy
Bankroll management in sports betting means you are using strategy to ensure the sustainability of your bankroll. You want to maximize your returns while minimizing the risk of serious losses.
The first step is to set up a budget or the size of your bankroll. This is the money you have set aside for sports betting. It’s an amount you can afford to lose so you don’t dip into money that you need for living expenses.
Then define your betting limits. Your unit size is how much you bet on each game and is typically a percentage of your bankroll from around 1% to 2%.
If you are a beginner I would recommend sticking to those flat betting limits, but advanced sports bettors will adjust their bet size based on the strength of their perceived edges.
Timing Your Bets
You might not think when you place your bets matters but it does. Think about it this way. If you are betting on the opening numbers released by the sportsbooks you are going against one man, or team. It’s your opinion against theirs and they have to post a number on every single game on the board, where you get to pick and choose the ones you think might be off. That seems like an easier number to beat right?
The contrast is waiting until closer to game time. At this point, a lot of sharp bettors have placed wagers on the games. When those sports betting experts make their moves, the oddsmakers adjust their lines accordingly. That means the closing line market should be a lot sharper than the openers because now you are trying to beat the thousands of intelligent bettors out there who helped the books fine-tune the lines.
The moral of the story is bet early!
Betting on Sports Responsibly
It is important that if you are going to bet on sports you do so responsibly.
It all begins with some self-awareness. Are you getting more upset than you should be when you lose? Are you trying to chase your losses? Is losing affecting your outside responsibilities with work or family?
Don’t bet on sports if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Don’t make bets when you are trying to chase losses, or because you only have half the money you need to spend on something important and you are trying to “double up.” All of this seems like common sense but when you are in the thick of things you can ignore the normal signs to take a pause and reflect.
The best tip I can give you for betting responsibly is setting a budget. Professionals use a bankroll to optimize their earning potential, but recreational bettors should look at this as a sum that they can afford to lose without financial strain. Treat your betting budget more like how much you are willing to spend on entertainment and not the size of an investment portfolio.
I would encourage anyone who thinks they have a gambling problem to get some help. Many organizations offer support and resources for people facing gambling problems. If you need some support, don’t hesitate to get it.
If you have self-control and bet within your limits betting on sports can be an enjoyable experience. I’d stress you to know whether you are a professional or an amateur and treat your bankroll accordingly. If you are betting for fun then make sure your bankroll budget lasts so it’s sustainable for the long-term.
Understanding Sports Betting
We hope this short beginner’s guide to understanding and interpreting odds will give you the confidence to get out there and start making winning bets. Our experts are here to help you on this journey, so do not hesitate to contact us with any questions you have about sports betting! We have only scratched the surface of reading betting lines, but this is an excellent place to start.
One sport that has a few extra quirks is golf. I wrote up a guide to golf betting that explains these unique features so you can feel comfortable wagering on PGA events too.