How does sports betting work?

Table of Contents

Sports betting is simply the act of risking money on the outcome of a sporting event or any aspect of a sporting event. The goal is to turn a loss into a profit.

Sports betting includes betting on money lines, spreads, over/unders, parlays, props and futures.

Several factors determine how much money a sports bettor can win:

  • Amount bet (risk)

  • Online betting sites used by bettors

  • Odds set by sportsbooks in states with legal sports betting

Sports bettors and sports fans are similar—both are often emotionally invested in the outcome of a sporting event. Here’s the difference: Sports bettors also have a financial investment in these outcomes.

Discover the ins and outs of sports betting with our comprehensive guide. Learn how it works and increase your chances of winning big.

Find Online Sports Betting

The most common way to bet on sports is through online sports betting. Online (or mobile) betting allows you to set up and fund a betting account and place bets with just a few clicks on your computer or mobile device.

Due to its convenience and associated promotions, online betting dominates the sports betting market in states that have legalized the practice. In some states, more than 95% of sports betting volume is conducted online.

Mobile sports betting has exploded since the landmark 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave states the power to legalize and regulate the business.

Many of the best online sportsbooks operate on most state betting markets. This is beneficial for sports fans, who can open betting accounts through multiple online books and “shop around” for the best odds and promotions.

All online sportsbooks accept bets on major sports (Horse Racing, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis and combat sports). However, some people have limited options for niche sports and events.

Odds: the price of a bet

When it comes to sports betting (and gambling in general), it’s all about the odds. If you are new to betting, odds essentially provide you with the odds of an outcome expressed in price.

However, odds do not reflect real-life odds.

The top sportsbooks in the United States offer American-style odds, which use positive (+) odds to show how much you can win per successful bet of $100, and use negative (-) odds to show how much you need to bet to win $100. Dollar.

For example, if the Buffalo Bills are +700 to win the Super Bowl, a $100 bet would win $700 if they emerge victorious. Conversely, if the New York Yankees were -150 to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, that would mean you would need to bet $150 to win $100.

In both cases, winning bets also refund the bettor’s initial stake. However, if the bet loses, the customer loses the original bet.

Positive and negative odds vary depending on your bet amount. In other words, you don’t have to bet $100 or more.

If you bet $20 on the Bills to win the Super Bowl, you could win $140 (since the odds are +700, your $20 bet is multiplied by seven). If you wanted to win $20 on your Yankees bet, you would have to bet $30 (since the odds are -150, your $20 bet is multiplied by 1.5).

Favorites vs Underdogs

Odds with a negative sign indicate a “favorite,” which is the side the sportsbook believes is more likely to win (assuming the other side is involved with positive odds (called the “underdog”)).

  • For example: Golden State Warriors -220 beating the Houston Rockets (+190) indicates the Warriors are the favorite in this game and Houston is the underdog.

If multiple teams/players have a “+” in front of their numbers, the lower number indicates the favorite and the higher number indicates the underdog.

  • For example: In football, the 2022 Men’s World Cup odds show Brazil at +350, France at +500, England at +550, Argentina and Germany both at +600, and so on. The Brazilian team with the smallest number of players is considered the favorite.

If multiple teams/players have odds preceded by “-“, the side with the higher number wins.

  • For example: In baseball, the Atlanta Braves are -150 to win the National League East, while the New York Mets are -120. Since the Warriors have the upper hand, they are expected to win the division title.

Sports betting types

money line

Straight betting is the most common type of sports betting. It is simply betting on the outcome of a single outcome.

  • Example 1: The Toronto Raptors are playing an NBA game against the Boston Celtics. You think the Raptors will beat Boston, so you bet directly on Toronto.

  • Example 2: UFC heavyweight Francis Ngannou is fighting challenger Ciryl Gane. You believe Ngannou will win this game, so you bet directly on him.


Spread bets are related to margin of victory. A spread bet involves either “giving away” or “taking” a certain number of points, goals, runs and so on. That number is determined by the sportsbook and reflects the expected victory margin.

Bettors choose whether they’re going to “take” the spread (which means betting the underdog) or “give” the spread (betting the favorite).

  • Example: Dallas Cowboys (-5.5) versus Philadelphia Eagles (+5.5). If you think the Cowboys will win by at least six points, you would give (or “lay”) 5.5 points. If you like Jalen Hurts and the Eagles’ chances to win the game or lose by five points or fewer, you would take the 5.5 points.

Point spread lines have odds attached to them, and more often than not, those odds are -110 for both teams. The price includes the vig.

As explained above, that means if you want to bet either the Cowboys -5.5 points or Eagles +5.5 points, you would have to wager $110 for a chance to win $100 (or $11 to win $10).


Also referred to as Over/Under betting, totals bets focus on the final score of a game rather than who wins.

When betting a total, you predict if the two sides will combine for more (Over) or fewer (Under) runs, goals, points and so on, than the total amount posted by oddsmakers.

  • Example: A Los Angeles Rams-Seattle Seahawks matchup has a total of 42.5. If you think the Rams and Seahawks will combine for at least 43 points by the end of the game, you would bet the Over. If you expect a defensive slugfest that ends with 42 combined points or fewer, you would wager on the Under.

If you’re interested in diving into Over/Under betting, remember this popular saying as it relates to wagering on totals: “It’s never under until it’s over.” As long as a game is ongoing, it’s always possible to win your Over bet (or lose your Under bet). As most people know, sports can be unpredictable.

Conversely, if you bet on Seahawks-Rams over 42.5 points and the score is 24-21 at halftime, you’ve got a winner and don’t have to sweat out the second half.


Rather than wagering on a game taking place today or this week, futures bets are just that: bets that will be decided in the future.

Examples include betting on a team to win the World Series; a country to win soccer’s World Cup; a golfer to win next year’s Masters golf tournament; a player to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Futures bets tend to offer greater odds—and thus larger potential payouts—than straight bets. For example, it’s generally less likely to predict the Stanley Cup winner at the start of an NHL campaign than predicting which team will win a random regular-season game.

An important thing to remember about futures bets: The odds change. For instance, just because the Los Angeles Lakers have +1500 odds to win the NBA title on the first day of a season doesn’t mean those odds will hold firm for the next seven months. In fact, they most certainly will not.

Injuries, trades and performing below (or above) expectations will affect how a futures market unfolds.

The odds you get when you place your wager will never change—in other words, if you bet the Lakers at +1500, those are your odds all season.

If the betting market drops the Lakers to +400 because they’re playing well, you made a good bet, at least for the time being. But if the Lakers struggle and their odds fall to +5000, well … your bet has lost value.

It’s important to research a team or player before putting your money down. Price shopping is also recommended. Why would you bet the Lakers at +1500 at one sportsbook when another is offering odds at +1800?


While other markets focus on the final outcome of a game or event, prop bets relate to an individual athlete’s performance—or even something that doesn’t show up in the box score.

One example of a player prop would be betting on Joe Burrow’s total touchdown passes in a game (Over or Under 1.5 TD passes).

An example of a prop bet that has nothing to do with the actual action on the field or court would be betting the color of Gatorade that douses the coach of the Super Bowl-winning team.

Here are some of the more popular forms of prop bets:

  • Player prop: Relates to a single player’s performance, such as total number of points scored in a basketball game, goals in a hockey game or rushing yards in a football game

  • Game prop: Relates to a single game, such as choosing which player will hit the first home run in an MLB game or which team will finish with more passing yards in a football game

  • Novelty prop: Usually reserved for big events—namely, the Super Bowl—novelty props can range from the aforementioned Gatorade shower after the game to the coin toss before it.


A parlay combines two or more straight wagers into one bet. Parlays are popular because they open the door to win bigger payouts while risking less money. Think of it as sports betting’s version of a lottery ticket.

The number of legs (bets) in a parlay and the odds attached to each of those legs determine how much a bettor can win. The bigger the parlay—and the bigger the bet—the bigger the potential payoff.

However, it’s important to note that parlays are difficult to hit—and the more legs you add, the degree of difficulty can increase exponentially. All it takes is for one leg to miss and your parlay is lost. For example, if you go 6-1 on a seven-team parlay, you might as well have gone 0-7.

Here are the two main types of parlays:

  • Same-game: A parlay constructed with multiple bets from one game or contest.

  • Multi-game: A parlay built with bets from multiple games or contests.

The legs of a multi-game parlay don’t have to be from the same sport.

A third parlay type is called a teaser bet, which is most popular in football (particularly the NFL).

Like a parlay, a teaser is constructed with two or more teams. The main differences: Only point spread bets can be included in teasers, and bettors can shift the point spread by a certain number of points in any direction.

Here’s an example of a four-team, six-point NFL teaser:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (-4.5) versus Cleveland Browns

  • Miami Dolphins (-2.5) versus New York Jets

  • Arizona Cardinals (+7.5) versus Los Angeles Rams

  • Las Vegas Raiders (+3.5) versus Denver Broncos

If you put the Steelers, Dolphins, Cardinals and Raiders in your teaser, you would be able to move the point spread six points in your favor.

So teaser point spreads would be:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers (+2.5) versus Cleveland Browns

  • Miami Dolphins (+3.5) versus New York Jets

  • Arizona Cardinals (+13.5) versus Los Angeles Rams

  • Las Vegas Raiders (+10.5) versus Denver Broncos

Because bettors get to move the point spreads, the payouts on teasers are lower than parlays.

Tip: When executing football teaser bets, it’s important to remember two things. Never tease through zero, and do your best to tease through key numbers in the NFL, such as three, six, seven and 10.

Sports Betting Payouts

Sports betting payouts are determined by the odds attached to your bet and the amount of your wager. This potential payout is always listed on your betting slip, whether you wager online or at a retail location.

Sometimes the payout shown includes the money you wagered—for instance, if you bet $10 to win $50, the payout would show $60. If it doesn’t, just add the amount you bet to the potential winnings to determine the total payout.

You can also calculate potential odds and payouts before making a bet. This can be done by learning various odds and payout formulas or by using a betting odds calculator.

Some online sportsbooks offer payout bonuses, which can boost your winnings. If and when these bonuses are available, you’ll receive an alert when you log into your online betting account.

Bettors can withdraw funds from their betting accounts at any time. How long it takes for the money to hit your bank account varies by sportsbook and withdrawal method, but it’s generally 2-5 days.

Can You Make Money Betting Sports?

You can turn a profit betting sports. Unfortunately, it’s very challenging—especially over the long term.

Don’t jump into sports betting with the expectation that you’re going to win every bet you place and make life-changing money (very few do).

Always keep track of your bets (a standard spreadsheet works fine) so you can monitor your results. We also recommend betting on sports you’re familiar with from a rules perspective. Furthermore, you should stick to sports that you follow closely regarding news.

Some sportsbooks are slow to adjust lines, especially props, after news about players and coaches. This is just one angle to find good bets to make.

You can also improve your chances of making money through discipline (i.e., not betting more than you can afford to lose) and researching stats and trends.

There is no magic formula for winning at sports betting, but you can find some angles to increase your chances.

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