A Crash Course In Sports Betting
Up to this point, our crash course series has focused on games found on the floor of the casino. We'd like to shift our focus a bit to a gambling game that isn't always casino-based. In fact, most Americans that take part in sports betting do so from the comfort of their home, online, over the phone, or in some way remote from the bookmaker itself.
Once upon a time, sports betting was the exclusive domain of guys in dark alleys with names like Bugsy. These days, you can legally bet on sports through daily fantasy contests in dozens of US states, place traditional sports bets on the Internet, or travel to Nevada to do some old-school casino-based sports wagering. We have a sea of new options for placing bets on sports. If you've never spent any time with this hobby before, it's easy to get intimidated, or avoid it altogether.
We've designed this guide to produce sports bettors with nothing more than a few thousand words. This page will break down the sports betting hobby for you, starting with an FAQ, then on to a glossary of sports betting terms, with coverage of strategy and betting styles at the bottom of the page.
What is sports betting?
Sports betting is a catch-all phrase that we use to refer to any wager placed on the outcome (or any other aspect) of a sporting event. Sports betting takes many forms, from traditional wagers on things like point spreads to modern gambles like daily fantasy sports contests. Bets are available for myriad professional and amateur sports leagues from all over the world.
The phrase sports betting also applies to informal wagers made between friends or colleagues. In America, this may include bets on the annual Super Bowl football championship, a series of informal handshake bets on college basketball's March Madness tournament, and other popular sports contests.
We'd be remiss if we didn't point out that sports betting has been a part of American tradition since the earliest days of the American colonies. Our forebears, the English, are known as the world's most fervent sports gamblers. Americans aren't far behind. The history of sports betting is as long as the history of our nation itself, and it's just as complex a topic. We'll try to cover some of the vastness of the hobby on this page, though our goal is more to get you up to speed and ready to place a sports bet. That's the purpose of a crash course, after all.
Isn't sports betting illegal?
People think that sports betting is illegal because of the hobby's association with organized crime in the middle of the 20th century. In fact, that association between sports betting and the mob is what led to the creation of the Federal Wire Act, a law that's repeatedly been used by the federal and state governments to limit Americans' gambling access. But no law, not the Wire Act, not UIGEA, has declared all forms of sports betting illegal.
In some cases, sports betting in the US is fully legal and regulated. Only one American state (Nevada) allows traditional in-person sports betting, though New Jersey is pushing hard for a sports betting platform in Atlantic City. In two US states (Delaware and Nevada), sports betting is available to the general public in the form of parlay tickets sold by the state. In the balance of US states, sports betting is mainly available online, from sports betting websites also known as online bookmakers. In most US states, a live wager on a contest of strength, skill, or speed, taking place in front of you, is a legal place to make a bet.
Don't people go broke betting on sports?
Sure they do. But, to be fair, people go broke doing all sorts of things. Stock market investors, policemen, teachers, doctors … they're all eligible for losing it all because of stupid or consequential behavior. Gamblers are just as eligible for bankruptcy, maybe more so if they're an emotional gambler or saddled with extreme bad luck. There's nothing about sports betting that makes it an inherent risk for going broke.
As with any form of gambling, the best sports bettors create a complex bankroll management system. They spend hours calculating risk. They may hedge difficult bets, lean heavily on inside information, set win/loss limits, and do all sorts of things to prevent the seemingly inevitable slide into the red. Amateur sports bettors may not use these complex methodologies to stay out of debt, but then again, they're not usually wagering enough to be worried about.
The typical sports betting board (the listing of all available wagers for the day) is full of options. It's written in a sort of secret code that you have to be in the know to be able to figure out. If you want to walk away from this page with the ability to place a sports bet with confidence, you'll need to understand the odds and lingo used by bookmakers to provide bet son sports. Any decent crash course in sports betting has to start with a solid understanding of some of the basics.
Below is a guide to each of the three most popular forms of sports bets:
Point Spread Sports Bets
The point spread (most often referred to as "the spread") is the most common way oddsmakers handicap sporting events. The point spread is an imaginary set of numbers created by bookmakers. It represents their best guess at the eventual number of points that a team will win or lose by. The point spread also identifies one time as the favorite and one as the underdog.
Let's look at an example of a point spread from a fictional NBA game:
San Antonio +4 Utah
Believe it or not, these nineteen characters tell us a lot of information. When you read a point spread, the first team listed will always be the away team, which means the second team listed will always be the home team. In our example, that means the San Antonio Spurs are on the road against the Utah Jazz. Now focus on the "+" symbol. The plus symbol indicates that the bookmaker has picked the Jazz to beat San Antonio. The "+4" thing is a simple way of saying that the Spurs will lose on the road in Utah by at least four points.
That's a lot of data for three words and a number, isn't it? Sportsbooks have developed this shorthand over the years to represent a bunch of data in a tiny amount of space. After all, oddsmakers host thousands of contests a day. Writing the above paragraph for each game would require a board the size of a small building.
How does the point spread pay out? A wager on the Utah Jazz will ONLY pay out if they beat San Antonio by four points or more. On the other hand, a wager on San Antonio as the underdog pays off two different ways – a bet on the Spurs wins if Utah only beats them by three points or less, or if San Antonio pulls off the outright upset.
The purpose of the point spread is to attract bets on both sides of the contest. Bookmakers are constantly looking for equilibrium – they want an equal amount of action on both sides of a proposition, so that the house wins no matter the outcome of the bet itself. The use of the point spread entices wagers on the underdog, and can crystallize the idea of a bet on a favorite for bettors who may otherwise walk away.
Money Line Sports Bets
Some sports don't operate on a point spread system. Look at NFL football for example – football bettors favor bets on something called "the money line." Money line bets are a little more complicated than point spread bets, and require a little more information.
On its face, a money line wager is simple. Money line bets ask you to pick the outright winner, with no consideration for the score, only the W or L. You could think of money line bets as point spreads without point total concerns, and you wouldn't be far off. Money lines were designed to be easy to use, once you understand their features and some of the jargon.
Like with point spreads, the way the money line is represented is designed to cram a bunch of data into a small space. Let's look at a made-up example of a money line in the NFL:
Chicago Bears -200 Houston Texans +220
What do we learn from this two-line data set? We know who is playing at home and who is away. In this case, Houston is the home team, and we know that because they're the team listed on the bottom line Bettors looking at this line can also tell who the bookmaker says is the favorite. In this example, the favorite is Chicago, and we know that because Chicago has a "-" sign next to its name. But beyond that, the numbers next to the team names tell the bettor plenty about the available wager itself.
Those numbers tell us two different things. It's a bit confusing, because what the number means depends on whether the team you're looking at is the favorite or the underdog. When you're talking about the favorite (in our example, that's Chicago), the number next to the "-" symbol tells you how much you have to bet in order to win a $100 payout. The number assigned to the underdog (in this case, the Houston Texans) tells you what you can earn for a successful bet of $100.
In the example above, a $100 wager on Chicago would win you $50. A bet of $100 on the Texans to pull off the home upset would mean winnings of $220 if successful. Bookmakers use the $100 figure because it is easy to scale up and down for bets of all sizes. For example, a $10 bet on Chicago would earn you $5, while a $10 bet on Houston would return $22. By basing the money line on a $100 scale, oddsmakers saved themselves and their customers a lot of unnecessary mental arithmetic.
Game Totals Bets
We think totals bets are among the simplest bets to understand. We recommend them often for newcomers to the sports betting world. You'll often hear people refer to game totals as "over/under bets." A game total is a combined point total between two teams in a given sporting event. The way it works at a sportsbook is – the oddsmaker sets the number and bettors wager on whether the actual total will be "over" or "under" that chosen amount. Totals bets aren't available in all sports, but are a huge part of the betting market for others. Game totals are popular in basketball, football, and a few other major world sports.
Let's be honest – consistent success in sports betting requires the kind of dedication that few people can commit to. We're talking about professional card-counting levels of dedication. Sure, a few professional sports bettors exist, guys who exist in myth and legend and shadow. But even these guys struggle to break even.
Very few sports fans who want to try their hand at sports betting have the skills and techniques necessary to handicap every contest they bet on to the degree required for professional success rates. Sports are complicated. Sports leagues involve long lists of teams, each of which has a lengthy and ever-changing roster. Sporting events produce an unlimited amount of raw data to process. And then there's the luck element – "On any given Sunday," as they say, "any team can win."
So why do we even offer a section on strategy? We do so because we've spent years practicing the art of sports wagering, and while we wouldn't consider ourselves anywhere near professional, we've picked up some tricks over the years to make yourself more likely to see success. You don't have to be a Rain Man-level data analyst or have a photographic memory. All you need to do is follow some simple rules, protect your money, and learn how to find value.
No sports bettor ever made money betting on their favorite teams or athletes. If betting on your favorite team makes the game more enjoyable to watch, then by all means, bet away. But if you're betting on sports as a legitimate gambler, you're going to have to bury your fandom on the days you bet. The trouble with being a fan and sports bettor is that fans have subjective opinions. Subjective opinions have no place in legit sports gambling. That's because they don't lead to positive returns. You have to get very scientific about your bets if you want to maintain a bankroll over the course of a season.
The only money management tool you need to learn in a crash course is the unit bet. It's not hard to learn or implement – a unit bet is a bet amount that you'll use over and over again, for consistency and strategy's sake. You determine your unit bet by dividing your entire bankroll for a season by the total number of bets you want to place. The goal here is to risk less of your money on each wager, and to prevent emotional betting. Unit bets also make tracking your wagering easier.
Let's say you have $1,000 you can afford to lose for the entire 2014 NFL season. If you set a unit bet size of $20 per bet, you can afford 50 bets between September and February. At some point, you'll be an experienced sports bettor and you'll have a little bit of gambler's instinct. At that point you can consider looking for games that offer high value, and consider placing a double or triple unit bet in order to maximize profits. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Instead of looking at a bookmakers card and trying to wrap your head around every contest, you'll need to learn to condense it down to a few games you can analyze and spend your time on more efficiently. If you're a college football bettor, it makes sense to look at a list of ten games to consider, rather than a list of the 60 or so contests in a given NCAA football betting week. The trick is learning to condense those dozens of games into something manageable. You could start by cutting out any game that you're disinterested in. If you're not a fan, the Northern Iowa versus Iona game should probably be on the cutting room floor. Then cut any game that you know nothing about. We've heard of bettors who refuse to bet on any games featuring road favorites. Whatever your method, over time you'll learn how to condense a bookmakers card down to something you can nibble on over time.
Remember when we said that bookmakers make odds in order to create a balance on both sides of a contest? This creates a huge opportunity for bettors who know how to look for something called "line movement."
To understand line movement, think of a person on the scale at the doctor's office, the old-fashioned scale with balancing weights. The patient stands on the scale and the nurse moves those weights at the top to a balancing point, and that balancing point is the patient's weight. With line movement, oddsmakers are adjusting their lines the same way that nurse adjusts those weights, in order to find a balancing point. For bookmakers, that point is where their "exposure" (slang for risk) is as close to none as they can get it.
Why do lines move? A big wager by an influential bettor, or a bunch of wagers by a number of sports betting VIPs – that's the most common reason these days. Oddsmakers will notice a big bet or a line movement at a local book, and react to it. The oddsmaker often has to adjust his line for the huge crush of bets he knows is coming, since people in the industry tend to follow the smart money. The only other major reason an oddsmaker might move a line is a development in sports news. An injury to a star QB can totally change the line on the Super Bowl. Sometimes coaches will shuffle a roster, or a player will make a remark indicating he's unhappy in his role, and the number crunchers will adjust accordingly.
The movement of a line is little more than another barometer for the sports bettor to use to examine a proposition. If you're interested in a wager on an underdog, for example, you might want to wait a few days to try and get a better price. Often, underdogs have the best price right before kickoff or the start of a contest. Remember that lines of heavy favorites will move near game time to encourage a balanced bet for the oddsmaker. This is just one example of how you'll eventually learn to use line movement to place better sports bets.
If you're worried about the legality of sports betting, you're in good company. The writers compiling this page have decades of combined experience in sports betting, and we've all been paranoid at one time or another. The trick to curing yourself of the fear of sports betting is to learn the history of sports betting law, scan some examples of legal precedent, and basically educate yourself out of the problem.
We want to point out that we aren't lawyers and we don't intend this section to be taken as legal advice. If you need legal advice about sports betting, please contact a lawyer or legal professional with experience in the industry. This section is for educational and entertainment purposes only.
Is Betting on Sports in America Legal?
The frustrating answer is - probably. The answer depends on where you live and what sort of sports betting you're attempting. Different US states have different laws about sports betting. The federal government has some say, too. Online sports betting is a totally different matter, and (unfortunately) represents the majority of the American sports betting market. While a few American states have anti-Internet betting laws in place, most US states don't address the issue at all.
If you live in one of those remaining US states that don't have a specific law against sports betting or Internet betting, you have to look to federal law. We've identified the three most relevant federal laws and legal decisions that apply to the practice of sports betting and online betting in general. The details about law below are accurate as of the time of publication, and we've struggled to present them in an easy-to-digest form, to clarify the legal position of sports betting, rather than to confuse or scare newcomers to the hobby.
The Federal Wire Act (usually just referred to as "The Wire Act") was created to crack down on a specific set of gangsters who were profiting heavily from illegal sports betting in the 40s and 50s. When people find out that the Wire Act isn't really about gambling, they see it for what it was – federal overreach that's caused more harm than good. The Wire Act was the first major piece of legislation at the federal level to directly address the question of the legality of sports bets. It was also the first gambling law that directly impacted the lives of ordinary Americans.
Why does the Wire Act matter today, some 55 years after the law was invented, and decades since the gangsters targeted by the law have died? Back then, organized crime agents were using telephones to conduct illegal gambling operations. So the Wire Act made it a specific (and very heavily-penalized) crime to place or allow wagers to be placed via a telephone line. The trouble with modern interpretations of the law is the question of application – does the Wire Act cover Internet bets, which aren't really placed over a telephone line at all? Even a 2012 reassessment of the law by the US Justice Department muddied the waters more – it allowed for the operation of games of chance like slot machines and the lottery, while specifically targeting sports betting.
Does the Wire Act make sports betting on the Internet illegal? Not specifically. The federal government hasn't yet used the Wire Act to take down any sports betting operations hosted offshore and using the Internet as a means of communication. But they have indicated that they reserve the right to do so.
PASPA was passed in 1992. This federal law was designed to protect the development of athletes, or something like that, but its main provision was an attempt to outright outlaw all forms of sports wagering in America, outside of legal avenues in Nevada. One of the troubles with PASPA is that it's full of holes. Many states have legal rights to exclude themselves from PASPA, a testament to the difficulties that the law's authors had in gaining votes and traction to get it passed.
Another issue with PASPA – it is totally unclear how the Department of Justice could use any provision in PASPA to actually prosecute a bettor for placing a sports bet, since no one has ever been tried using this law in this way. PASPA appears to have no teeth, and is actually under challenge once again from a number of states interested in legalizing and regulating daily fantasy sports contests.
These days, UIGEA is the law you’ll hear about most when talking to people about sports betting law.
UIGEA was added to a set of bills designed to protect the country from terrorism. Remember, back in 2006, terrorism was a huge buzz word. Congress would sign off on anything with the word "terrorism" in the title. So when President George W. Bush signed those anti-terrorism bills into law (the SAFE Ports Act), he signed into law the UIGEA, or Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. This had been a long-term pet project of a congressman who'd had no luck getting any traction, and had to resort to tacking the bill on as a rider to a can't-fail law.
Here's the thing – regardless of the bluster you've heard from sports bettors and casino gambling fans, UIGEA poses no threat to people who place wagers. No part of UIGEA mentions any prohibition against Americans placing sports bets in any format. The UIGEA was an attempt to wipe out American sports betting and online casino gambling by shutting down the ability of Americans to fund their online gambling accounts.
UIGEA specifically targets the operators of betting websites and people who conduct transactions with them. There's no mention of the customers at those sites, and no provision for charging gamblers themselves with any crimes.
So while no federal law exists that makes it explicitly illegal to place bets on sporting events, some state laws exist which may make the activity difficult or even technically illegal.