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How Sports Betting Works
by Trevor Whenham - 08/21/2008

Once you understand how sports betting works it's really not that complicated. For someone who is new to it all, though, it can seem overwhelming. If you are a sports fan who is interested in making some bets, you should make sure to get some basic knowledge first. If you just throw your money around blindly without really knowing what you are doing then you will make mistakes and you'll lose money. Here, then, is a basic introduction to how sports betting works. How to pick winners is another thing entirely.

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Since football is by far the most popular betting sport we'll talk about it first. You can bet on every NFL game, and most games in college football between Division 1 teams. There are many different ways to bet on a game, but we'll just look at the three most common. In each case, a sportsbook sets the odds, collects the bets, and pays you if you are right. Sports betting can be done through online sportsbooks or in casinos in places where sportsbooks are legal.

The most common form of betting is called the point spread. In almost every game, one team is more likely to win than the other. The oddsmakers at the sportsbooks have the job of deciding which team is likely to win, and how likely they are to do so. They then assign a point spread for the game. The point spread is the minimum number of points that the favorite has to win by in order for a bettor who bet on them to win their bet. That sounds very confusing, but it isn't. Let's look at an example. Say that the Colts were playing the Raiders. The Colts are good and the Raiders are lousy, so Indy would clearly be favored to win. The oddsmakers might make a spread of 9.5 for the game. That means that Indianapolis has to win by 10 or more points in order for you to win if you bet on them. If they win the game, but only by a touchdown, then people who bet on the Raiders would win. A good way to look at it is to take the spread and add it to the points scored by the underdog. If the total is higher than the points scored by the favorite then the underdog bettors win. If not then the favorite backers are victorious.

Point spread betting is also common in basketball.

Sportsbooks are out to make money, and they make sure that they do that as often as possible. The main way they do that is through the juice. That's essentially a fee that they charge for making a bet. Typically for football you have to bet $110 if you want to make a profit of $100 on a point spread bet. If they have 10 bets on each team in a game then they would collect a total of $2,200, but only have to pay out $2,100, so the rest is profit. What that means to bettors is that you have to win more than half of your bets to make a profit over the long run.

The next type of bets are called totals or over/under. In this case, the oddsmakers set a predicted number of points that the two teams will score in a game. As a bettor you decide whether you think that they will combine to score more points than that (go over) or fewer (go under). If you are right then you win. It doesn't matter which team scores the points, or who wins the game. Again, you typically bet $110 to win a profit of $100. That doesn't mean, of course, that you have to bet that much - it's just the ratio of the amount you bet to the amount you'll win. These types of bets can be made in football, basketball, baseball, or hockey.

The third basic type of bet is called the money line. On the surface it's the easiest, but it can still be very hard to make money. All you have to do here is pick which team wins. It doesn't matter how much they win by. It would be easy to be right often with those bets, so obviously the sportsbooks have to have some way of leveling the playing field. They do this by changing the price of the bets. In our Colts-Raiders example, the money line might look something like Indianapolis (-185) vs. Oakland (+200). That means that if you wanted to bet on the Colts you would have to bet $185 to make a profit of $100. If you thought the Raiders could upset the Colts and you bet $100 then you would make a profit of $200 if you were right. The more negative a number is, the more highly favored a team is, and vice versa.