Real Money Sports Betting
We've published multiple pages about "real money" gambling. Most of these pages distinguish between real money versions of various casino games and the corresponding free versions of those games. But when discussing "real money sports betting", we don't really have a "free sports betting" activity with which to contrast the activity.
Instead, when people talk about real money sports betting, they're talking about betting for meaningful amounts of cash. A lot of times, they're interested in how to bet on sports online, but some of them are interested in getting some money into action with a bookmaker. In the United States, betting on sports presents some interesting legal questions, too.
This page presents a broad overview of how the business works, which sports are most commonly wagered on, and how the various bets work. The links from within the page go to more detailed pages on specific subjects.
Sportsbooks and Bookmaking
Many people just make bets on the outcome of a game with their buddies. If your buddy at work wants to bet you $20 that the Cowboys are going to win Monday night's game, then that's a so-called "simple wager". That's not really the kind of sports betting we're interested in on this page.
When you start putting real (significant amounts of) money into action, you have to find someone who's willing to take the other side of that bet. Luckily, some people are in the business of taking this action.
In the United States, placing such a wager over the phone is illegal because of the Wire Act. As a result, the only legal businesses taking this kind of action operate out of Las Vegas, Nevada. And they don't accept action over the phone or the Internet. You have to show up there to place bets.
But anyone who's spent any length of time in a neighborhood bar knows that plenty of entrepreneurs are willing to skirt the law in order to take your bets. These are the neighborhood bookies that you see in the movies. Unless and until their businesses get incredibly large, these neighborhood sports books generally operate unimpeded by law enforcement.
In other, more enlightened, countries—like the United Kingdom—sports betting as a business is legal and regulated. We're fans of this approach. The libertarian in us feels like citizens should be allowed to spend their money on whatever they want to, even if that includes wagers on sporting events.
Also, when you're dealing with a licensed and regulated business in the industry, you have certain protections that aren't available when you're dealing with a neighborhood bookie. If you're reminded of the dangers of "bathtub gin" and "moonshine" during Prohibition, then you know what we mean.
No one is suggesting that betting on sports or drinking alcohol are the best uses of your time and/or money. But people are going to bet on sports and/or drink alcohol regardless of the legality. So why not put the government to work protecting the safety of its citizens?
Regulated distilleries and breweries provide a healthy, safe product for consumers to imbibe. We contend that the sports betting industry would be safer for individual sports bettors if it were entirely legal and regulated throughout the United States. At the same time, we don't think that legalizing and regulating sports betting is going to be high on any legislators' agendas any time in the near future.
How Odds Work in Sports Betting
When you're betting with a bookmaker, they need to make sure that they have an opportunity to break even and make a bit of profit while they're at it. They can't do that by just taking action willy-nilly. For example, if the Dallas Cowboys are playing the Cleveland Browns, all of the bookmaker's customers are going to bet on the Cowboys. And most of the time they're going to win.
In order to get action on both sides of a wager, the bookmakers use odds to make both bets attractive. This is often in the form of bets which pay off at a higher amount the less likely they are to win. We provide an overview of the different odds formats below, or you can read in more detail on the following page.Sports Betting Odds Explained
In most sports in the United States, "American odds" or "moneyline odds" are used to make wagers attractive. You can usually bet any amount (with certain minimums) in these situations, but the odds are represented with the amount of money compared to $100.
- If the odds start with a minus sign, then that's how much you have to bet in order to win $100
- If the odds start with a plus sign, then that's how much you win if you bet $100
Here's an example. If the Cowboys are favorites against the Browns, you might see the odds listed as follows:
So you'd have to risk $120 to win $100 if you bet on the Dallas Cowboys.
You'd only wager $100 on the Browns, but if you won, you'd win $115.
This makes both wagers attractive. On one hand, you have a better chance of winning if you bet on the Cowboys, but you don't win as much for your money. On the other hand, you might win fewer bets on the underdog (Cleveland), but when you do, it's going to pay off better.
In these situations, a point spread isn't used.
Not all countries (nor all bookmakers for all bets) use this format to represent the odds. Books in other countries often use decimal odds and/or fractional odds. These have the same effect, but they're a different way of representing how much you stand to win or lose.
We think decimal odds are more intuitive and easier to understand, and we're not sure why moneyline odds became so popular in the United States. With decimal odds, you're just looking at a multiple of how much you bet. This indicates how much you'll win.
Here's an example.
These are the same odds that we used in our first example, they're just represented differently. If you bet $100 on the Dallas Cowboys, you'll get $183 back—the $100 you bet plus an $83 profit. If you bet $100 on the Cleveland Browns, you'll get $215, the original $100 you bet plus $115 in profit.
The betting odds never represent the true odds of one team or another winning. All of these bets pay off at less than the true odds that the handicapper expects. That's how a bookmaker generates a profit.
If a bookie offered bets at the true odds of winning, he'd break even. In that case, he would have spent all the time and effort running his business only to make no money. Few people love sports betting enough to do that.
Most books are looking to make between 10% and 20% profit. Their goal with these kinds of odds is to get even money on each side. That way they can pay off the winners with the losers' money, keeping the difference as their profit. You can read more about bookmakers and their methods for making money on the following page.How Bookmakers Make Money
"Sharps" are sports bettors who are good enough at handicapping that they can recognize when the professional handicappers or books have errors in their odds, presenting a profitable situation. Handicapping sports at such a level is hard, especially considering how sophisticated professional bookmakers have become.
But knowing how to achieve a positive return when betting real money on sports is the most profitable advantage gambling opportunity we know of. It's heads and shoulders above the other possibilities, which include blackjack (counting cards), poker (expert play), and video poker (again, expert play).
Is it Legal to Bet on Sports
It's illegal in the United States to run a sports betting business, but some states are exceptions. These include Delaware, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon. And even in the case of those states, you're not allowed to place wagers on sporting events using any kind of telephone or Internet line. That's what the Federal Wire Act is all about.
Polls seem to indicate that legalization of sports betting in the United States has limited support. Professional sports organizations, especially the NFL, contend that legal wagering would corrupt the integrity of the game. How they come to that conclusion is anybody's guess, as plenty of illegal wagering seems to have left the integrity of the games intact.
In other countries, especially in Europe, sports betting businesses are legal and regulated. As we mentioned earlier, that kind of situation provides a certain amount of protection for the consumer. It's a lot less likely for a licensed, regulated corporation to disappear with their winnings after the Super Bowl than it is for Charlie the local bookie you met through your buddy at the bar in Anytown, USA.
Enforcement activities in the United States are generally restricted to people operating illegal sports betting businesses, but even in those cases, enforcement is pretty lax. It's impossible to find accurate statistics regarding the size of the illegal sports betting industry in the United States, but we've seen estimates as high as $400 billion a year. An estimated $95 billion is wagered on the Super Bowl alone every year.More on Gambling Laws
Sports that are Commonly Bet On
Any sport with an uncertain outcome is a sport that someone can place wagers on. The types of wagers vary from sport to sport, and some sports generate more action than others.
We've included an overview of the sports which generate the most action throughout the world below, along with a brief explanation of each and how betting on it works.
Baseball is, of course, the national pastime in the United States. Most baseball bets are made on the moneyline, total, runline, and/or future. We explain how those bets work in the next section.
Basketball is hugely popular, both professionally with the NBA and college with the NCAA. The easiest way to place a bet on basketball is to place a point spread bet, which we explain in the next section. Totals bets and moneyline bets are also common.
Boxing has waned in popularity since its glory days. MMA and the UFC are rising in popularity, but boxing isn't dead yet. The most common bet on a boxing match is a moneyline bet on who will win, but prop bets on which round the fight will end in are also common.
Since we serve a large number of Americans, we'll explain that cricket is similar to baseball with no intention of offending our international readers who know what the sport is. The same kinds of bets that are popular for baseball are also popular when betting on cricket. Most Americans don't bet on cricket, but Australians (as well as UK and Canadian bettors) love to bet on this sport.
Betting on cycling includes betting on such events as the Tour de France. Simple bets on the winner, using fractional or moneyline odds, are the most common.
In the United States, darts is often considered a "bar game" in the same way that billiards and shuffleboard are. Wagers among the participants, especially tournaments, are common. But most Americans aren't placing bets on darts via a sports book, though. Punters in other countries, do, however. These bets focus on 2 professional organizations devoted to the sport:
- The British Darts Organisation (BDO)
- The Professional Darts Corporation (PDC)
This is a relatively new category of sports betting. E-Sports are competitive events held between players in various video games. A wide variety of video games are popular in this category, and many of them are played in a tournament format. The E-Sports available to bet on vary widely depending on which online bookmaker you're using.
In the United States, football is probably the #1 sport to bet on, especially during the Super Bowl. The NFL (National Football League) is the professional arm of the sport, while college football (NCAA) is also popular to bet on. A bewildering variety of bets are available in football, but moneyline bets are as common as any other.
Golf, like baseball, seems to be a game that anyone can play, but at the professional level—not so much. Betting on golf is mostly focused on the professional version of the sport, the PGA. The most common golf bet is the "odds to win" wager, but head to head bets are also common. Futures and group matchups are also common.
Handball has its fans in the United States and in other countries, but it's most popular in Germany and Spain. Match betting, handicap betting, total goal betting, and futures are the most common wagers.
Hockey, especially the NHL, has been steadily growing in popularity. And since it's not quite as popular as football or basketball, you can often find lower betting limits and better lines when betting on hockey. The moneyline is the most common bet, but puck line bets and totals are also popular.
Horse racing is so different from most other types of sports betting that it's almost considered an entirely different sport. A bewildering number of bets are available, but win, place, and/or show are probably the most common.Entire sites, books, and magazines are devoted to getting an edge at horse betting.
Betting on motor sports includes betting on any kind of car racing, but the most popular are NASCAR and Formula 1. These bets are similar to most other bets on races or sports with individual participants, like golf.
You won't find many people placing real money bets on rugby in the United States, but it's a hugely popular sport in Europe. The common bets for this game have interesting names, like "supremacy". Futures, season points, first try scorer, outright winner, and match bets are also big.
Snooker is another sport (like darts) which most Americans wouldn't think to bet on, but it's popular in other countries in Europe. The easiest bets are on who's going to win a match, but there's also handicap betting and market betting.
Soccer is as popular in Europe as football is in the United States. In fact, we should ask our European readers to forgive us for not using the word "football" in its more common international meaning—Americans, soccer is called football in most parts of the world. Moneylines, goal lines, and totals are all popular bets for soccer.
Prop bets and moneyline bets are the most popular wagering forms for this sport.
The UFC has almost completely overtaken boxing as the most popular sport involving fighting throughout the world, although other MMA organizations do exist. Betting on UFC and MMA events is similar to betting on boxing.
Common Types of Sports Bets
A 2nd half bet is a bet on the outcome of the 2nd half of the game. This bet is commonly made my punters who aren't doing as well during the first half as they had hoped they would.
Futures are similar to investments in the stock market. They're wagers on events that are going to happen at some point in the future. One common futures bet is a bet at the beginning of the season on who the champions will be at the end of the season—you can bet on who's going to win the Super Bowl or the World Series way in advance, and the payoff if you win is great.
These are bets where the number of goals, pucks, or runs is taken into account when determining the winner. They're similar to point spread bets.
A head to head bet is a straightforward bet on who's going to win a particular match, but in some sports with multiple participants, you can single out two participants and bet on which one will do better.
"If bets" resemble parlays. They're great for players with small bankrolls. You place multiple bets, but the bets depend on the outcomes of your preceding bets.
This refers to bets that are being made while the event is actually happening. This is also commonly called "live betting". Almost any kind of bet can be made "in-play" as well as before the match, but not all of them. (For example, you obviously can't place a futures bet during the Super Bowl.)
These are the most common types of wagers punters make. They're just wagers on a particular team to win, and the amount of money won is based on how likely the bookmaker thinks it is that one team is going to beat another team.
A parlay is a bet on multiple events. For example, a bet on the winners of 6 different games would require you to win all 6, but the payoff would be great.
These are the most common bets you'll see in football. The favorite has to win by a minimum number of points to be considered the winner for purposes of winning this bet. A bet on the loser wins if the favorite doesn't beat the spread.
These are parlay bets on between 4 and 12 outcomes that offer especially large payoffs if you get all your picks correct.
Proposition bets are also called prop bets. It's a bet on something that happens during an event that doesn't necessarily have a direct effect on the outcome. For example, a bet on how many touchdowns a particular quarterback will throw during a game is a prop bet.
This is the phrase we use to describe a small bet you might make with one of your buddies, but it's also often used to describe some of the more straightforward wagers you can make with a book. Moneyline bets, for example, are simple wagers.
Spread betting is another phrase used to describe point spread bets, but it's also commonly used in financial markets.
Teasers are similar to prop bets, but you get to adjust the point spreads or totals in your favor. In exchange, the book offers you a lower payout on your bets.Different Types of Bet Explained
Online Sports Betting for Real Money
If you're in the United States, you're limited to dealing with neighborhood books or online sports betting companies if you want to place a wager on an event without traveling to Las Vegas. Each option has its pros and cons.
Betting with a neighborhood bookie can be fun, especially if it's someone you get to know personally. Chances are some of your buddies also do business with this person. You can usually get your winnings faster when dealing with someone local, too. You can also avoid a lot of the money transfer fees and hassles associated with online sports books.
On the other hand, most neighborhood bookies don't offer anywhere close to the variety of options when it comes to which wagers you can place. They don't always offer the same selection of sports to bet on, either. And they often have lower betting limits than online books.
Another big perk to using an online book is the signup bonus that's available. Almost all Internet bookmakers offer matching bonuses on your first deposit as a customer. It's an incentive to get you to sign up there. Some books even offer free bets with no deposit required. Good luck finding that kind of perk with someone in your neighborhood.
Whether or not your online bookmaker is as shady as your neighborhood bookie is a question you'll have to determine. Some Internet books are more reputable than others, but so are some neighborhood books. We always suggest caution and an "eyes wide open" approach when doing any kind of betting.
You can find detailed reviews of several recommended online sports books on our site by clicking on the links below. These sites are all reputable and take good care of their customers.
Bet365is one of the biggest names in the business, but sadly, they don't accept players from the United States. If you're placing bets from the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe, bet365 should be high on your list of sites to consider, though.Read Our Bet365 Review
BetOnline is an all-in-one betting site that offers casino games, poker, and sports betting—all for real money. They have a large number of deposit options available, which is a great perk. Unless you've experienced it first hand, you would be amazed at how hard it can be to transfer money to and from a betting site.Read Our BetOnline Review
Bodog is one of the glitzier and better known names in the industry, largely because of the antics of its former owner, Calvin Ayre. For such a famous name, they provide only average betting lines, and they no longer accept players from the United States. We like Bodog, but not as much as we like bet365 or William Hill.Read Our Bodog Review
Bovada is probably the best-known and most popular site which accepts real money sports betting from gamblers in the United States. It's a full-service site, too, which means you can also play casino games and poker there.Read Our Bovada Review
SportsBetting offers one of the largest initial signup bonuses in the business—it's a 25% match of up to $1000. If you're serious about betting some big money, then this is a site worth investigating.Read Our Sportsbetting.ag Review
TopBet is a relatively new player in the online sports betting for real money space, but they have a good reputation already. They offer one of the best new player signup bonuses in the business, and they are U.S. player friendly.Read Our TopBet Review
William Hill is a well-known bookmaker operation in Europe that operated as a brick and mortar business long before launching an online presence. Their reputation is sterling, but they don't accept punters from the United States.Read Our William Hill Review
You should look for the scuttlebutt on any online sports betting company you do business with before making your first deposit, especially if you're giving action from the United States. Because of the iffy legal situation in this country, the companies who are willing to do business with US customers are never public companies and are sometimes on the shady side.
Read through player forums to get an idea of what kinds of problems other bettors have reported about certain sites. And be skeptical of sports book reviews on the Internet that are too "glowing". People running sports betting information sites earn big advertising money from these corporations, and that can influence their ratings and reviews.
A good rule of thumb is to ignore reviews from information portals that lack easily-found "about us" and "contact us" pages. You should also look for balanced reviews that evaluate the pros and the cons of a site. No website is perfect for every customer. A well-written review takes that into account.
Also, if you're from the United States, you do need to be aware that betting on sports for real money online isn't exactly legal. In fact, it's clearly illegal. You have to make your own decisions about such things, but our official advice is to obey the laws in the jurisdiction where you live.
That being said, when's the last time you heard about someone getting arrested for placing a bet on the Super Bowl over the Internet?
Or with your neighborhood bookie, for that matter?
Real money sports betting refers to placing wagers of a respectable size on various sporting events. The number of wagers available is staggering, but most of them are simply moneyline bets expressed in one of two different odds formats. If you live in the United States, the legality of betting sports for real money online is questionable at best, but readers in Europe have lots of legal, regulated options to choose from.
Be sure to educate yourself before deciding on a sports book at which to play. Err on the side of caution, and start off small.
Once you're comfortable with a company, you can start raising the amounts of money you want to wager with them.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: March 2016
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