How to Bet on the 4 Most Popular Sports in the United States

by Jeff Harris
on August 11, 2018
10

Minute Read

Are you really new to sports betting? Maybe you’re young and just haven’t gotten involved in the hobby yet. Or maybe you’ve been a sports fan for years but never had the bankroll to afford to bet on a football game before now.  Maybe you’ve met a new boyfriend, and you want to be able to share in his excitement during a basketball game by having some of your own money in action, too.

Regardless of your reason for being new to sports betting, this post offers an introduction to betting on sports in general in the United States. Then it goes on to describe some of the specifics involved in betting specific sports: football, baseball, hockey, and basketball. Finally, I offer some thoughts and observations on how you might bet more intelligently.

Some General Observations About Betting on Sports with a Bookmaker

Anyone can place a straight-up wager with another sports fan. But when I write posts about sports betting, I’m usually addressing people who are betting with a bookmaker. You can categorize bookmakers into 3 categories if you’re in the United States:

  1. Legal, licensed books operating in Nevada (and presumably, soon in other states)
  2. Neighborhood books who are operating outside the law
  3. Offshore books who are also operating outside the law

I shouldn’t overstate the legal aspect of betting on sports. Unless you’re in the business of taking bets, you’re almost certainly okay. I don’t know of anyone who’s gotten into trouble with the law for placing bets. It’s the running of a business associated with sports betting that gets hairy. So don’t stress out about the legalities of being a recreational sports bettor.

The Vigorish

The one thing all these different categories of books have in common is something called “the vigorish,” or “the vig.” Simply put, the vig is the difference between what you win and what you lose. With most books, you pay the bookmaker 11 to 10 if you lose a bet. If you win, you get even money.

Here’s an example:

You bet on the Cowboys to win versus the Redskins this weekend. If you lose, you must pay the bookmaker $110. If you win, the bookmaker pays you $100.

That extra $10, by the way, is where the bookmaker makes his money. It’s a healthy percentage. In fact, a bookmaker who balances bets on both sides of a sporting event makes all his money from the vigorish and has no risk.

Here’s how that works:

You’re a small neighborhood bookie, and you take $100 bets on the Cowboys from 5 bettors. You also take $100 bets on the Redskins from 5 bettors.

If the Cowboys win, you pay $500 out in winnings to those bettors. But you collected $550 from the bettors who took the Redskins.

You’d have the same financial results if the other team had won. It doesn’t matter which team wins, you make a profit.

The Point Spread

The 2nd factor common to bookmakers is the concept of “a point spread.” Point spreads are most commonly used in football and basketball betting. This is a betting custom where the difference in the 2 teams is represented by points rather than by odds.

Here’s an example:

The Cowboys are a 4-point favorite over the Redskins this weekend. This means that if you bet on the Redskins, you get to add 4 points to their final score to determine whether the bet wins. They don’t have to actually win the game; they just have to cover the point spread for your bet to win.

This is a tactic used by the bookmaker to get action on both sides of an event. Remember, the book makes money when there’s the same amount of money wagered on each side. By taking into account who the favorite is, the bookmaker stimulates action on a team that otherwise might not get any action.

What does the bookmaker do if a lot of people have bet on the Cowboys and not the Redskins? They’ll make the Cowboys a 5 point favorite in an effort to stimulate more action on the Redskins. If that doesn’t work, they might raise the point spread again, to 6 points.

These changes in the point spread aren’t retroactive. If you bet on the game when the Cowboys were a 4-point favorite, those are the terms of that bet. They don’t change because you are able to make a new bet with a new point spread.

This is why some sports betting pundits refer to bookmaking as a “marketplace.” Supply and demand drive the point spread.

Some smaller bookmakers will also book action with larger bookmakers to balance both sides of the event. They might do this with another local bookie, but they might also do so with an offshore book. This is called “laying off” the excess.

1. How to Bet on Football

You can bet on 2 kinds of football:

  1. College football
  2. Professional football

What we call “football” in the United States is often called “gridiron football” internationally to differentiate it from soccer. The rest of the world mean “soccer” when they say “football.”

The major organizations are the NCAA for college football and the NFL for professional football. In 2020, if all goes according to plan, a 2nd professional football league will form—the XFL. When that happens, you’ll have more professional football choices when it’s time to start betting.

You can find the point spread for any football game, college or pro, in any newspaper with a sports section. The point spreads are also easy to find online.

When you’re looking at a football match, the favorite is always the team listed first. A number follows the name of that team—that’s the point spread.

Here’s an example:
  • Dallas Cowboys          -6
  • Washington Redskins     +6

If the Cowboys win by 6 points or more, you’ve won a bet on the Cowboys. If the Redskins win or lose by less than 6 points, a bet on the Redskins wins.

And betting on a football game with a point spread is really just that simple.

College football games are played on Saturdays. Most pro games are played on Sundays, although there’s also Monday Night Football to bet on. And they have games on Thursday nights for part of the season, too.

Professional handicappers are the ones who set these point spreads. They factor in the variables involved in the game—how fast the teams are, how good the quarterback is, how strong the defense is, and so on. They consider factors that many naïve bettors might not even think about, too, like who the home team is, what the scores and records for the teams have been like so far this year, and so on.

Professional handicappers are good at what they do, especially now that they have access to advanced computer programs. Generally, if a handicapper sets a point spread at a certain amount, the teams have a 50/50 chance of winning against the point spread.

They can be wrong, though, and when they are, if you catch the discrepancy between what the spread ought to be and what it is, you can profit by placing positive expectation bets. Of course, you must be so much more right than the handicapper that you’re able to win more than 52% of the time. Winning just 50% of the time won’t even enable you to break even. Remember, you lose $110 when you’re wrong, but you only win $100 when you’re right.

College football is the best bet you can place in United States sporting events. If you read the sports pages of various newspapers and websites, you’ll have an easy time finding writers who are predicting the final scores of college football games. You’ll find most of their predictions on Friday.

These writers usually go with the favorites, and they often don’t account for the point spreads. Since they’re ignoring the point spreads and going with the favorites each week, they seem practically psychic in their predictions. Of course, every week there are upsets, too, so these writers aren’t ever right 100% of the time.

If you want to bet college football in a smart way, look at how often the underdogs won games, even without taking the point spread taken into account.  Also look at how often the favorites won by the point spread. You’ll probably notice that this 2nd number is less than 50%.

Then you start betting with a focus on underdogs. But you especially want to find underdogs in games where the 2 teams have a rivalry. You should also avoid betting on bowl games, as their results are often completely unpredictable.

Also, account for any additional information you can get about the teams. This might mean making friends with people involved with the management of a school’s team. If you get information before the bookmakers do, you can change your betting action before they can change their point spreads.

Betting on professional football is tougher. Quarterbacks are of incredible importance in an NFL game. You can have an otherwise mediocre team perform really well if they have a top-notch quarterback. You can find good bets by looking for teams where the quarterback is improving over the course of a season, so watch for that factor.

Also, if you’re betting NFL games, you should probably only bet 1 or 2 games each week. That’s the likely limit of profitable opportunities each week because the handicappers are good at their jobs. Remember, 50/50 isn’t good enough to profit. In fact, 50/50 is a guaranteed loss over time.

One interesting suggestion I saw was to bet an entire season of NFL football with imaginary money to see how well you do. If you have a good season with imaginary money, it might be worthwhile to try betting real money during the next season.

Of course, betting on which team will win is only one way to bet on football. The other most popular bet in football is the “over/under” or “totals” bet. This is a bet that the game’s total score will be above or below a certain number specified by the handicapper.

The over/under for a game might be listed as 39.5 points, for example. If the score at the end of the game were 28-11, there would have been a total of 39 points scored. An under bet would win in this situation, while an over bet would lose.

2. How to Bet on Basketball

Betting on basketball is more like betting football than any other sports. You’re dealing with the same kind of point spread system, for one thing. You’re also dealing with a sport where you have both college games and pro games. College basketball goes under the category of NCAA betting, while professional basketball falls under the NBA category.

And the bookmakers use the same kind of vigorish—you risk $110 to win $100.

To bet smart on college basketball requires tremendous amounts of focus and attention. You need to know all about the teams, their players, and their attitudes. It’s probably harder to get an edge betting on basketball than it is to get an edge at betting on football. For one thing, you’re dealing with a much higher-scoring game. For another, the role of the referees’ calls is also more important.

If you want to bet on basketball, you’re probably better off betting on the NBA games. One of the reasons for this is the role of travel on the game. Teams that are traveling might easily be exhausted. It’s tiring being on the road even when you’re used to it.

If you’re paying attention, you can recognize when a team is tired. And those kinds of times are more likely to lose than well-rested teams.

Another of the reasons for this is the way the seasons are structured. Professional basketball teams don’t need to win every game. They can get into the playoffs and even win championships while losing a healthy number of games leading up to that point. Recognizing this aspect of the game can inform your betting decisions.

Combine these 2 factors, and you have the makings of a basketball betting strategy. Tired teams that don’t NEED a win are almost guaranteed to lose. Their future schedule affects how they play, too.

Basketball teams tend to get hot and cold, too—almost like a game of craps. I think it’s a mistake to put too much stock into a winning or losing streaks. The problem with streaks of any kind in betting is that they always eventually end. They’re also usually only visible in retrospect.

That being said, there’s a huge difference between a winning or losing streak in craps or roulette and a winning or losing streak in a basketball team’s performance. That’s because these other games are entirely random. When a basketball team is on a winning streak or a losing streak, there could be a specific reason behind it.

Your job as an intelligent, well-informed basketball bettor is to analyze the situations for the whys so that you can decide whether there’s an edge to be had or not.

In betting basketball against the point spread with the vigorish, you need to win far more than 50% of your bets to show a profit. 50/50 will result in a long-term financial loss.

3. How to Bet on Baseball

Baseball betting gets different. For one thing, it’s far more common to bet on professional baseball games than it is to bet on college baseball. Most people just aren’t that interested in college baseball; it’s a little dull.

Professional baseball is divided into 2 leagues:

  1. The American League
  2. The National League

For the most part, you won’t see point spreads in baseball. You might have a run line, but it’s always the same amount, and you’ll see games without a run line more often than you’ll see games with a run line. Instead, the bookmaker sets odds based mostly on the strength of each team’s pitcher.

Here’s an example:

The Texas Rangers might have Bartolo Colon pitching, and the Oakland A’s might have Trevor Cahill pitching. Oakland might have -140 next to it, while Texas might have +120 by it.

What does all this mean?

This is called a “money line.” It’s not unique to baseball, either. A money line is used when a point spread wouldn’t allow for great enough precision in terms of evening out the odds.

The favorite is the team with the negative number next to it. In the example above, Oakland is the favorite. The 140 is the amount you’d need to wager to win $100.

The underdog is the team with the positive number next to it. Using the same example from above, Texas is the underdog. The 120 is the amount you’d win if you risked $100.

This does not, by the way, mean that you must bet in multiples of $100. It just means that these are the ratios you’ll use. If you placed a $10 bet on Texas and won, you’d win $12. If you placed a $14 bet on Oakland and on, you’d win $10.

As I mentioned earlier, too, pitching is the most important thing about a baseball game. Usually, if there’s a change in pitchers, there will be at least an option of canceling your bet. Some books will cancel your bet automatically if there’s a pitching change.

Sometimes a baseball game will also have a “run line.” This works like a point spread, but it’s always in the amount of 1.5.

4. How to Bet on Hockey

As with the other games in this post, hockey can be bet on both the college level and the professional level. The NCAA runs college hockey in the USA, while the NHL is the pro organization.

Betting on hockey resembles betting on baseball. Rather than a point spread, hockey is bet using a “money line.”

The money line just represents the amount of money you’ll win if you bet $100 on the underdog or the amount of money you’ll lose if you bet to win $100 on the favorite.

Hockey sometimes uses a “puck line,” which is the equivalent of the run line in baseball.

I could list examples here using the names of hockey teams, but if you’ll just read through the example about baseball above, you’ll see exactly how betting on hockey is done, too.

You can and should learn how to bet hockey, by the way. Between football season and baseball season, the only 2 big sports left to bet on are hockey and basketball. I get bored betting on the same sports every week, so I’m glad these varieties are available.

Conclusion

The most popular sports to bet in the United States are football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. You can bet on the college or the professional versions of each sport. Unless you’re just placing a straight-up wager with a buddy, you can expect to pay a commission to the book for taking your bets. This commission is called the vig.

Football and basketball betting work more or less the same. There’s a point spread, and you risk $110 to win $100. The teams’ wins or losses are affected by the point spread.

Baseball and hockey betting work more or less the same, too. There’s a money line, and it determines how much you win or lose compared to the bet you placed. There might, but usually isn’t, a run line or a puck line in baseball or hockey, respectively. It’s always a 1.5 line, though. It doesn’t vary like it does in football and basketball.

You can make a lot of money betting on sports if you master these 4 games, but the professional handicappers are good. You need to be on top of your game to win. Since there’s a vig, a 50/50 record will result in net losses over time.

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