How Does Sports Betting Work?

Sports betting is more popular than ever, and as it becomes more accessible to bet on sports via online sportsbooks and apps, it might be tempting to give it a try for yourself.

If you’re planning to start betting, it’s important to understand how sports betting works to give yourself the best odds of success. From understanding how odds work to knowing the differences between types of bets, sports betting can seem very complicated to newcomers.

To help you make a more knowledgeable foray into the world of sports betting, here’s everything you need to know about how sports betting works.

What Is Sports Betting?

Sports betting is the practice of wagering money on the potential outcome of a sports game. Individuals may bet on a variety of possible outcomes and events, including which team will win, how much a team will win by, whether or not a certain player achieves a specific statline, and more.

To place a bet, you need to go through a reputable sportsbook, which will provide the odds for your bet, accept your wager, and pay you winnings if the bet is successful. Once you place a bet, your money is held until the outcome of the bet is determined.

Depending on your state’s laws, you may be able to bet via online sportsbooks like Bovada, BetMGM, and DraftKings. Online sportsbooks like these make it easy for users to make deposits, place and manage bets, and withdraw their winnings without having to go through a physical sportsbook.

What Sports Can You Bet On?

Man using computer to place bets

Most major sportsbooks will let you bet on a variety of sports and sporting events, including

  • Auto racing (e.g., F1, NASCAR)
  • Baseball
  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Esports
  • Golf
  • Hockey
  • Horse racing
  • Boxing

Those listed above are some of the most popular sports offered by most sportsbooks.

Understanding Odds

Before getting into the different types of bets involved with sports betting, it’s important to understand what odds are, how they work, and how they impact your bets.

American odds

American odds are what you’ll most likely see when betting with American sportsbooks. American odds are shown as either a positive or negative number on betting lines. Whichever team is assigned a negative number is considered the favorite to win, while the team with a positive number is considered the underdog.

The odds for the favorites show you how much you would have to bet to win $100, while the odds for the underdogs show you how much you would win if you bet $100.

For example, say you want to bet on an NBA game, and the upcoming Lakers versus Warriors game has the following odds:

  • Lakers: +300
  • Warriors: -400

In this scenario, the Warriors are considered the favorites, and you would need to bet $400 on the Warriors to win $100. On the other hand, if you bet $100 on the Lakers as the underdogs, you would stand to win $300.

In most cases you won’t have to do the math yourself, as most major sportsbooks will calculate your potential earnings before you finalize your bet.

Fractional odds

Fractional odds are more common in the United Kingdom, and are not used as often in the United States.

These odds are expressed as fractions, with the numerator representing how much you stand to win and the denominator representing how much you have to bet to win that amount.

For example, if the fractional odds listed for a certain wager are 9/4, you would stand to win $9 for every $4 you bet if the wager is successful.

Decimal odds

Decimal odds are commonly used in Europe, and you may see them used in U.S. sportsbooks from time to time.

Decimal odds are expressed only as positive numbers and often have up to two decimal places. These odds represent how much you stand to earn for every $1 you wager.

For example, if the decimal odds for a wager are 4.45, then you would stand to earn $4.45 for every $1 you bet.

Types of Sports Bets


While the premise of sports betting is as simple as predicting the outcome of a game, there are several different types of bets designed to cover different outcomes and scenarios.

Understanding the types of bets and how they differ from one another will make it easier to make more informed wagers.

Moneyline bets

Moneyline bets are the most common and straightforward type of sports bet. With moneyline betting, you’re betting on which team you think will win the game.

Moneyline bets are also referred to as straight bets and are typically associated with American odds. A minus (-) sign indicates which team is favored, while a plus (+) sign indicates which team is considered the underdog.

For example, if the moneyline odds for an upcoming game are:

  • Team A: -100
  • Team B: +200

You would have to bet $100 on Team A to win $100, and you would have to bet $100 on Team B to win $200.

Point total bets

Point total bets, also called over/under bets, involve betting on whether you think the total points scored in a game by both teams will exceed a specific number.

When placing a point total bet, the sportsbook will give you the over/under number and the odds to go along with it.

For example, if the odds for a point total bet are as follows:

  • O 30.5 (-100)
  • U 30.5 (-110)

You would need to bet $100 on the over to win $100 and $110 on the under to win $100.

With over/under bets, the point total often includes a decimal to avoid the potential for a tie.

Point spreads

Point spread bets are based on how many points a given team wins or loses by. Instead of betting on which team will win the game, you’re betting on whether a team will win or lose by a predetermined number of points.

An example of a point spread bet might look like this:

  • Milwaukee Bucks: -6 (-110)
  • Toronto Raptors: +6 (-110)

In this case, you would have to bet $110 on either outcome to win $100. By betting on the Bucks, you’re betting they will win by more than six points. However, if the Bucks win by only five points, you would lose the bet. On the other hand, if you bet on the Raptors, you would need them to win outright or lose by less than six points to win the bet.


Parlays are a popular type of bet that involve betting on multiple matches at once to increase your potential payout by taking on greater risk.

With parlays, you can bet on multiple games and place several different types of bets, including moneylines, point totals, and point spreads.

In order for your parlay to be successful, you need to win every bet. If you place a five-leg parlay and only win four out of five bets, the parlay would be unsuccessful and you wouldn’t win any money.

Prop bets

Prop or proposition bets are special bets that don’t necessarily depend on the outcome of a game.

Prop bets are typically split into two categories: exotic prop bets and skill prop bets.

Exotic prop bets are generally meant to be fun and may involve betting on topics like what type of commercial will air first during the Super Bowl or who the NBA MVP will thank first during their acceptance speech.

Skill prop bets are meant to depend more on your knowledge of the sport. For example, a skill prop bet might involve betting on how many points a certain NBA player will score by halftime in their next game.

Although they are technically different types of bets, you’ll generally find these listed together on websites as “props” without a line of delineation.


Teasers are unique parlays that use modified point spreads. With teasers, you can bet on multiple games at once and alter the point spreads or point totals by between four and 10 points.

Using modified point spreads can tilt the odds more in your favor but can also lower the potential payout as a result.

Like a regular parlay, each leg of a teaser bet needs to be successful in order to win any money.


Futures are bets placed on events set to happen in the far future. These bets allow sports fans to bet on outcomes for events happening later in the season.

For example, a common futures bet involves betting on the Super Bowl winner at the beginning of the NFL season, or who will win the NBA MVP award.

Odds for futures are often very unfavorable as it’s very difficult to predict outcomes that far in advance. However, these high-stakes bets can be very thrilling for enthusiasts who want to take a chance on their favorite players and teams.

How to Bet on Sports

To bet on sports, you’ll need to go through a physical or online sportsbook with a valid gambling license.

Some of the most popular online sportsbooks include:

Depending on your state’s laws, online sportsbooks like these may or may not be available to you.

If you are legally able to use an online sportsbook, placing a bet is as easy as creating an account, depositing money, placing your bet, and withdrawing your winnings.

When placing a bet with an online sportsbook, you’ll be able to see how much money you stand to win or lose with each wager before finalizing the bet.

We recommend reviewing your sportsbook’s terms and conditions before placing your first bet to understand what fees you may be responsible for and to learn more about how they process payouts.