How do sports betting odds work?
For each game and event available for wagering, sportsbooks will attach odds to the available choices. The odds tell you which outcome is the favorite — i.e., the more likely one to happen — and can also point you to the potential return on winning bets.
On that last point, it takes some calculating to figure that out. We’ll walk through the steps in a bit. For now, let’s examine how the odds work for each of the main types of sports bets.
Moneyline betting odds
A moneyline wager is a straightforward one in which you simply have to choose the winner. The odds on the favored side will be negative, while the number will be positive on the side of the underdog.
- Tampa Bay Rays +110
- Los Angeles Dodgers -130
For this matchup, the Dodgers are slight favorites over the Rays. A small difference between the two numbers points to a potentially close game, while a wide span indicates a paper mismatch in the eyes of the oddsmaker.
Point spread odds
The point spread is most commonly available in football and basketball betting, but there are also variations for other sports. Oddsmakers install the spread, which is akin to an estimated margin of victory.
- San Francisco 49ers +2.5 (-110)
- Kansas City Chiefs -2.5 (-110)
For this game, the Chiefs are favored by 2.5 points, as indicated by the negative number on that side. To cover the spread, Kansas City needs to win the game by a margin greater than the number, such as by three points.
The 49ers cover by keeping the margin under 2.5 points or by winning the game outright. There are two components to spread betting lines: the amount of the spread, and the actual odds for each side of the wager (listed in parentheses for our example.)
Over/under betting odds
Also known as totals betting, this wager type revolves around the total number of points that two teams will score in a contest. Sportsbooks set a benchmark number to consider, and bettors then can choose over or under that amount.
- Over 49.5 (-110)
- Under 49.5 (-110)
The projection is 49.5 points here, so over bettors are looking for 50 or more total points in the game. Under bettors will have winning tickets if the total points wind up at 49 points or fewer. There will be odds on both sides, such as the -110 in our example.
Prop betting odds
Prop bets are additional wagering opportunities for individual games and events. They’re basically like side bets on things that may happen during the proceedings. Many prop bets revolve around the statistical accomplishments of players.
- How many yards will Patrick Mahomes throw for?
- Over 284.5 (-115)
- Under 284.5 (-105)
For this prop, the book has set a baseline of 284.5 yards for Mahomes. You can choose the over or under on that amount, and there will be odds attached to both sides. In addition to two-sided props such as this, there will be others with multiple choices.
Live betting odds
This wager type affords users the opportunity to bet in real time as the action plays out. Also known as in-game bets, this is a fast-moving market that continues to surge in popularity. Odds and offerings will be based on what’s happening on the field of play.
- What will be the result of this power play?
- Tampa Bay Lightning power play goal (-120)
- Dallas Stars penalty kill (+100)
Just like props, there will also be live bets that have multiple choices to consider with odds attached to each.
Parlay betting is a popular bet that provides users the chance for enhanced returns. You can build a parlay with two or more outcomes. The potential return increases with each selection added, but the chances of winning decrease as well.
- Los Angeles Lakers over Miami Heat (-145)
- Boston Celtics over Denver Nuggets (+105)
- Milwaukee Bucks over Los Angeles Clippers (-150)
- Total three-team parlay odds: (+478)
In order to win this three-team parlay, you would have to be correct on all of the choices. While parlays offer up the chance to win a lot while wagering a little, it’s important to have a full understanding of the risk-to-reward relationship involved.
Futures betting odds
The sports betting futures market revolves around wagers that can be placed on outcomes that will often be determined at a much later date. Many of the top offerings revolve around league championships and regular season accomplishments.
- Regular season wins for the New York Yankees:
- Over 95 (-125)
- Under 95 (+105)
For this wager, you’re deciding on a benchmark number for Yankees wins. It’s a bet that requires a long-term perspective, as it won’t be settled until all or nearly all of the season plays out. Odds for the top futures come out in the offseason.
Teaser and pleaser betting odds
For these two bet types, you as the bettor gain additional control over the point spread. In the case of a teaser, the spread on two favorites could be adjusted downward.
- Baltimore Ravens -8 over New England Patriots: to Ravens -1.5
- New Orleans Saints -9 over San Francisco 49ers: to Saints -2.5
When you place a pleaser bet, the opposite occurs. The spread moves in the other direction.
- New York Jets +10.5 vs. Miami Dolphins: to Jets +4
- Green Bay Packers -2.5 vs. Atlanta Falcons: to Packers -9
In our two examples, we have used 6.5 points for both wagers. In the NFL, pleasers will typically revolve around key numbers such as 6, 6.5 or 7. Over in the NBA, key numbers to watch for are 4.5, 5 and 5.5.
For both bets, the sportsbooks will adjust the odds accordingly based on the movement. In the case of the teaser, the potential return is less than a standard parlay because of more favorable lines, while it’s the opposite for the pleaser because the spread moves the other way.
Futures and prop bets
Futures and props are two of the most popular bet types available at online sportsbooks. The former requires a long-term perspective, while the latter is available for single games and events.
A futures bet is a wager where you won’t know the outcome until a later date. Futures are available for all of the major sports, with some of the top offerings remaining active all year round. Here are some of the more popular futures markets.
- Super Bowl odds
- NBA Finals
- World Series
- Stanley Cup
- College football national champion
- College basketball national champion
- Team regular season win totals
- Conference, division and league winners
- Golf majors
- Tennis Grand Slams
Odds for futures are released in the offseason for the respective sports. Bets begin coming in soon thereafter, and the odds board will adjust based on the action that comes in and as the season starts and continues. The general idea is to find the choices you are interested in at the best possible prices.
For futures with multiple choices, such as the winner of the next Stanley Cup, there will be odds for each NHL team to choose from. The board typically appears in descending order, with favorites on top. Here are what the odds could look like for a few favorites.
- Colorado Avalanche +700
- Vegas Golden Knights +800
- Tampa Bay Lightning +900
If it’s a futures bet with just two choices, such as an over/under on team win totals, the bet listing will look like a totals wager with odds on both sides. Since you can’t cash a futures ticket until the outcome is determined, any funds you wager will be tied up until then.
There are some props of the season-long variety that fall under the futures category. Among the opportunities you’ll find are benchmark totals on player stats and league leaders for certain metrics.
On the single-game front, you can find props by clicking through on the listing for that contest. You’ll see props that revolve around the game as a whole and team or player performances.
- Will overtime be needed to decide the game? Yes (+105)/No (-115).
- Which side will have more rushing yards in the game? Tennessee Titans (-130)/Indianapolis Colts (+110).
- How many total points plus assists will James Harden have in the game? Over 39.5 (+120)/Under 39.5 (-140).
There are also props with multiple choices attached, such as the player to score the first touchdown in an NFL game or the first goal scorer in an NHL contest. These bets will look like what you’d find in a futures market with multiple choices.
On the legality front, futures and props must revolve around a sporting event in order for a sportsbook to be able to offer them. You can’t wager on things like a presidential election or a TV game show, for example.
One other note to keep in mind: Prop bet availability for college sports can vary by state. Some states have restrictions on wagering on college competitions that take place in that state or that involve in-state teams. We’ll cover the specifics on this in a bit.
How to read lines and calculate payouts
Sports betting lines for team-based sports follow a standard format. The two teams set to face off will appear with the home team on bottom and the road team on top, but keep in mind that there’s an occasional neutral-site affair to deal with.
Right next to the two team names will be a series of numbers for the main bet types available. For an NFL game, the listing might look something like this.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers +3.5 (-110) +155 O 52.5 (-110)
- Pittsburgh Steelers -3.5 (-110) -175 U 52.5 (-110)
If we read from left to right on the numbers, these are the lines for the big three bet types: point spread, moneyline and totals. The Steelers are 3.5-point favorites and favored on the moneyline, and the over/under is at 52.5 points.
At online sportsbooks, listings will follow a similar format, but there will be some slight differences depending on the sport. For example, MLB uses a run line instead of a spread, while a goal or puck line is standard for NHL betting.
As mentioned, sports betting odds also point us to the potential payouts for winning bets, but it takes some calculating to figure out. There are two quick ways to figure it out. First, there are formulas to use that will vary based on the direction of the odds.
- If the odds are negative, drop the minus sign: Bet amount / (Odds/100) = return
- If the odds are positive: Bet amount * (Odds/100) = profit
To calculate, you simply need to plug in the amount of your wager and the odds. Here’s how it works using a bet amount of $100 and an odds split of -110/+130.
- Negative: $100/(110/100) = 90.90
- Positive: $100*(130/100) = 130.00
Next, there’s a quick and easy way to get a ballpark number of what kind of return you’re looking at. When the odds are negative, the number also represents the amount you would have to wager to see a return of $100.
In the case of -110, you’d be wagering $110 for the chance to win back $100. If the odds are positive, the number is the amount you’d get back for a winning $100 bet. For a $100 wager at +130, the return would be $130.
What you can’t bet on in the US
If it’s a sporting event with at least a decent following, then you’ll likely find it available for betting at legal sportsbooks here in the US. The individual states handle the setting of their own rules, but many of the offerings are uniform.
You can bet on all of the major team-based sports — NFL, NBA, etc. — the top individual sports — golf, UFC, etc. — and a host of niche sports such as cricket, rugby, etc. Offerings in the last category may vary by operator, but the first two categories generally appear everywhere.
It’s a different story when it comes to non-sport events. Here are a few examples of what you won’t find available for wagering at legal and regulated sportsbooks.
- TV competitions
- Court cases
- Economic data
On a state-by-state basis, there are certain restrictions in place, many of which revolve around college sports and amateur competitions. Here’s what you need to know.
- Colorado: No prop bets on college sports or wagering on high school sports.
- Illinois: No wagering on in-state college teams.
- Indiana: No betting on esports or on amateur athletes under the age of 18.
- Iowa: No esports betting or props on in-state college teams.
- Michigan*: No major restrictions.
- Nevada: No major restrictions.
- New Hampshire: No wagering on in-state college teams.
- New Jersey: No betting on in-state college teams or events.
- Oregon: No betting on college sports.
- Pennsylvania: No major restrictions.
- Rhode Island: No betting on in-state college teams or events.
- Tennessee: No live betting on college games or props on individual college athletes.
- Virginia*: No betting on in-state college teams.
- Washington, DC: No betting on games involving colleges located in DC.
- West Virginia: No major restrictions.
Legal sports betting vs. offshore sportsbooks
In years past, the option for folks looking to legally and safely place bets in the US started and ended with Las Vegas. For some bettors, the other answer was to explore options on the black market, including with risky offshore sites.
These days, it’s a different environment. Sports betting is legal in a number of states, and many more will follow in the future. There’s no valid reason to take the chance with an offshore site when legal and regulated options abound.
Here are just a few of the reasons why it’s a good choice:
- Your funds will be safe and secure with legal and regulated options in the US. Offshore operators offer no such guarantees.
- Legal operators set up a footprint in the states where they operate. There are clear-cut avenues you can take to contact them and to resolve any issues that may arise. Customer service options and legal remedies can be nonexistent with offshore sites.
- Offshore operators claim to operate under some sort of legal gray area, and many of them turn out to be nothing more than fly-by-night operations. Failure to pay out on winning bets or books completely disappearing without a trace are just two of the nightmare scenarios that could come up.
Even in today’s legal environment, offshore sites will still capture some attention because they offer up markets on things you can’t legally bet on here in the US. Examples include elections, the weather and reality TV competitions.
While not being able to wager on markets such as these here in the states is a drawback for some users, the overall trade-off is small. If you’re looking to bet on sports, it’s best to stick with the legal and regulated sites, and don’t put your funds unnecessarily at risk elsewhere.
Online sports betting rules
Each online sportsbook has its own set of house rules in place. The rules cover things like bet placement and settlement, as well as how things are handled when various circumstances come into play.
Many of the rules are pretty standard across the industry, but there are some variations among operators. Here are some of the main points that you need to know.
- Bets are considered action once the game or event gets underway.
- Settlement for all wagers often is based on official league data and results.
- In the event of a complete cancellation, bets will be voided with wager amounts refunded to users.
- For events that are delayed because of weather or other issues, bets may remain live as long as the contest is completed in a reasonable period of time.
- Sportsbooks will treat spread and total bets in which the outcome lands exactly on the number as a push, refunding the wager amounts to users.
Those are the basics, but we again point out that random circumstances will come up here and there. The exact way they are handled can vary by operator. For specific details, it’s always a good idea to review the house rules or terms and conditions at the sportsbooks you are using.