Sports Betting Explained: An Introduction To The Basics And How To Wager

Sports betting is a rapidly growing industry in the United States, particularly after a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court that opened the door to legalized operations on a state-by-state basis. While not every state in the country has legalized sports betting just yet, the map is expanding and, with sports leagues and other outlets attempting to jump on board the money train, interest is higher than ever.

As such, many are new to the space and, in the first of several explainers, we will tackle the real basics. For experienced sports bettors, this will be far too elementary but, given the expansion of sports betting terminology used on more mainstream sports broadcasts and within games, even the non-bettors could find it useful to understand the flow of information.

Later, we’ll dive into more nuanced approaches. Today, though, we stick to the nuts and bolts of how to get around and understand what you’re looking at on an odds board.

Point Spreads

In simple terms, the point spread is a wager on what the margin of victory will be in a particular game. It is, by a wide margin, the most oft-discussed wagering option, both in mainstream and more advanced circles. A point spread can also serve as a de facto “projection” of the difference between two teams.

The team that enters as the betting “favorite,” or the team projected to win the game, will be displayed with a minus (-). On the flip side, the betting “underdog,” or the team projected to be the weaker of the two, will be displayed with a plus (+).

As a very prominent example, let’s look back to Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2, 2020, with the Kansas City Chiefs taking on the San Francisco 49ers in the largest sporting event in the country. When the game began, the Chiefs were listed at -1.5, meaning that Kansas City was the favorite, with 1.5 points as the point spread itself.

In practical terms, if a bettor wagered on the Chiefs to “cover” (meaning they would win the bet), Kansas City would need to win the game by more than 1.5 points. If the Chiefs won by one point, or lost the game entirely, the bet would lose.

To flip things around, the 49ers were listed at +1.5, meaning that San Francisco was the underdog. If the 49ers won the game on the field, a point spread bet on San Francisco would win. Beyond that, a one-point loss by the 49ers would also be a winning bet on San Francisco, but a loss by two points or more would not be victorious in the point spread world.


As noted previously, point spreads are the most common way to wager on a few high-profile sports like basketball and football. Another prominent option, however, is the ability to wager on how many total points will be scored.

These “total” bets are sometimes referred to as Over/Unders, because one side of the bet is an “over” and the other is an “under.” Using the same example from Super Bowl LIV back in Feb. 2020, the over/under total was set at 53.

As such, a bettor could wager on the “over” at 53 and, if the two teams combined to score 54 points or more, that wager would win. If they scored 52 points or fewer, the wager would lose.

On the other side, a bettor could wager on the “under” at 53 and the opposite would be true. The bettor would be hoping for 52 points or fewer, and any total more than 53 points would be a losing wager.

While the point spread in the above example was not a round number (1.5), the over/under in this case is exactly 53, rather than 52.5 or 53.5, for example. Because of that, a “push” is possible. Essentially, a push occurs when a wager ties. In this case, a combined score of 53 points would trigger a refund for any bet placed on either the over or the under, and no bet would win.

Money Lines

If you don’t want to be tasked with doing math during game action, money lines are a bit more conventional. In fact, a money line wager is based entirely on which team wins, and the margin (or even the frequency of scoring) does not matter. These wagers are offered across the sporting landscape, but they are particularly prominent in sports like baseball, soccer, and hockey, when the margin of victory is often small given the limited number of points/goals scored by both sides.

To better understand money lines, however, it is important to know what the listed odds actually mean.

American Odds

American odds are prominent in, you guessed it, the United States. They are not as prominent, or regularly accessible, in other corners of the world but, given our audience and the reality that American odds are what you will see in any local sportsbook, an explainer is needed.

Importantly, the odds are listed in association with every single bet we’ve discussed in this space, including point spreads, over/unders, and money lines. The short version is that American odds are focused on a $100 unit of measurement, and that is how they are displayed.

In the same way referenced above with point spreads, underdogs are listed with the plus (+) sign and favorites are listed with the minus (-) sign, and that is the way to differentiate the two. From there, we’ll use the Super Bowl LIV example one last time today.

The money line referenced Kansas City at -125. In plain terms, that means that a bet on Kansas City would yield $100 for every $125 wagered. So, if a bettor placed a $125 bet and the Chiefs won, the bettor would receive their $125 back and an additional $100, for a profit of $100.

The 49ers were listed at +105 in the same game, entering as the betting underdog. If a bettor placed a wager on San Francisco and the 49ers were victorious, the bettor would receive their $100 back and an additional $105, for a profit of $105.

To be clear, not everyone is wagering is increments of $100, but the percentages stay the same. For every $1.25 wagered on the Chiefs, the bettor would win $1 on a victory, and for every $1 wagered on the 49ers, the bettor would win $1.05 on a victory.

The Vig

In our final section of this introductory explainer, we get to the less “fun” part of sports betting, at least for the individuals placing the bets and rooting against the casino or bookmaker. The vig, or vigorish, is sometimes referred to as the juice, and it basically refers to the cost of placing a bet, all while explaining how bookmakers keep the lights on.

We’ll harken back to the Super Bowl LIV example, and move back to the point spreads this time. As noted above, the Chiefs were -1.5 in that particular game but, while that was the point spread, a bettor wasn’t placing a $100 wager on Kansas City with the potential to receive $100 back. The standard, or most common, vig/juice/vigorish in the United States is -110.

Using the discussion about money lines above, that means that a bettor would have to place a $110 wager on the Chiefs -1.5 to win $100. That is also true of a wager on the 49ers +1.5, with a bettor placing a $110 wager to win $110.

While that $10, or less if the wager was for a smaller amount, may not seem like much, the bookmaker is, for all intents and purposes, charging a tax. Bettors must win well over 50 percent of their bets to “break even” using the -110 vig and, as such, it is very difficult to win over the course of a large sample. Most are betting for entertainment but, at the very least, it is good to know what you’re getting into and, like any casino activity involving gamblings, the house makes sure to have the mathematical edge over the vast majority of individuals.

The finer points of sports betting can’t be learned overnight and there is plenty more to dissect. However, learning the basics is absolutely critical and, if one can sift through the math of these three “standard” wagering opportunities, the rest becomes much easier to unpack.