Sports Gambling for Dummies

Sports gambling can be confusing.

The terms associated with it, the legalization aspect of it, and the availability of it can all disorient the average sports fan. Hearing announcers talk about it can sound like another language. Seeing game matchups and extra numbers with plus and minus symbols can add intrigue. Watching people go crazy when a team scores a last minute touchdown, but loses by 20, may not make any sense. The public perception of sports gambling is changing and with it, the laws surrounding it. Betting sites are becoming more easily accessible and more people are engaging in the practice. The world of sports gambling can be fascinating, but it helps to have a better understanding before getting involved.

Explanation of Terms

Lines/Odds – Bookmakers release odds for games and pick a favorite and an underdog. The odds for favorites are shown with a minus sign, and refer to the amount of money you would need to bet to win $100. The odds for underdogs are shown with a plus sign, and refer to the amount of money you would win if you bet $100. For example, the Seahawks – Rams game is a close matchup so the Seahawks are listed at -150 and the Rams are at +130. The Seahawks are just slightly favored. You would have to bet $150 on the Seahawks to win $100, but if you bet $100 on the Rams you could win $130. A lopsided matchup such as the Packers – Redskins has the Packers listed at -850 and the Redskins at +575. The Packers are heavy favorites. You would have to bet $850 on the Packers to win $100, but a $100 bet on the Redskins could win you $575.

Moneyline – Betting the moneyline means that you are picking one team to win outright. The lines will determine your payout. You usually have to bet more on a favorite to make any money, but putting any amount on the underdog can pay off if they pull off the upset. The examples listed above show how the lines affect your bets.

Pointspread – Bookmakers also release point spreads for some sports. Pointspread refers to the predicted scoring differential for two opposing teams. For example, if you choose to bet on the underdog, but with the spread, whatever the final score of the game, you add that team’s spread to their score and see if they win. For the favorite, you would take their final and subtract the spread to see if they still win. To look at a specific example, the Colts – Buccaneers game is projected to be close, but the Bucs are slightly favored so they are listed at -3. Bookmakers think the Bucs will win by 3.

Cover – Refers to when the team you bet on with the pointspread wins. The favorite could win by more than they were predicted, or the underdog could lose by less than they were predicted. Using the example from above, if the final score was Bucs 21-17 Colts, and you bet on the Bucs then you would win. The Bucs covered the spread. If the final score was Bucs 21-20 Colts, and you bet on the Colts then you would win. Even though the Colts did not win, they covered the spread.

Push – Refers to a tie on a bet. For some sports this could be an actual tie if you bet the moneyline. Other times this could be when the pointspread causes the teams to tie. You don’t lose any money, but you don’t win anything either. Staying with the same example of the Colts – Buccaneers game, if the line was Bucs -3 (Colts +3) and the final score was Bucs 20-17 Colts then it would be a push.

Over/Under – Instead of only betting on the outcome of the game, you can also bet on the point total. Bookmakers will decide on a number, and you can then bet if you think the final score will be above or below that number. For example, bookmakers set the over/under for the Eagles – Giants game at 47 points. If the final score is 28-14 then the under would hit. If the final score is 28-24 then the over would hit.

Parlay – A combination of multiple bets. Combining multiple bets can improve your odds and potentially lead to a higher payout, but every bet in the parlay must win for you to win. For example you could bet on the Seahawks to beat the Rams, the Colts to cover the spread, and the under for the Eagles-Giants game. If all those things happen, then you win. But as soon as one of them doesn’t happen, you lose.

Special note: Different sportsbooks and bookmakers can have different lines, spreads, and over/unders, as well as choosing to offer select games. These aspects can also change based on the number of bets placed and information about the game such as injuries and weather.

These are just some of the terms associated with sports gambling, but this should give you a general understanding. The number of ways to bet on sports is only growing. Aside from betting on the outcome and scores of games, many sportsbooks offer “prop” bets. These side bets can range from an over/under on the number of field goals in a game to who will win the opening coin toss.


The legality of sports gambling is even more confusing than the terms related to it. After years of back and forth that included point-shaving scandals and federal lawmaking, in May of 2018 the Supreme Court made a decision that opened the door for legalized sports betting in America. Some states jumped on the opportunity and created legal, regulated sports betting industries. Nevada had been grandfathered into sports gambling long before this recent Supreme Court Case, but they have since been joined by some new stakeholders. States like Pennsylvania and New Jersey had been patiently waiting for the legalization, so they quickly took advantage of the opportunity. Multiple other states followed suit, and there are now 13 states with legal, regulated sports betting industries. An increasing number of states are realizing the potential of this new industry and are passing legislation of their own to get in on the action.

“The anti-gambling stigma that existed for decades is fading in American popular culture, opening the door for a massive, multibillion-dollar legal sports betting industry to emerge.”

The Action Network

As recently as November 2019, Colorado approved a bill to legalize sports betting. Many of these states with new legislation will have operational, sports gambling industries by 2020. Although some states will hold out on this form of commerce for reasons of perception or protection, the economic aspect of sports gambling is astonishing.

Green Dots: Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Arkansas, New York, Iowa, Indiana
Yellow Dots: Maine, New Hampshire, Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina, Montana, Colorado


You may already be packing your bags to run off to a state with legalized betting. Slow down for just a second. There are other ways to gamble on sports without being in a state where it is considered legal. The most common way of doing so is through online betting sites run by companies based in countries outside of the US. The laws are still confusing and I’m no lawyer, but an article on breaks it down this way, “It IS illegal to operate a betting site within US borders. Offshore sportsbooks are operating legally if they comply with their local laws. And it’s NOT illegal for an individual to use an offshore sportsbook.” The article also assured that their recommended sites are trustworthy and safe to use. Some of their recommended sites include Bovada, BetNow, and 5Dimes. After looking into those sites specifically, I was able to determine that BetNow is licensed by the government of Curacao and 5Dimes is licensed and regulated in Costa Rica. There is also the opportunity to find an illegal bookmaker. Using illegal bookmakers allows the participant to avoid taxes on winnings and have easier payout options. However, there still are significant risks with using an illegal bookie. There is always the possibility that the bookmaker gets busted and you never see any winnings.

Besides online sports gambling, many people get further involved through daily fantasy leagues. Websites like DraftKings and FanDuel have grown in popularity with the increased interest in sports betting. However, these daily fantasy sports leagues have been able to avoid the confusion of state regulations associated with sports gambling due to a legal distinction. Daily fantasy leagues are considered to be based on skill, while sports betting is based on chance. The lack of fixed odds and the fact that most players participate for free in daily fantasy sports both contribute to the legal aspect. An article on states that the acceptance of daily fantasy sports helped lead the way for the legalization of sports betting in some states.

The culture of sports gambling is changing as it is becoming more widely accepted and the technology for it is evolving. I hope I have been able to shed some light on this rapidly growing aspect of the sports world, from one fan to another.

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