Sports Betting Essentials for Beginners

As the sports betting industry continues to grow throughout the United States, more and more people are joining in on the action. With more states legalizing sports gambling, plenty of new users are learning the terms and betting jargon as they look to make some money on the side. Some will go on and attempt to make a full-time living in this industry, but for most people, sports betting is just a more entertaining way to watch a sporting event.

Making your way into sports betting may be a bit confusing at first. But just like with most things in life, you have to learn how to be successful, and your knowledge will grow over time as you attempt to make a profit in a difficult industry to make money in.

In this article, we will teach you some of the basics of sports betting with all the essential items you need to know before you even get started. For those with some sports betting experience, this could be a useful post to further confirm what you already know or learn more about facets of sports betting you still don’t fully understand.

Point spreads

With the increase in sports betting coverage, you’ve probably heard of the term point spread. When you hear somebody mention a particular team is favored by a certain number of points, that is referring to the point spread, which is the most popular way people bet on sports. Instead of worrying about who wins a particular game or event, the team you bet on just needs to cover the spread that oddsmakers set.

For example, let’s say the Denver Broncos are going up against the Kansas City Chiefs. It is likely the Chiefs will win this game, but the NFL point spread may show Kansas City as 10.5-point favorites. You will see the NFL football wager that looks like this:

  • Kansas City Chiefs -10.5
  • Denver Broncos +10.5

For those who think the Chiefs will cover the point spread, they would need Kansas City to win by 11 points or more. Otherwise, the bet is a loser.

On the other side, if you decide to back the Broncos in this situation, you would need Denver to either win the game outright or lose by 10 points or fewer to have a winning bet. Think of it as the oddsmakers evening the playing field by giving the Broncos a 10.5-point head start.


If you have ever made a bet with friends or family on which team will win a particular game, you made a moneyline bet. Moneylines only take into account who wins the game, and it doesn’t matter how many points they win by.

If we are using the above example with the Broncos and Chiefs, since the Kansas City Chiefs are favored by quite a bit to win this game, betting on them to win will result in a lower payout than if you were to bet on the Broncos to win as underdogs and they came through.

Point totals

Point totals are also referred to as betting the over/under. When betting on point totals, determining who wins or by how much does not matter at all. All that matters when betting on point totals is the number of points scored at the end by both teams involved. If two teams are particularly skilled offensively, the number is likely to be higher than a game that features two defensive-minded squads.

In our Broncos and Chiefs example, this is an example of what betting the point total, or over/under, may look like.

  • Over 52.5
  • Under 52.5

If you believe the Broncos and the Chiefs will score at least 53 points combined, you would take the over. However, if you think the final score will add up to 52 points or fewer, take the under.

Sports betting odds explained

Knowing how odds work in sports betting is critical knowledge and is among the first things you should know before even placing your first wager. It’s a bit tricky to understand at the beginning, but after more experience, the odds will start to make sense to you fairly quickly.

The typical sporting event will show three categories to bet on, which we mentioned earlier with the point spread, moneyline and point totals. Now let’s help you understand how to calculate these odds.

Point spread odds

For point spreads, you will likely see (-110) next to the given numbers. In this example, let’s say the Pittsburgh Steelers are 2.5-point favorites against the New England Patriots. Here’s what the options may look like if you decided to bet on the point spread.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers -2.5 (-110)
  • New England Patriots +2.5 (-110)

The -110 number is the standard vigorish number for point spreads. The vigorish is often referred to as the vig or the juice. This is the main reason sports betting is so difficult and why sportsbooks have the upper hand from the start. The sportsbook takes a portion of your bet the second you place it. As unfair as it sounds, sports bettors who get half of their picks correct do not even break even and are losing money assuming they bet the same amount on each wager.

To calculate the vig, the easiest way is to use the $100 mark. With the standard vig at -110, you will need to bet $110 to earn a $100 profit.

Oddsmakers attempt to set a point spread number that will get 50% of the action betting on each side. With our above example, the sportsbooks would like for half of the betting public to pick the Steelers at -2.5 and the other half to bet on the Patriots at +2.5.

Point total odds

For point totals, the vig is very similar to the point spread in that the standard number is -110. In this example, let’s say the Patriots and Steelers have a point total that sits at 44.5. Here’s what it would likely look like.

  • Over 44.5 (-110)
  • Under 44.5 (-110)

Just like the point spread, a $110 bet on either total will net a $100 profit, and the sportsbooks want action on both sides.

Moneyline odds

Calculating moneyline odds is a little different from point spreads and point totals. We all know teams are not created equally no matter the sport. While the point totals and point spreads use the typical -110 or close to it in every example, that is not the case with the moneyline. Picking a heavy favorite to win a game has a much lower payout than a team that oddsmakers expect to lose by a wide margin.

An easy way to understand how to see who is most likely to win the game with this type of bet is by looking at the pluses and minuses. If the number next to a team’s moneyline option shows up as a minus, that team is the favorite to win the game or event, while the team with the plus sign in front of its odds is the underdog.

To help explain this further, let’s look at the Patriots and Steelers with this NFL moneyline example.

  • Patriots (+150)
  • Steelers (-125)

Both numbers are near 100, which means oddsmakers expect it to be a close game. To calculate the Steelers’ moneyline, we know you’ll need to bet $125 to win $100 since there’s a minus in front of it. To calculate the Patriots victory as the underdog, we will use $100 to calculate the payout, but in a different way. With the Patriots set at +150 to win the game on the moneyline, a $100 bet would net you a $150 profit.

Why use half a point in sports betting?

You may be wondering why sportsbooks use numbers like -7.5 instead of -7 or +3.5 instead of +3. Again, this is because of the vig. If the number is set at -10 and the final score lands exactly at -10, that is referred to as a push. Sportsbooks want to avoid pushes at all costs because with this scenario, everybody gets their money back and sportsbooks don’t make any money.

Line movement

When you see the opening lines released for a particular sporting event, it’s possible the point spread or point total will fluctuate leading up to the game. If a point spread for a Sunday NFL game is released early in the week on a Monday, the lines will likely adjust based on how much money is being bet on each side.

It can be difficult to notice where the line will go throughout the week, but if you bet on a game early, you could find yourself with a better number than you would get if you waited till just hours before the game starts.

Live betting

In addition to betting point spreads, point totals and moneylines, there are other ways to bet on sports. Here’s a few of the many options from a list that keeps on growing as sportsbooks look to find the most innovative way to attract sports bettors. One of the newest ideas that continues to increase in popularity is live betting.

Live betting has grown significantly as mobile sports betting has become more and more available. With this wager type, you have the ability to bet on a game while it’s going on. This is a fast-paced style of betting as the line is constantly moving throughout the game to adjust with how the game or event is playing out.

One strategy that could be used with live betting is halftime adjustments from head coaches. If a particular team plays significantly better in the second half than it does in the first half, it might make sense to bet on that team at halftime. On the other hand, if you’ve noticed a trend that a particular team seems to start out hot before fizzling out toward the end of games, bet against that team in the second half.

The live betting options seem to be endless and can include betting on whether an MLB team will score a run in a particular inning. Another example is how a player’s at-bat will play out, with the baseball betting options being an out or reaching base safely.

Betting on a team’s momentum during a game can be difficult because sometimes the momentum wears off and teams even out over the course of a game, but live betting gives sports bettors the option for plenty of in-game wagers.

Identify your sports betting niche

Especially early on in your sports betting career, it makes sense to stick with what you know and become an expert on that area. If you think you know a significant amount about Pac-12 basketball, make that your niche and try to outsmart the oddsmakers with your bets.

Otherwise, it might make sense to start out placing bets on your favorite team. It’s likely you know more about your team than any other in the league, so you might know a little more about how the team performs. Is it a good road team? Does it struggle against good offensive teams? Did your team suffer a significant injury to a key player? Place your bets based on what you know best.

Start with a small budget

While some will take sports betting as more of a serious investment and a way to earn a living, most people who place money on sporting events are doing so as a casual fan for a more entertaining way to watch a game or event. Especially when you’re just starting out as a sports bettor, stay away from betting large amounts of money.

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned gambler, it’s never a good idea to wager any amount you are not comfortable losing. Sports betting is designed to be fun, not something that should bring you down and hang over your head as you go about your daily life.

Takeaways on the basics of sports betting

  • Sports betting is meant to be a fun way to enjoy your sporting events.
  • Get familiar with terms like point spread, point totals and moneyline.
  • Understand the odds before you even place a wager.

Start small, especially when you are just starting out.