Beginner’s Guide to Sports Betting

Legal single-game sports betting is changing the game here in Canada, and when it happens we can expect a big flurry of new bettors rushing to get in the game.

So what do you need to know to get started with sports betting? Is there an easy way to make sense of the odds board? What kind of bets can you make now that you couldn’t before?

We’ll answers those questions and more right here in our sports betting guide for beginners.

1 – How to read sports odds 

When you’re new to betting, the numbers on the odds board look like a jumble of random math. It’s really not that complex but you do have to know what you’re looking at and how to read it.

For starters, let’s consider a simple odds line for an NHL game. The board will list out all of the matchups for the day with the home team on the bottom and the road side on top, but keep in mind that there’s an occasional neutral-site affair.

Right next to the two team names will be a series of numbers, which are for three bet types:

  • The puckline (point spread)
  • The moneyline (outright winner)
  • The total (over/under)

Here’s an example:

  • Vancouver Canucks +1.5 (-130)      +140                O 5.5 (-110)
  • Montreal Canadiens -1.5 (+110)      -170                 U 5.5 (-110)

The direction of the numbers tells us which side is the favourite or underdog: negative for the latter and positive for the former. For our example, the Canadiens are favoured on the puckline and moneyline in a game with a projected total of 5.5 goals.

Next to the puckline and totals are the odds for the wagers, while the moneyline stands alone.

2 – Betting on the moneyline 

The most basic bet on the board is the moneyline wager. You simply have to pick which side you think will win the game from the favourite or underdog. Once in a while, the odds will match on both sides or be real close, but the majority of contests are pretty clear cut. Here’s an example:

In this matchup, the Oilers are the moneyline favourites. To place a bet at an online sportsbook, you simply click on the odds that match your choice. It goes to the betting slip automatically, so you just have to plug in the amount you want to bet and view the potential return. If the side you choose wins, then you have a winning ticket.

3 – Point Spread betting explained  

The spread is an additional wrinkle added to the equation by oddsmakers. It helps to think of it as an estimated margin of victory. Beyond just figuring out which side you think will win or lose, the team you pick has to cover the spread. This bet type is available for all of the major North American sports. While the concept is the same, it can go by different names.

As an example, let’s say that the Detroit Pistons are visiting the Toronto Raptors. When you look at the game line, you see that the book has set the spread as follows.

The Raptors are 4.5-point favourites. If you bet on them, that means you think they’ll win the game by five points or more to “cover” the spread. A 100-95 victory for Toronto gets it done, but a 110-108 win does not.

The Pistons can cover the spread by keeping the margin to less than 4.5 points. They’ll cover with a 4-point loss, but fail to do so with any defeat greater than five points. Detroit can also cover if they pull off the upset and win the game outright.

Spread betting can be a little tricky when new to wagering, but it’s a very popular bet type which is worth taking the time to get up to speed with. The spread variable can make even the most meaningless game be something to root for from a betting perspective.

4 – What’s an over/under?

The last of the big three bet types on the main board is referred to as a total or Over/under. The two terms are used interchangeably. It’s a wager on the total number of points that will be scored in a contest. Sportsbooks will set the bar with an estimate, and bettors then get to choose Over or Under that amount. An example for an MLB game would be:

  • Over 5 (-110)
  • Under 5 (-110)

If you think the two teams will score nine or more runs, then you would roll with the Over. A final of 6-4 means you made the right call, but you’d miss the mark at a score of 4-3. On the Under, the opposite is true as you’re expecting eight runs or less to be scored in the game.

Totals are also used for all of the major team-based sports, but the size of the number will vary depending on what you’re looking at. Here’s a ballpark range to go by:

  • NHL: 5.0 on the low end, 6.0 or more at the high end with the average game set at 5.5.
  • MLB: Can range from a low of 5.5-6.5 runs to 10 or more.
  • NBA: The low end is under 200 while high-scoring affairs can be pegged at 215+.
  • NFL: Could be 40 or under on the low end to 55+ on the high end.
  • MLS: Could be anywhere from 0.5 to 3.5 or more.

5 – What are prop bets?  

Prop betting opens up even more possibilities for betting on games. They’re basically side bets on things that may happen during a game or by its conclusion. As a general rule, the more popular the game or event, the more available props you’ll see. Many of the top prop bet options revolve around the performance of individual players. Examples include:

  • Who will have more points in the game – Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews?
  • Will Mikko Rantanen score a goal – Yes/No?
  • How many saves for Petr Mrazek – Over/Under 27.5?

You can find the available props for a contest by clicking through on the game listing. A prop with two choices works like a moneyline bet with odds on both sides, while others include multiple choices with odds for all available options.

6 – How to bet on a game in progress 

Once a game gets underway, you don’t have to stop betting. Live betting has grown to be an incredibly popular option at legal sportsbooks. It’s a fast-moving market that lets you react in real time to what’s going on. You’ll see updated odds on the standard pregame bets, as well as plenty of different prop-style opportunities.

  • Which team will score five runs first – Blue Jays/Astros/None?
  • What will be the result of this power play – Goal or Kill?
  • How many receiving yards for Stefon Diggs before halftime – Over/Under 54.5?

The odds and offerings are directly correlated to what’s happening in the game. Bettors can use live betting to hedge their initial positions or double down, but plenty also treat it as a completely separate part of their overall betting strategy.

7 – Adding in “futures” bets

You can also take more of a long-term view with sports betting via the futures market. These are bets on season-long outcomes and results that won’t be known until a later date. Odds for the biggest markets come out in the offseason and remain active nearly all year round. Some of the top options include:

Other options include division and conference winners, and Over/Under bets on team regular season win totals. If you make the right calls, futures betting can be quite lucrative. The market is also a great spot to lean on as you research an upcoming season.

8 – Why do the odds change?  

After sportsbooks release odds for games and events, the market doesn’t stand still. There will often be movement in the odds, as well as with spreads and totals. So exactly why does that happen?

One of the main catalysts is betting action. As bettors weigh in with their choices, clear preferences can emerge. If a book winds up taking in most of the action on one side, they can adjust the numbers in a bid to level things out more to their liking.

Odds and lines can also move in response to information that develops after the initial release. Examples include an injury designation for a key player or a weather event that may have an impact on the proceedings.

Line movements are just something that you need to deal with when betting on sports, but remember that you can always shop around to find the best prices. There may be small ticks of difference to be found which can add up to a lot over the long run.

9 – What will I get paid on a winning bet?

So how much can you make from betting on sports? There’s no simple answer as it’ll depend on your betting amounts, the odds at time of bet placement, and your overall success rate. For single bets, the answer is much more straightforward.

When you add a choice to the betting slip and plug in your bet amount, the online sportsbook will clearly display the return you can expect for a winner. There’s also a simple way to ballpark it.

  • Negative odds tell you how much you would have to bet to win back $100 – i.e. $120 at odds of -120.
  • Positive odds tell you the return on a winning $100 bet – i.e. $250 at odds of +250.

If you’ve been winning more than you’ve been losing, then that means you’re way ahead, right? Not necessarily. In order to achieve long-term profitability, you need to win at a high enough clip to cover the vig. Also known as juice, this is essentially a fee charged by sportsbooks.

The amount of the vig varies by the odds for the bet. For a simple example, odds of -110 mean that winning wager will see a 90.9% profit come back their way. The difference between that and doubling your wager is 9.1%, which has been kept by the book as vig.

There are a number of online handicapping calculators which can help you calculate the vig on individual bets. For now, remember that it’s there and must be accounted for and to track your results on an overall basis. As an example, if you’ve placed all of your bets at odds of -110, you’d need to win 52.4% of the time just to cover the vig.

10 – How much should you bet?

A common question from new bettors revolves around how much they should bet. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer as it depends on your disposable funds and comfort level. Most importantly, you should only be betting with money you can afford to lose while never using funds that you need for any other purposes.

There’s risk involved with sports betting, and there’s no way around that. It’s possible that you could have a real rough patch in between spurts of success. If you want to make it long-term, then drill into your head the importance of budgeting.

  • Come up with a total bankroll, which can include money you want to leave on site and funds you will use to replenish as needed.
  • Keep your wagering amounts consistent.
  • For a conservative approach, wager no more than 1-2% of your total bankroll per bet.
  • A more aggressive approach could call for 3-5% per wager.

If you keep things consistent and track your results, you’ll be able to determine what’s working and what’s not rather quickly. By knowing this, you can adapt your game as opposed to continually banging your head against the wall while expecting different results to materialize.

11 – Where should you bet?   

For years, sports betting in Canada has been limited to options offered by the provincial lottery system. The menu of choices revolves around parlay bets, which require you to make multiple selections all on one ticket and be right on all of them to win.

Single-game betting at legal sportsbooks is a game changer, to say the least. The number of available options increase dramatically, and bettors can choose what works best for them and their strategy as a result.

As an added bonus, you’ll be able to handle everything online or via your phone. The convenience of online sports betting is really tough to beat. Many of the top online sportsbooks also offer up regular promotions, bonuses, free bets and other incentives for users.

In short, the options that have been offered here in Canada for years have served their purpose. They’ve at least given consumers some kind of sports betting option, after all. Moving forward, scores of bettors will quickly realize that sportsbooks are the way to go.

12 – Know what kind of bettor you are

Beyond having realistic expectations when starting out with sports betting, you should also work towards figuring out the kind of bettor you are or hope to be. For some, this will be readily apparent right from the start, while others may need some time to figure it out. The choice is ultimately yours, and there are plenty of different ways to approach.

  • Focus on a select sport or bet type
  • Spread across multiple areas
  • Zero in on a couple of games at a time
  • Take a volume approach

It all comes down to what works best for you as well as your available time. For example, those who are consistently time-crunched may prefer the flexibility of betting on sports that play less regularly, while others with more free time may prefer the constant action from daily contests.

At the end of the day, profits are always a goal when you place money at risk, but sports betting should also be fun. You’ll have a great shot at keeping it that way if you find the style that resonates with you without forcing things that just don’t work for you.

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