The Basics of Sports Betting Strategy

In terms of the number of wagers placed, sports betting might be the most popular form of gambling on a global scale. With that said, it’s simultaneously the form of gambling that has the least amount of serious strategy material dedicated to it while many people give their “picks” instead. Here we show the basics of actual strategy for this popular way of playing.

Introduction to Sports Betting Strategy

Sports betting, along with poker, is considered one of the two ways that you can actually make money and have a consistent edge against the house in the gambling world if you’re good enough at it. There’s a serious skill element to it, but many people have no idea where to even start with it.

Because sports betting requires a very small amount of math when discussing strategy, many people simply avoid it and go with what feels good or whichever team they’re rooting for.

And let’s be clear about something: Not everyone needs to try to get an edge against the bookie to have a good time betting on sports. However, for those who do want to put the work in to try to win in the long run, we’re going to break down the basic ways to think about strategy so that you can try to spot good picks.

The Objective of Profitable Sports Betting

Before we get into strategy, we have to define some terms and how we’re going to be approaching the whole thing.

There are a few different systems for representing the payouts on wagers. They can all be converted from one to another, and virtually all reputable sportsbooks will allow you to easily convert from one system to another for their listings just by choosing the money line (often listed as “US” style) option.

In this way, you will see something listed along the lines of the following for an event or game:

  • Team A (-130)
  • Team B (+110)

What these numbers mean is something that is at the core of strategy in a surprising way because they actually tell you a lot more about the listings than you would otherwise think. We’ll get into this more below, but here are the basics:

  • The negative value in (-130) identifies the favorite. Here, you’d need to wager €130 to profit €100 if the favorite wins.
  • The positive value in (+110) identifies the underdog. Along similar lines, you’d need to wager €100 to profit €110 if the underdog wins.

Note that these wagers are in proportion to however much you actually bet. If you were to wager €26 on the favorite, for example, then your profit would be €20 if your pick wins.

Identifying the Gap

In sports betting strategy, we’re going to use a concept known as the gap to identify both how sportsbooks make a profit and how to identify wagers that are profitable for us to make. We’re going to focus on the favorite here, but it’ll also tell us when we can make favorable bets for the underdog.

There are two cases where we can make a wager that will be profitable on average: The favorite has to win more often than the bookie thinks, or the favorite has to lose more often than the bookie thinks.

We’ll start off by using the example above of Team A being listed at (-130). We can use this number to figure out how often the favorite has to win in order for us to make a profit.

Finding the Upper Threshold

  1. Add 130 and 100 to get 230.
  2. Divide 130 by the result in the first step of 230 to get the upper threshold percentage, which is 56.5 percent here.
  3. If the favorite wins more than this upper threshold amount (56.5 percent), then the bet is profitable for the punter.

However, we can also figure out how often the favorite has to lose for a wager on the underdog (+110) to be profitable. Here is the process to follow:

Finding the Lower Threshold

  1. Add 110 and 100 to get 210.
  2. Divide 100 by the result in the first step of 210 to get the lower threshold percentage, which is 47.6 percent in this example.
  3. If the favorite wins less than this lower threshold amount (47.6 percent), then the bet is profitable for the punter.

The upper threshold and lower threshold create something we’ll call “the gap,” which lists the conditions under which either wager is profitable for the house. In this case, if the favorite wins between 47.6 percent of the time and 56.5 percent of the time, on average, then the house will make a profit no matter which of the two wagers you place.

What You’re Trying to Accomplish

This leads us to the fundamental premise of sports betting strategy:

If you can find bets where the chances of the favorite team winning or losing falls outside of this gap, then you will be identifying winning wagers that will be profitable in the long run.

All that leaves is the question of trying to approximate the winning chances for each team, which is its own process.

Estimating Winning Chances

Once you have an idea of what it is that you’re trying to accomplish in terms of finding wagers that fall outside of the gap we defined up above, you’re left with the task of actually trying to estimate the winning chances of different match-ups. This is really where the art and science of strategic sports betting comes into play.

Something we want to note is that there is no one, specific right way to do this. Instead, you have a lot of room for subjective work, but there are ways to go about it that are better than others, and we’re going to get you started with an understanding of the tools, approaches and best practices used.

The Tools of the Trade

There are two main tools that you’ll want to use. The first is some sort of basic spreadsheet program. This doesn’t have to be something that’s paid, and there are plenty of free options like Google Docs, Sheet32, OpenOffice, LibreOffice and others. If you already have Microsoft Excel or a similar spreadsheet program on your computer, then that will be fine as well.

Another tool is access to the data that you will be using to make your decisions and calculations. There are plenty of places to find this on the Internet for free depending on what it is you want and how detailed you want to be with your analysis.

However, the bottom line is that these are really the only two tools you need, and anyone who tries to sell you some type of special “system” or “picks” are really just trying to fleece you. If they were so skilled at picking winners, then they would just make a killing at sports betting themselves.

What we want to do is use this spreadsheet to organize the data that we’re going to put into it and to perform updated calculations automatically.

How to Use the Data to Create a Model

The basic idea is that you’ll want to try to create a model with the data that’s available to estimate the chances of the favorite winning (which is the same as estimating the chances of the underdog losing). From there, you can identify spots where you think the winning chances are outside of the gap, and these are where you place your wagers.

The exact data you use and how you use it can vary, and it’s up to you to try different things to figure out what you will think can work. However, in a game like basketball, American football or football (soccer), there’s a pretty standard approach that most people start with, and it looks like this:

  1. Start by looking at a history of how many points, on average, each team has scored against common opponents.
  2. From there, look at how many points, on average, each team has given up against common opponents.
  3. This will provide your starting point for figuring out an estimate for how the score will look for the game, on average, and what the chances are of each side winning.

From this basic process, once you have things set up in your spreadsheet to do the calculations that you decide on, you can start to add more complications to things. For example, you could look at how each team performed against other teams that aren’t common opponents but that have similar records or level of skill.

Here are some other things that you can try to factor into your model:

  • If a star player is injured, then that will obviously penalize that team’s average score (and perhaps their ability to defend against scoring as well).
  • Playing home or away will affect things as well as teams generally perform better at home games.
  • If it’s a playoff game or part of a major tournament, you may need to factor that in as well since some teams and players have historically played better or worse under that pressure.

There are obviously a lot of other things that you can try to incorporate into your model, but it’s up to you as to how you weigh them.

How to Test Your Model

If you want to test your model to see how it performs, you can use old data from previous seasons with other teams and see how things turn out. All of this data is available online, and while it may take you a little while to find it and put it into your spreadsheet, there’s something really important to consider:

The best indicator of the future performance of your model is consistently seeing that this model would perform well over the past few years.

While this approach obviously isn’t perfect, it’s something to use to try to hone things down to see how they perform. The basic idea is to simply put in the data for plenty of past games or events and to see how well you estimate the winning chances for each team. Keep up with your results over several dozen games, and if your picks keep coming up correct, then you have more of an indication that you have a winner.

Another way to test your model is to make low-stakes bets over time until you have a pretty significant sample size built up and go for bigger money. This allows you to see how your model performs in real time without any of the potential trappings of using old data.

With all of this in mind, remember that the main thing to test is profit when it comes to your model. You don’t want to see if you can correctly guess who wins since being the underdog or favorite will determine that for you. Instead, you want to see if you can find potential wagers that are outside of the gap that we established up above.

Advanced Modeling Ideas

If you really want to get in-depth with your modeling, the next place to go is to move past figuring out what the average score will be for each team and moving toward the chances of each team having different scores in each match-up.

For a simple example, you might try to estimate the chances of a team scoring 0, 1, 2, 3 or 4+ in a football/soccer match. From there, you can calculate the estimated chances of each combination of scores, which in turn would allow you to calculate the chances of each team winning and losing as well as chances for ties.

This is a more advanced type of strategy that is a bit beyond the scope of any discussion of basics, but we want to give readers an understanding of where to go once they have the basics understood.


There are people who have gotten so good at sports betting online that they have been offered jobs by sportsbooks to help them figure out better “gaps” to use to win against the general public. We say that to say this: It is definitely possible to use the types of processes we have discussed above to get really good at sports betting, and it is definitely possible to turn a profit in the long run.

However, you absolutely must understand the gap concept and put in some work on developing your own models for estimating the winning chances for each team in different events if you want to get there and really see how far things can be taken in this regard.