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Betting on team and individual sports has been popular since the mid-19th century. This was especially true here in the UK, where gambling clubs in the back rooms of taverns began the practice of keeping records of wagers in books. This led to the expression "betting a book", and before long, the person who wrote the entries became known as a "bookie", slang for "bookmaker", a term which entered the English language in 1885.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the results of sporting events and horse races on either coast were broadcast across the country over telegraph lines. This led to another idiom, "playing the wire", to describe the operations of American betting clubs. Although remote betting had become possible nationwide, a federal anti-gambling law called "The Wire Act" effectively banned the practice in 1961.
Today, the organizations that take legal wagers on sporting events are known as sportsbooks. They include the well-established betting shops of Britain - BetVictor, William Hill, Bet Fred, and others - which after numerous consolidations still number about 8,500. Another 150 licensed sportsbooks can be found in Nevada, the only US state where wagering on sports other than horse racing is legal. And now, thanks to the Internet, there are at least 367 sportsbooks conducting business in English online, making sports betting accessible everywhere.
The most popular sports for wagering in North America are American football, basketball, and baseball, in that order. The former two include both professional and college versions. In the rest of the world, betting on football (soccer) dominates, and it reaches a fever pitch during the quadrennial FIFA World Cup championship playoffs. Other team sports with a strong following among bettors are Aussie Rules Football, Cricket, Gaelic Football, Futsal, Handball, Ice Hockey, Rugby League, Rugby Union, and Volleyball.
Apart from team sports, boxing has long been a popular sport for wagering, now joined by Mixed Martial Arts and UFC events. Bets can be made on tennis and golf matches, motor sports, cycling, darts, hurling, and snooker. And some sportsbooks will take wagers on the outcome of political elections, beauty contests, and television reality shows. Betting volume at sportsbooks can vary greatly throughout the year. It typically follows seasons and major events, reaching a peak when playoffs, tournaments, or championships occur.
Two types of wagers are most commonly made on the winner of a given event. One of these is known as a "straight-up" or "money line" bet, in which fixed odds are quoted. For example, when a 2-to-1 favorite wins a heavyweight fight, a winning wager of £2 pays £3 - the original £2 bet returned, plus £1. If the 2-to-3 underdog wins, the winning £2 ticket pays £5 - the original £2 bet returned plus £3. The odds are often expressed as decimals, too.
The other type of common wager is called a "spread" bet and it is usually applied to team sports, predicting how many points the favorite is expected to win by. For example, if the underdog New York Giants are quoted at +3 playing against the Dallas Cowboys, the Giants get an extra 3 points added to their score; a 28-27 loss would become a "win" for the N.Y. bettor. Spread betting is especially prevalent in the sportsbooks of Nevada, while bookmakers in Europe and Asia generally prefer to offer straight-up odds.
Sportsbooks make money whether teams or individuals win or lose. They accomplish this by "balancing the action" - i.e., attracting enough bettors on the losing side of the bet to cover the payout on the winning side. Through experience, bookmakers have learned how odds and spreads can be adjusted up or down to accomplish this. The sportsbooks then earn their profits through a small commission called the "vigorish", which is captured from the losing wagers. As long as the betting on either side of an event is about even in dollar terms, the sportsbook cannot lose.