Proposition betting – usually shortened to prop betting – has been around for about as long as people have been able to agree on a bet. Many a gambler has a tall tale ready about lining his or her pockets with an epic prop bet win. Some, like Titanic Thompson, have made fortunes on prop bets and become the stuff of gambling folklore.
So, what is a prop bet? How does prop betting work and what sports lend themselves best to props? What’s the best way to approach prop betting?
We’ll go over the answers to these questions as we run down all things prop betting.
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What is a prop bet?
They relate to the result of the game (or half, quarter, period, etc.).
Prop betting gets more granular. Prop betting seeks to proposition the bettor with a question, one that may or may not have direct bearing on the final score. For example:
- Will Tom Brady throw for more than 350 yards?
- Will Freddie Freeman hit a home run?
- How many rebounds will LeBron James collect?
Prop betting at legal sportsbooks has only exploded in popularity fairly recently. The onus of regulatory approval and the comparatively low limits in props contributed to many sportsbooks deciding not to bother offering them.
But as gamblers’ demand for them increased, prop bets have become more widely available in recent years. The bigger the event, the more varied and exotic – so named for their unusual nature – are the props. The Super Bowl in particular has become a testing ground for the creativity of bookmakers.
Be aware that sportsbooks in some states may limit the availability of prop bets. For example, you can’t place prop bets on college athletes in Iowa.
Which sports are best for prop bets?
Prop bets most often function based on the ability to count something. Thus, sports like basketball and football, which have a wide variety of counting stats, function as the best ones for prop betting.
Here are some examples of prop bets commonly offered across a variety of sports.
Football prop bets
Every play in football offers the chance for several players to accumulate stats. Even a simple halfback dive for one yard gives the running back a carry and a yard gained, while a defender gets credit for a tackle.
A good rule of thumb: if it’s a countable stat in fantasy sports, you can probably find a prop bet for it. Popular football props include:
- Passing yards
- Rushing yards
- Receiving yards
- Distance of longest TD
Basketball prop bets
Basketball players can accumulate an even wider range of stats than football players. Here are some popular basketball prop bets:
Baseball prop bets
Props bets are a little more limited but still popular among some bettors in baseball. The most popular props are probably pitcher strikeout totals and yes/no markets for individual hitters to smack a home run.
Hockey prop bets
Prop betting in hockey usually centers around yes/no markets for players to score goals. Other markets include penalty minutes, shots and goalie saves.
Soccer prop bets
Much like hockey, soccer props often revolve around goals, assists, shots and red/yellow cards. Again, the dearth of counting stats makes props a little more limited compared to a sport like football or basketball.
How do prop bet markets work?
Prop markets are a subset of what’s known as derivative markets – that is, the numbers offered derive from those in other markets.
A simple intuitive example comes from a quarterback’s total passing yards prop. Let’s say a game has a total of 52, a fairly high over/under in the NFL. Maybe the quarterback on the favored team has a passing prop over/under 299.5. Again, this would be a fairly high total that derives from the high game total. The market expects the game to be a high-scoring shootout, therefore, the QBs will likely have passing yardage props on the high end.
Now, imagine the team’s entire receiving corps got sick and was declared out a few days before the game. Note that this actually happened to the Browns when they played the Jets last season, so it’s not as far fetched as you might think. The game’s total will likely drop, along with the team’s total. The QB’s passing prop, which derives from these markets, should drop as well, assuming it was posted early enough.
In actuality, this doesn’t always happen, which can create some value for the bettor. We’ll talk about this later.
Generally speaking, prop bets have low limits. Most sportsbooks offer max bets on props at a fraction of the max for things like moneyline bets and over/unders.
Also, many props don’t get posted until the day of the game. A notable exception to this would be the Super Bowl, when prop markets get posted more than a week in advance at some sportsbooks.
Also note that primetime/island games typically offer the biggest selection of props since the sportsbooks expect more interest and handle for these games. They therefore want a more robust selection of markets for their customers.
Once posted, prop markets can move quickly. A few limit bets on the under might move a running back’s prop from, say, 85.5 to 80.5. Or, maybe the vig, or the juice, gets moved. Instead of shifting from 85.5 to 80.5 maybe the sportsbook moves the price on the under from -110 all the way to -160.
Should I bet props?
If you hope to make money on sports betting, but you don’t have a large bankroll, betting props is probably a great option for you.
That’s because you can expect prop lines to be considerably less sharp than something like an NFL spread. That concept comes as a natural extension of the lower limits on props. And it’s not hard to see why.
Simply go to the prop markets on a given NFL game. The sportsbooks often post dozens and dozens of prop markets for a given game. They don’t have time to make sure each and every market is well set, so they just rely on low limits to keep their exposure in check.
By contrast, if you like to bet big, prop betting probably isn’t for you. You may need to make a special arrangement with your sportsbook in order to get down large bets on props.
Tips for prop bets
Now that you know all about how prop betting markets work, how should you attack them?
Using derivative theory
Again, we must always keep in mind that props derive from game lines and totals. So, when lines move, we should adjust our expectation of props in response to these moves.
But, again, this doesn’t always happen. You can take advantage by quickly pouncing in response to market moves.
For example, say you’re monitoring the lines for Week 1 of the NFL season. You notice the total drops a couple of points for Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe a key offensive player sustained an injury in warm-ups or a storm has rolled in late that could depress offensive production.
When the total drops, the prop markets don’t always move in kind. Bettors may be rushing to bet the under, which is moving, but they may be slower to hit, say, under on Baker Mayfield’s passing yards.
In that spot, you can tail the steam in a roundabout fashion, betting under on Mayfield before the market moves in line with the total.
Line shopping, always critical, plays an even larger role in prop betting than other types of wagers. That’s because where something like an NFL spread typically settles on a market consensus number, prop markets can vary wildly from one sportsbook to the next. You might find a discrepancy as large as 25 yards between two sportsbooks’ markets on the same quarterback’s passing yardage.
Good luck finding differences like that on sharp markets.
Other forces affecting prop bet markets
Pay special attention to injuries and coaching tendencies. If you pay close attention and take mental notes on situational trends, you can stay a step ahead of the market and find value.
A key injury tends to have a wide range of potential impacts, and the market may not always react thoroughly and/or correctly.
For example, say a high-profile, high-usage NBA point guard sustains an ankle injury and will miss several weeks. You’ve noticed that when this player goes to the bench, the team tends to run their offense through a wing player or big rather than his backup. The backup’s points and assists markets will likely open too high for the first couple of games he starts, and you can hammer under until the market adjusts.
Or, maybe it’s a point guard with a deliberate, half court style of play like Chris Paul who went down, and the backup loves to get out in transition. You might find value in several of his teammates’ overs because you expect a higher pace than the market. This rising tide may lift all boats.
Try to think of all possible angles when a market-shifting injury occurs.
Coaching philosophies, at least on a micro level, can sometimes shift fairly quickly. The market may not reflect this right away. For instance, maybe you notice a team in the NFL has made more of an effort to get a rookie receiver involved lately, but the player’s stats haven’t reflected it yet. Maybe he drew some flags or dropped a big pass that has kept his numbers in check. You can probably get some value betting his yardage and receptions over until he has an inevitable big game.
The over bias in prop bets
Recreational bettors show a well-known bias toward overs versus unders in most betting markets. Maybe they have more fun rooting for overs, or maybe they tend to bet with their hearts and expect big games from their favorite or star players.
Regardless of the reasoning, you can take advantage by biasing the other way. The sportsbooks, well aware of this bias, often shade prop numbers toward the over, meaning you can generally find more value on unders.
Of course, plenty of overs can hold value as well. Just keep in mind the over bias when you’re looking over prop numbers and remember that the low limits often keep these markets from becoming sharp. In other words, the market won’t necessarily iron out this inefficiency.
The vig in prop bets
Finally, make sure you don’t forget to take a given market’s vig into account when betting props. We already mentioned that sportsbooks use low limits to keep their exposure in check on props, but they always use high juice at times.
Where you’ll usually find vig of 5% or less on major markets, sportsbooks will often protect themselves on props by increasing the vig. They’ll sometimes post -120 or even higher on both side of a prop market. That greatly increases the breakeven point on your bet, so tread cautiously.
Do the math on the vig if you find yourself unsure, and avoid betting into high-vig markets. You can find more info about that here.
Why was my prop bet canceled?
Sometimes, you’ll put in a prop bet only to check later and see the sportsbook returned your bet. What happened?
In many cases, a player you bet on may not have appeared in the game. This usually voids any prop bets relating to that player. So, if you expect to get one over on the books by quickly betting a player’s yardage under when he’s announced out, you should disabuse yourself of that notion.
Other situations that can void your props bets include game postponement or change of venue. Suspended games that don’t mean your sportbook’s house minimum for action may also result in canceled bets.
“Palps” or errors also happen somewhat more frequently on props than other markets due to their relative lack of exposure. That is, bettors or sportsbook workers will usually quickly find errors in major markets. So, if you find a palp – maybe a player has +300 on no TD scored instead of -300 – you might have to fight the book to get paid in the best case. Worst case, an unregulated sportsbook may freeroll you and only give action if you lose.
Consult your sportsbook’s house rules if you’re unsure how they’ll handle or grade a given situation regarding a prop bet.
Prop betting origins
Prop bets became popular in the United States with the Super Bowl. The specific explosion of prop betting started at the Westgate in Las Vegas (previously known as Las Vegas Hilton). The team at the Las Vegas SuperBook was the first Nevada sportsbook operator to offer a large number of prop bets for an individual game.
Today, all sportsbook operators in Nevada offer hundreds of Super Bowl prop bets, and online sportsbook operators in New Jersey (like DraftKings Sportsbook), Pennsylvania and more legalized states have followed.
Prop betting started modestly with the Super Bowl but continues to grow. Some sportsbook operators offer prop bets every week during the pro football season. Fewer sportsbook operators offer prop bets every day for other sports. The evolution of prop betting in United States sportsbooks is taking the wagers off the field.
Exotic prop bets
Exotic prop bets are only offered by some sportsbooks around the world. These non-traditional prop bets are not necessarily based on activities that take place during a game. The most popular of these exotic prop bets, such as the length of the national anthem or the coin toss results, happen during the Super Bowl.
These props can be as outlandish as the sportsbook operator wants them to be. They usually take place during the most publicly popular events such as a Royal Wedding in the United Kingdom or who will play a specific role in a movie series.
While they may be fun, most of these kinds of exotic proposition bets are not legal in America. This could change in Nevada and in other states that may legalize sports betting.
Personal prop bets
Proposition betting doesn’t only take place in a sportsbook. Bets with a friend for random activities also fall into the category of a prop bet. For example, a bet that a friend can’t finish 40 pushups during a game of poker might be considered a personal prop bet between friends.