The History of Sports Betting

Sports betting has been around for as long as sports have existed. It combines two of man’s favorite things to do: participate in and / or watch sporting events and gambling.

You can find recorded history of people casting lots and placing wagers over the past several thousand years. One of the oldest historical documents we have, the Bible, includes details about gambling taking place. (Some of the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s garments when he was on the cross. Casting lots was an early form of gambling involving marked stones or sticks.)

Ancient Sports Betting Roots

The home of the original Olympic Games, Greece, often receives credit for the origins of sports. When the Roman Empire was at its peak there are records of sporting events and gladiators and people gambling on the outcomes.

While the contestants generally participated for prizes, the real action was in the stands as the spectators bet on the outcomes of the events.

Man seems to have a built in desire to gamble on something. While I know plenty of people who don’t seem to need to gamble, I also know many who gamble on a regular basis.

I don’t know why man needs to gamble, but there’s no doubt that a percentage of the population has always participated. You may or may not be able to find a psychological explanation of why people gamble, but there’s no disputing that gambling is here to stay.

When you start looking at the history of sports in general, you don’t have to look far to find gambling associated with it.

As you track sporting events from the early Greece and Roman games up through the modern games of football, baseball, basketball and hockey there’s always been a market for placing wagers.

You can pick any century and almost any culture and you will find events and contests that were bet on. From foot races and wrestling thousands of years ago to the predecessors of bowling and horseshoes to archery and rugby in the Middle Ages and beyond, history is filled with contests and betting.

Recent Sports Betting History

When Las Vegas legalized sports betting through the sports books located in the city, it legitimized the practice in the eyes of many. The problem was that you had to walk into a sports book operation to place your wager. If you weren’t close to Vegas you didn’t have any good options if you wanted to place a bet.

You couldn’t even legally call someone and have them place your bets for you. There are specific laws in place in the United States that outlaw taking or placing wagers that use the telephone.

The Las Vegas sports books handle billions of dollars in business every year, but it’s only a small percentage of the total amount bet in the United States. If Las Vegas is one of the few places you can place a legal wager in the US, where are all the other wagers being placed?

For years the majority of sports bets in the United States were placed with local bookies. Bookies operate illegally, but are ignored by law enforcement for the most part. Notice that I said for the most part. Bookies do get arrested all of the time so it’s not the safest career path if you hope to avoid jail. While I’m not familiar with bettors getting arrested or hassled too much in comparison to the bookies, any time you are doing something that is illegal there’s a possibility you can be charged.

Many people who place bets with local bookies don’t consider it any more of a crime than driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit. While most people never get a ticket for driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit, it’s still illegal and just because you haven’t been charged yet doesn’t mean you won’t in the future.

Though it’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison, the authorities got Capone on charges that didn’t come close to covering all of the bad things he did. What I’m saying is that if you participate in illegal activities like placing bets with a local bookie, if law enforcement wants you for something else that they can’t prove they might be able to charge you for illegal betting.

Before you ignore this as something that doesn’t have anything to do with the history of sports betting, the industry has been on the fringes of crime for years. The mafia was heavily involved in sports betting in the 1900’s. You can learn a great deal about sports betting by investigating the history, both legal and illegal over the past few centuries.

In some communities the main bookie is either a part of law enforcement or has close ties to law enforcement.

Have you ever entered an NCAA basketball tournament pool? Billions of dollars are wagered on these pools every year and almost all of them fall under the area of illegal gambling.

In a community close to where I grew up, the biggest NCAA basketball bracket betting pool was run out of the prosecutor’s office for years. The biggest bookie in the adjoining county worked in the court house for many years.

You can still easily find a bookie to place bets with just about anywhere in the states. If you don’t know one, start asking your friends. I’ll bet you find one within a day.

Though local bookies still fill a need that society dictates (If society quit placing bets with the bookies there wouldn’t be any profit for the bookies and the would stop taking bets.), they aren’t the only way for people outside of Las Vegas and other legal areas to place a bet. There are hundreds of online sports books where you can place bets.

In just about any jurisdiction in the world you can find an online book maker to take your bet. Many countries have ruled these operations illegal, but that hasn’t stopped them from taking bets anyway. They are located in jurisdictions that make it hard, or even impossible, to prosecute them so they continue offering book service to people around the world.

The same things that make these online sports books hard to regulate can also make them risky to place bets with. You can find plenty of online sports books that have solid track records and offer a safe betting experience, but you can also find many that have taken advantage of sports bettors.

Before placing bets with online book makers take a few minutes to research how safe the place you are considering is. Do they have a long track record of good customer service or have they just opened? Is the Internet filled with complaints or praise?

I mentioned Las Vegas and bookies in the United States above. While the US refuses to legalize and tax sports betting across the country, there are many countries and jurisdictions around the world that do. (I’m not going to go on a long winded political rant, but surely I’m not the only one who sees the common sense in legalizing and taxing sports betting. People are doing it anyway. It’s much like prohibition. Just because it was illegal it didn’t stop people from doing it.)

The laws change so it’s impossible to keep a current list of everywhere sports betting is legal and everywhere that it isn’t. Check your local laws to find out if placing bets on sports is legal where you live. Even if it isn’t, you can probably find a bookie to take your action, just like in the US.

Modern Sports Betting

The two most popular sports to place bets on today are both called football. The worldwide game of football, called soccer in some areas, offers thousands of games every year where fans can place bets. American football, including both the NFL (professional) and NCAA (college), is also responsible for billions of dollars of betting action every year.

Other popular sports to bet on include basketball, baseball and hockey. However, you can place bets on just about any sport you can think of. I’ve seen bets placed on badminton, horse racing, car racing, Olympic sports, pool, darts, golf, swimming and ostrich races.

While it’s probably a positive that you can place bets in more places than ever before, there’s another big plus to modern sports betting. The same technology that makes placing wagers easier also makes it easier to handicap sporting events.

Handicapping sports events is using available information to determine which team or player to bet on. Most statistics are just a few clicks of the mouse away and you can watch thousands of sporting events every month. Not only are there thousands of television stations that offer sporting events you can watch sports on the Internet too.

You can buy books and magazines filled with stats and articles designed to help you pick winners and there are so-called experts who will even sell you their latest and greatest betting picks.

With all of the information, including news that is only seconds old, available today the only reason you can’t be a winning sports bettor is if you aren’t willing to work harder at it than your competition.

Of course the competition is the sports books that set the lines and take most of the bets. They invest in the best minds and the best statistics and news in order to make as much money as possible. Are you willing to do the same?


People have been betting on sports for as long as sports have been played. There’s no reason to believe this will change in the future.

The way wagers are placed has changed over the years as new technology has changed the way we communicate.

You used to need to make bets face to face with the person you were betting with. Now you can still do that, call or text your local bookie, walk into a sports book or log into an online sports book to place bets.

Please be aware that nothing on this page about the history of sports betting is legal advice. Many of the methods for placing wagers mentioned on this page are illegal in some jurisdictions. You are responsible for investigating the laws, rules and regulations where you live to decide if it is legal and / or safe for you to bet on sporting events.

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