As the name implies, “futures” bets refer to results beyond a specific game. Generally futures have to do with the outcomes of whole seasons or years.
So if you were to bet on how many Majors Tiger Woods will win before the commencement of the PGA tour, or bet on a certain horse to win the Triple Crown before the first of the three Triple Crown races-the Kentucky Derby-is run, those would be futures.
On team sports of course you can bet who will win the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, etc.
And not always just the overall winner. For instance if you were betting baseball futures, there are lines not only on who will win the World Series, but who will win the American and National League pennants, and who will win each of the divisions.
Another fairly common futures bet for the major team sports is team win totals, where you bet Over or Under a projected number of wins for a team. So the line on, say, the Dolphins in the NFL might be 7.5, meaning you can bet Over (which is the Dolphins to win at least 8 games) or Under (which is the Dolphins to win no more than 7 games).
A couple of things to keep in mind about futures: Almost all sportsbooks have a rule in place that regardless of when a bet is mathematically “clinched” as a win or loss, they will not grade futures until a season is over. So if you bet the Twins to win Over 77 games in Major League Baseball, and the Twins win their 78th game on September 15, likely your sportsbook won’t grade that wager and pay you until the season is over in October. (My experience, though, is if you make a specific request to have such a wager graded when it’s clinched, especially if you speak with a manager, about half the sportsbooks will grade it early for you as a courtesy.)
Relatedly, on wagers such as the team win totals, there is generally a rule that the entire season must be played or all bets are voided. For a sport like football where there are comparatively few games scheduled, every game must be played-16 out of 16 for the NFL. There’s a little more leeway for a sport like baseball, because there are so many games, and because Major League Baseball has a policy to not bother making up rainouts very late in the season if the games wouldn’t affect who makes the playoffs or playoff seeding. So most sportsbooks require a minimum of 160 or 161 baseball games to be played, rather than the full 162 out of 162.
So if there’s a strike or a terrorist attack or whatever that cancels a chunk of a season, all futures bets are cancelled, including those that mathematically were already settled, such as the aforementioned example of the Twins going over their line of 77 two to three weeks before the end of the season. (Which is why sportsbooks are reluctant to grade such wagers as wins or losses early. Technically they really aren’t wins or losses until enough games have been played for that team to count as having played a full season.)
One reason some bettors look down on futures is that sportsbooks tend to add even more juice (or vigorish) to the lines than they do with standard straight bets on single games.
Really the reason they do is because they can. Where there’s a two-sided line, like a game where the Ravens are -4.5 and the Bengals are +4.5, a sportsbook can’t charge more than -110 on each side without it being obvious they’re gouging their customers. But when it’s a 32-sided line, like odds on all the NFL teams to win the Super Bowl, customers can’t tell at a glance if their sportsbook is charging unusually high or unusually low juice just from looking at the lines. It takes a lot of mathematical calculations that most folks would have no clue how to do. So the sportsbooks exploit that opportunity to increase their percentage hold.
But I think this point is overrated. Yes, if you just look at an individual sportsbook, chances are you’re getting a pretty poor deal on futures. (Though not so much on the two-sided futures like the team win totals where you’re just betting Over or Under a certain number.) But on the flip side, there tends to be quite a bit more line variance from sportsbook to sportsbook on futures than on most straight bets. So if you’re shopping lines at multiple sportsbooks (which you certainly should be doing if you’re serious about this at all), you’ll likely end up paying very little juice.
That is, if instead of looking at all the Super Bowl futures at a single sportsbook, you looked at the odds at all ten of the sportsbooks where you have an account, and took the best odds on the Bills, the best odds on the Dolphins, the best odds on the Patriots, etc. for all 32 teams, not only would the juice you’re paying not be excessive, I wouldn’t be surprised if the collective juice on all those teams was less than zero, i.e., that if you placed just the right size bets on all 32 teams, you could guarantee a very small profit.
So I wouldn’t worry too much about paying excessive juice on futures if you’re shopping lines properly.
But the other factor that one must always be aware of with futures is that, assuming you’re not playing on credit, they tie up your money for a long time.
Now if you’re a recreational player and you’re probably going to lose anyway, go for it. It doesn’t hurt you to set aside a certain percentage of your bankroll on futures; if anything it might even save you a few bucks, if you hit some futures and don’t get paid until it’s too late to then lose the winnings back on other wagers.
But the reason pros often shy away from futures is they want to keep their money working for them, they want to keep churning through their bankroll.
Imagine you’re a winning baseball handicapper, and you’re considering taking $1,000 of your bankroll and betting it on a futures bet you love that has odds of even money and you project has a whopping 60% chance to win. That’s a really solid play, as 60% of the time you’ll win $1,000 and 40% of the time you’ll lose $1,000, for a net value of $200.
But on the other hand, if you kept that $1,000 in your bankroll for your normal day-to-day betting, it could have a lot more value. Even if you only pick baseball winners at a rate barely above break even, churning through your bankroll dozens and dozens of times over the course of a 162 game season means you’re probably going to benefit a lot more than $200 by having that extra $1,000 to bet with.
Then of course there’s also the fact that sportsbooks aren’t exactly FDIC insured. Maybe if you’re placing all your bets at a highly regulated, major hotel casino in Las Vegas you can be confident your sportsbook will still be around to pay you four or six months from now when your futures bets come to fruition. But most sportsbooks, such as legal offshore sportsbooks in the Caribbean and Latin America, no matter how good their track record and reputation, carry with them considerably more risk. It’s always nice to be able to withdraw your money in full at the first sign of trouble or the first rumors that they might be struggling financially.
But you can’t do that if you have pending futures that won’t be settled for weeks or months.
So there are certainly pros and cons to betting futures, but you should always factor in the fact that-win or lose-they’ll tie up your money for a long period of time.