U.S. sport betting operators are in a furious battle to claim market share and are willing to spend large sums of money to acquire customers.

This is undoubtedly great news for the playing public, especially those situated in markets with multiple online sportsbooks, as they’ll be able to exchange their loyalty for an assortment of promos with a positive expected value.

Will the good times last? Hard to say. But for now, legal online sportsbooks are throwing free sports bets and risk-free betting bonuses at players with an almost reckless abandon.

But what’s the difference between the two, and how do you take maximum advantage of them?

What is a Free Bet?

Free bets are a credit given to players at online sportsbooks, that enables them to place a bet without incurring any inherent risk.

They’re not cash, so don’t think you can simply claim a free bet and cash it out.

Instead, you’re going to have to make a qualified wager (see terms and conditions of any offer before accepting).

Once the free bet is graded, any winnings are allocated to your cash account, and the free bet stake disappears.

For instance, let’s say you receive a $100 free bet, and decide to take a shot on the New York Knicks, which are going off at +600 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

If the bet wins you only secure the $600 win, not the $600 win plus the initial $100 stake. If it loses, your cash bankroll is no worse off than it was prior to the wager.

Generally speaking, there are three types of free bets offered by US sportsbooks:

  • Bet an amount, get an amount: This is probably the most common type of free bet. Players are first required to place a real-money bet, and sportsbooks match the wager with a free bet of equal size, up to a predetermined amount.
  • Deposit match free bets:  Instead of basing the size of the free bet on a player’s first bet, it’s matched against the size of their first deposit, again up to a certain amount.
  • No-deposit free bets: These are free bets given out by the book by new registrants. They’re extra juicy because you won’t need to place a wager of any kind to claim them. Just sign-up and go.

“Bet this amount” free bets usually have a much higher monetary cap than deposit match or no-deposit free bets. We’ve seen them run as high as $500 – $1,000 in newer online sports betting markets.

Note: a deposit match free bet isn’t the same thing as a traditional deposit match.

The latter is allocated as a bonus, not a free bet, and usually requires that a player wager the bonus a certain number of times (the wagering requirement) before it can be withdrawn. By contrast, winnings from deposit match free bets can typically be cashed out immediately.

What is a Fisk-Free Bet?

Risk-free bets are nearly identical to free bets in every way, except for one: To claim one, you’re going to have to take a loss at the sportsbook.

For instance, when sports betting sites roll out a $500 risk-free promotion, the player will first have to wager up to $500 on a bet, using their own money. If the bet wins, it’s like the promotion doesn’t even exist, with the upshot being that they’ll have procured the money from the winning wager.

If the bet loses, then they’ll receive a free bet equal to the amount of their initial wager, just as they would for a free bet offer.

Terms and conditions to look out for

So far, we have described the most common free bet and risk-free terms, but the terms surrounding an offer will vary from site to site.

Therefore, it’s critical that you read the fine print before claiming any betting offers. There’s no excuse to be lazy with your money!

Some things to look out for:

  • Bonus expiration: Often, free bets will expire after a certain number of days. It could be 3, 7, or 30. Allowing sports betting bonuses to expire is almost as bad as lighting money on fire.
  • Free bet or site credit: In rare instances, betting sites may refund a risk-free wager as site credit. This is important because site credits can be converted to cash. In other words, winning bets placed with site credit can return both the initial stake and the winnings. That’s huge.
  • Minimum odds: Some US sportsbooks require that your free bets meet certain criteria, and the most common one is minimum odds. When a free bet is only eligible at “minimum odds of -200” it means you can’t bet on heavy favorites. As we’ll see in the strategy sections, that’s not an issue.
  • Other restrictions: Free bet eligibility might be limited to straight bets, or to major markets like the NFL or NBA. Props and parlays might not be included.
  • Betting in chucks: Typically, the free bet amount is matched against the size of a player’s first wager. However, in some cases, more generous online sportsbooks will add up the real-money wagers made over a player’s first few days on the site and use the total to determine the free bet allocation.

What’s Better: Free bets or Risk-Free Offers?

In just about all cases, a free bet offer is the best promotional offer.

Free bet offers are triggered regardless of the outcome of a player’s real-money wagers  — while the risk-free wager can only be triggered if the player is already in the hole.

That being said, both promotional offers offer a positive expectation for the player.

Which Online Sports Betting Markets Offer Free Bets?

The best markets for bonus hunters are those that offer remote registration mobile wagering and have lots of online sports betting options.

With over a dozen online sportsbooks and growing, New Jersey ranks as the best of the best. There, sports bettors will be able to claim thousands of dollars worth of free and risk-free bet offers.

Ranking slightly behind are Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Colorado, all of which support more than one online sportsbook and remote registration. Of these, Pennsylvania currently has the most options, but the others are gaining traction.

Also look out for Illinois, which recently launched its online sports betting industry, and seems poised to grow it quickly. Michigan is another state that should have lots of fantastic promotional offers, once it goes live.

The second tier of markets offer online sports betting and solid promotional offers, but force players to register their online accounts at an affiliated land-based facility.

In-person registration states include Iowa and Nevada. Iowa will be lifting its in-person requirement in early 2021. As for Nevada, who knows, but at least some casinos are now partially working around the oppressive in-person mandate.

Then there are the states with lottery-run monopolies on online sports betting:

Oregon, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Washington D.C. In these states and districts you’ll only have a singular online betting option, and it probably won’t be that great, with poor lines, high vig, and tepid bonus offers.

Maximizing Your Expected Value

Just like casino bonuses, sportsbook bonuses can be maximized by implementing a sound betting strategy. However, best practices differ depending on whether the offer rewards a free bet to everyone, or just players who are down on their luck.

Free bets

Compared to risk-free promos, free bet offers are a bit easier to maximize.

Remember, free bets are usually matched against the size of your first wager. So, if a site offers a maximum free bet of $500, and you can afford it, you’d be much better off wagering $500 on one bet than splitting it up into five $100 wagers, or 10 $50 bets.

In the first case your free bet will be $500, in the second, it will be $100. Big difference.

Yes, it’s riskier to bet everything in one shot, but the most profitable ventures often are. That’s why they call it gambling, folks.

As much as you’ll want to wager the maximum amount that the sportsbook is willing to kick back, you won’t want to wager a penny more.  

This is because if an online sportsbook offers a $500 free bet promo, then wagering $600 or $1,000 is going to net you the same sized free bet as wagering $500.

Since you’re going to win the free bet no matter what, you don’t really need to get fancy with your first real-money wager. Just make the best possible bet. If NBA totals are your thing, and you’ve been following the Knicks all season, there you go, the next NYK game might be your golden opportunity.

If we were to offer advice to new bettors, it would be to stick to pregame straight bets like point spreads, totals, and moneylines, as the juice tends to be lower compared to prop, parlay, or in-game wagers.

Remember how we said play it straight with your first real-money bet? Do the opposite with the free bet. We’re not saying you should be trying to win the sun, moon, and stars, but if there’s ever a time to take a shot, it’s now.

The reasoning behind this is that, win or lose, the initial stake is not going to be returned. Therefore, players are incentivized to lengthen the odds, and the math supports it. Let’s look at an example:

Let’s say you’re thinking of placing one of three bets:

  • Bet #1: $500 to win $227.50 on an NBA moneyline (-220), where the other team is going off at +180
  • Bet #2: $500 to win $454.55 on an NFL point spread (-110 on both sides)
  • Bet #3: $500 to win $900 on an NHL moneyline (+180), where the other team is going off at -220

To eliminate bias, the juice on all three of these bets is very similar.

The juice-free implied odds of each wager winning are as follows:

  • Bet #1: 65.8%
  • Bet #2: 50%
  • Bet #3: 34.2%

If you made Bet #1, you’d win $227.50 65.8% of the time, and not make any money the remaining 34.2% of the time. Your expected value is:

                                                $227.50 * .658 = $149.70

Doing the same calculation for Bet #2 yields:

                                                $454.55 * .5 = $227.28

And finally, for Bet #3:

                                                $900 * .342 = $307.8

As you can easily see, we generate significantly more value betting on a dog, than a favorite or a coin-flip. We mentioned earlier that this is because the initial stake is not included in the winnings.

Let’s examine why:

Under normal circumstances, if we bet on a favorite, the initial stake comprises a large portion of our return.

For example, if you bet $500 on a -220 favorite, your return is the initial stake $500 plus the winnings of $227.50 for a total of $727.50. The initial stake makes up a whopping 68.7% of your return.

Conversely, on longshots, the payout makes up the lion’s share. For a +180 bet, the initial stake is just 35.7% of our return.

Now remove the initial stake from the equation, which we do for free bets. For the bet on the -220 favorite, you’re only getting 31.3% of what you’d receive normally. But the longshot still returns 64.3% of what we’d win if we were using our own money. That’s why the expected value on betting longshots with your free bets is so much better.

We can extend our example even further, by adding in a fourth bet where we bet $500 on a +800 dog, with juice free implied odds of just 10%. This represents a pretty steep VIG, but regardless, our expected value is $500 * $800 * .1 = $400, our highest number yet.

Now, it’s totally up to you how risky you want to get, just know that over the long haul you’ll be better off burning your free bets on dogs.

Maximizing Risk-Free Bets

Most of the strategies for maximizing free bet offers also apply to risk-free bet promos:

  • Bet the maximum amount that the book is willing to refund, and do it on a single wager
  • Don’t bet more than the refund cap
  • If you win a free bet, try to find a desirable longshot wager, and use it on that.

The big difference is in how you treat your initial real-money wager. If you’re going to win a free bet no matter what, there’s no real benefit in betting any differently than you normally do.

But the nature of a risk-free bet sees us altering our strategy. Now, you are entirely incentivized to make your first bet on a big longshot, because it maximizes your chance of receiving a refund, all without severely damaging the expected value of your real-money wager.

Consider two scenarios.

Scenario #1: You place a $500 wager on a -200 favorite, with a total possible return of $750 ($500 initial stake plus $250 winnings). The expectation of winning is 66.7% minus the juice: Let’s say 64%. 

64% of the time you will win $250, and 36% you’ll lose $500 for a total expectation of -$20. 36% of the time, you’ll also lock up a $500 free bet.

Let’s assume you heed our advice and bet a decent longshot with your free bet. Because of that, the expected value of your free bet is $350.

Now our total expected value is:

EV = -$20 + ($350 * .36) = $106            

Scenario #2: You place a $500 wager on a +500 underdog, with a total possible return of $3,000 ($500 initial stake plus $2,500 winnings). The expectation of winning is 16.67%, and we’ll assume the juice is high, so the actual chance of a win is only 15%.

15% of the time you’ll win $2,500, and 85% you’ll lose $500 for a total expectation of -$50. You’ll also win a free bet 85% of the time.

Assuming you’re going to make the same wager with your free bet as the player in Scenario #1, your total expectation is:

                                                EV = -$50 + ($350 * .85) = $247.5

Even though the expected value on the real-money wager in Scenario #2 was lower, due to higher juice, you’ll still come out way ahead, because you’ll be winning the free bet far more often.

Wait a minute? Are we really encouraging you to make a real-money wager on a big longshot, and then if it loses, make another wager on a big longshot? Yes we are, because if you want to maximize value, that’s what you have to do. It’s also another reason why a free bet offer is so much better than a risk-free bet promo, because you only have to make one longshot bet to boost your returns.

In the end, we’re realists, and understand if you’re not willing to go for gusto, especially if you’re only going to claim one or two offers that reward free bets.

The good news is that even if you’re risk averse, and just can’t bring yourself to bet anything that doesn’t have at least 50% chance of winning, you’ll still be playing with a pretty decisive edge.

Do what’s right for you and your bankroll.