Sports Betting 101: What are parlays and what's the appeal for bettors?

If you have bet on sports or know anyone who does, you’ve likely heard some version of this: I was thisclose to a huge parlay win, but the sixth team in my six-team parlay blew it for me.

And this is why sportsbooks offer parlays.

Before we get to the appeal and heartbreak of parlays, we need to go over what they are. The basic parlay is pretty easy to understand: You bet multiple games at increased odds, but you need to win every game to win the bet. Winning three of four games on a four-team parlay just means you lost the parlay.

And that allure of a big payday has launched countless sob stories.

What are parlays?

The payout for parlays grows exponentially as you add teams to it. Here are BetMGM’s odds for parlays:

2 Teams +260
3 Teams +600
4 Teams +1000
5 Teams +2000
6 Teams +4000
7 Teams +8000
8 Teams +15000
9 Teams +30000
10 Teams +60000
11 Teams +110000
12 Teams +200000
13 Teams +300000
14 Teams +600000
15 Teams +1000000

Those odds assume all teams are -110 odds with a point spread. A $100 two-team parlay would pay $260, a three-team parlay would pay $600, and so forth. So yes, a $100 15-team parlay would pay a cool $1 million.

It’s easy to see why you’d want to bet one team, and then another, and maybe another. The dreams of turning a few bucks into a fortune appeals to everyone. Sportsbooks don’t mind announcing when some bettor does strike it big, turning a $5 bet into a few thousand. It’s the lottery of sports betting.

But if you’ve ever bet a parlay, you know how hard it is. As we know, when you’re betting parlays, going 14-1 is a loss.

If you play parlays, you have experienced a crushing defeat. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)
If you play parlays, you have experienced a crushing defeat. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

Parlays result in plenty of tough losses

While acknowledging nobody wants to hear someone else’s bad beat story, many of us have one like this: In 1999, the first two legs of my three-team baseball parlay came through. All I needed was the Cleveland Indians, who won 97 games that season, to hold a 7-0 lead over the Kansas City Royals. Future Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon was on the mound for the Indians. And I lost my parlay when the Royals scored 10 run in the bottom of the eighth. We all have a tale similar to that one.

For the craziest bad beat story you’ll ever read, my colleague Eric Edholm wrote about the time a homeless man lost the final leg of a 10-team parlay when then-New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri ran in a meaningless two-point conversion after the Buffalo Bills left the field following a controversial call on the final play. You won’t find one worse than that.

And most of us still keep betting parlays.

There are other types of parlays. You can parlay teams on the moneyline, which eliminates the point spread, but if they’re big favorites it decreases the payouts you see above (though if you want to parlay underdogs, it would increase the payout).

There are exotic types of parlays, like a round robin in which you don’t have to win every single game to win the bet. You can read more about the various parlay bets at BetMGM, though those are usually for advanced bettors.

Most amateur bettors understand parlay bets. If you’ve won a four-team NFL parlay, you remember it forever and keep chasing that feeling. Even if the road is paved with bad parlay beats.

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