If you're new to sports betting it may not be apparent how important it is that you pick a good bookmaker to place your bets at. Sure, you're going to want to give dodgy or blacklisted bookies a miss, but there's much more to picking a bookmaker than simply avoiding the bad players in the industry.
Picking the right bookmaker will not just ensure you're dealing with a reputable organization, but also:
- Improve your lifetime returns from online betting.
- Reduce stress and delays when something goes wrong on your account.
- Make it easier for you to get money in, and out of, your betting account.
In this article we'll break down the bookie business for your and help you find the right bookmaker for your needs. If you want to skip ahead to a list of the best bookies, then you can do that here.
Introduction to Bookmakers
'Bookmakers' is the term commonly used in the UK to describe companies and individuals who offer a 'book' on sports events. The term dates to at least the 1400s when it was used to describe individuals who took bets on events, and the books they kept to record these bets. Today bookmakers are often referred to as bookies, and are also known as sportsbooks.
There are dozens of licensed bookmakers currently operating in the United Kingdom. These range from small startups to massive companies that have been in business for several decades and employ tens of thousands of people. Modern bookmakers may operate brick and mortar betting shops, online websites, or a combination of the two.
What all bookmakers have in common is that they offer odds, also called prices, on different potential outcomes in a variety of sporting events. The odds roughly reflect the probability of the outcomes in these sports events and provide customers with the ability to wager money on a potential outcome and make a profit if this outcome is realized during the event they bet on.
Understanding the Different Types of Bookmakers
There are three different types of bookmakers active in the United Kingdom:
- Traditional brick-and-mortar bookmakers operate out of high street shops. Customers can place their bets on betting machines in the shops or with the assistance of shop assistants. Despite the growth in online sports betting there are still hundreds of high street bookmakers operating in the United Kingdom. These bookies also offer their facilities at racecourses.
- Online bookmakers run their operations online using websites and betting apps. While all high street bookmakers operate betting websites, not all online bookmakers also operate brick and mortar stores. The world's biggest online bookmakers originated in either the United Kingdom or Ireland, although all of them now serve international audiences.
- Betting exchanges are not technically bookmakers. Instead they are offer online betting software that allows their customers to bet against each other in a wide selection of betting markets. In return for offering this service betting exchanges take a cut of every transaction between their customers. As a result betting exchanges profits are entirely independent of the outcome of sports events.
Assessing the Credibility and Reputation of Bookmakers
The first thing you want to know when opening an account with a bookmaker is that they will safely process financial transaction, are required to meet some sort of regulatory standards around transparency and fairness, and that they offer their customers a satisfactory betting experience.
Licensing and Regulation
The most important way to establish the credibility of a bookmaker is to check whether they are regulated by a government body and whether they are licensed to operate in your country.
Bookmakers operating without a license to operate in your country are immediately suspect as they are already breaking the law.
Meanwhile, bookmakers that are not regulated by a government regulatory body are not subject to any scrutiny of how they operate their businesses.
Unfortunately, just because a bookmaker is regulated doesn't mean the regulator body itself is reputable.
For example, some bookmakers will register with regulatory bodies in developing countries that were established to give bookies credibility and the ability to operate in markets that would otherwise be closed to them.
If you are opening an account in the UK or Ireland, you'll want your bookmaker to be regulated by the UK Gambling Commission, the Gibraltar Betting and Gaming Association or the Malta Gaming Authority.
Customer reviews have become an important trust signal for many companies, and bookmakers are no exception. By reading customer reviews on websites like Trustpilot you'll get a good sense of how reputable a bookmaker is compared to its rivals.
However, do keep in mind that these reviewing websites tend to be weighted towards the negative, as users are far more likely to review a bookie when they are unhappy with some aspect of the service they received.
This means that even very good bookies won't achieve high scores. However, they will still score higher than rivals who provide an overall poor customer experience.
Look out for the following themes when assessing a bookmaker on a review website:
- Large numbers of reviewers alleging restriction of their winning betting accounts.
- Reviewers complaining about cash being withheld in restricted or closed accounts.
- Reviewers complaining about management of any financial transactions on the website.
- Large numbers of short, positive reviews - particularly for newer bookies. This can indicate attempts to artificially manipulate the bookie's rating to be favourable.
Comparing Odds and Payouts
It's easy to take the odds a bookie offers you at face value. In many cases these will be similar across bookies for any given market at any given time. And what difference does it make if one bookie is paying fractionally higher odds on a selection you want to bet on?
Competitive Odds and Margins
The answer is that it makes a very big difference indeed. Over the long term a bookie that pays lower odds than its competitors will significantly reduce the overall return you make from online betting and reduce the overall value of every bet where you could have achieved a better price at another bookie.
While no bookie will always deliver the best odds on every market, there are significant differences, on average between the value that different bookmakers offer.
This difference is determined by the overround that each bookie builds into its prices. In a nutshell this overround is the difference between the odds a bookmaker offers across all outcomes in a specific betting market and the combined probability of these outcome occurring.
If betting markets accurately represented reality, the probability of every outcome of a betting market occurring would be 100%. However, when you throw in the overround the combined probability of these events occurring goes over 100%, and this difference is the bookie's profit margin for that market.
How does the overround impact you as a punter?
It lowers the odds you bet at, which lowers your payouts when you win. And the impact of these lower payouts can really stack up over time.
There are two ways to get an idea of how good a bookie's odds are:
- Use an odds comparison service. This will show you the odds bookies are offering on a market side-by-side. Once you have viewed several markets, you'll quickly get a picture of which bookmakers offer higher odds more frequently.
- Do the calculations yourself. Take several markets from a bookmaker you're interested in joining, such as their Premier League match betting markets, and use an overround calculator to calculate the overround. The go to another bookie and do the same thing for the same selection of matches and markets. You'll be surprised to see that the difference in overrounds can be considerable.
Evaluating the Range of Betting Options
It's always nice to have options when betting on bookmakers, whether that is having a variety of sports to bet on or having more ways to bet on a single sports event. In addition, it can make a real difference to your betting experience if your bookmaker offers frequent specials, or features like free live streaming.
Bookmakers cover the same core selection of sports, including all popular spectator sports in the United Kingdom. The differences in sports coverage are only likely to affect you if you want to bet on fringe sports like harness racing or padel, in which case you're going to be best off defaulting to the big name bookies like bet365 and William Hill.
While sports variety is unlikely to impact your betting experience at a bookie, the depth of coverage of each sport will. One bookie may offer 30 markets on a football match while another may offer over 100.
More markets mean more opportunities to find value when betting on an event, so in general you'll want to have access to the widest variety of sports betting markets once you've gotten the hang of sports betting.
In-Play Betting and Live Streaming
In-Play betting has been around for long enough that you will find it on offer at any online bookmaker worth their salt.
The only real difference you're likely to encounter between bookies when it comes to in-play betting is the number of events they have covered. Bigger bookies are likely to have a wider selection of events covered in-play, as well as more markets on each event.
As a beginner this is unlikely to be a deal breaker either way, since in-play markets will be available for the most popular sports and events at most online bookies.
What is more important is having access to live streaming.
This allows you to conveniently access live streams for any event you have bet on directly from the device you have placed your bet. This is very useful if you're on the move, don't own a television set or subscribe to a sports broadcasting service, or just like the convenience of betting on sports and watching them from a single app of website.
Live streaming is not available at many bookmakers due to the expensive licensing costs that comes with this service. Instead, you'll tend to find live streaming offer by the big bookmakers. When bookies offer live streaming, this can vary quite a bit in terms of:
- Which sports and events are covered.
- Which territories are allowed to access these streams.
- Whether streams are 100% free to registered users or require a qualifying bet.
For example, when it comes to two of the biggest bookies in the business:
- bet365 streams well over 200,000 sports events every year, with sports covered including high profile horse racing, football, tennis, basketball and more. To watch you'll need a funded account or to have placed a bet within the last 24 hours.
- William Hill TV specialises in horse racing streaming, broadcasting racing live from racecourses around the UK. All you need to do to access these streams is an account at William Hill.
Special Bets and Betting Features
Special markets give you the ability to place different bets to the ones you will find in the standard betting markets at most bookmakers. These range from novelty bets, like betting on a presidential candidate or reality show winner, to being able to construct your own bets.
In many cases special bets and features are gimmicky attempts by larger bookmakers to distinguish themselves from the other major players in the industry. This means that while they sound novel or exciting, they will often have little real value to add to the beginner's betting experience.
There are exceptions, however. For example, bet365's each-way extra markets allow you to get paid more places in many horse racing betting markets in exchange for lower payouts on the place portion of each-way bets. This can make a big difference to your chances of getting a return on qualifying races.
Assessing User Experience and Interface Design
If you're new to sports betting being able to find events and markets you want to bet on without too much hassle is important.
Mobile App and Website Usability
The good news is that user experience and website design have improved for all major bookmakers and you're unlikely to struggle finding your way around their websites or apps. Many bookmakers share the same basic designs and platforms syndicated to them by betting software developers, so while some designs might be prettier than others the basics of how betting sites operate aren't going to differ much.
That said, there are some differences between how bookmakers manage events and markets, and the degree of accessibility on offer when you try to access value-add features like live streaming. There are no hard and fast rules about works here, however, and finding the right bookie in this department will come down to your individual preferences.
Fortunately, you can get a good feel for bookmaker app and website usability by accessing the website or app without registering an account. If you can find the sports, events, and markets that you want to bet on quickly and easily, then that bookie has ticked your usability box. If you can't then you'll need to keep testing out websites until you find one that provides a hassle-free browsing experience.
Analysing Payment Methods and Financial Security
Payment methods are an easy detail to overlook when you are shopping around for a bookmaker but are going to have a big impact on your overall betting experience. You also want a guarantee that your financial transactions with a bookmaker will be processed securely and promptly.
Deposit and Withdrawal Options
Bookmakers tend to offer the same core selection of deposit and withdrawal options, but there can be a lot of variation when it comes to the full range of deposit and withdrawal options available.
The important thing from your perspective is not variety so much as that a bookmaker offers the specific deposit and withdrawal options you'll need to transact on your account.
Some bookmakers, like William Hill, make this information readily available while others may bury this information deeper in their websites or require you to sign up to view these options.
While various 3rd party websites will also feature this information, it is better to get deposit and withdrawal options directly from a bookie website as 3rd party info can easily become outdated.
Transaction Fees and Processing Times
Transaction fees and processing times are both going to impact your betting experience. Transaction fees are more likely to be levied by your banking institution than your bookie, but it is possible your bookmaker may slap additional fees onto transactions.
Processing times are more likely to be influenced by the deposit and withdrawal methods selected more than anything the bookmaker is doing. However, you obviously do want to avoid bookmakers that delay withdrawals for any reason.
Bookmakers who publish information on their deposit and withdrawal methods may include information on processing times with this information, as is the case with William Hill. In other cases, you may need to go through a transaction to find out what times of time frames are involved.
Security Measures and Data Protection
Keeping your transactions secure is always going to be important and you'll want your data to remain where it belongs.
Bookmakers will typically publish their privacy policies on their websites, usually through a link located right at the bottom of the website. This will provide you with information on how your data is managed.
Getting a clear idea of how security on transactions works is trickier. This will depend on whether bookmakers use 3rd party secure payment services or have developed their own in-house systems.
Contacting your bookmaker's customer care is one way to find out what kind of systems they have in place. Scanning reviews at Trustpilot will also alert you to any issues a bookmaker has with the security measures it has for financial transactions.
Customer Support and Service Quality
Customer support is one of the most important things to look at when considering a bookmaker. You need to know that if things go wrong, you'll have rapid access to friendly, fast assistance.
Availability of Support Channels
The number of support channels offered by bookmakers varies. Some of the standard support channels include:
- Live chat
Of these channels live chat is by the far the most useful as you can get a customer service agent on the line as soon as you run into issues. Phone support runs a close second, provided support services are not restricted to business hours.
Some bookmakers limit their customer support services to email. Watch out for these as this means you can't secure live help services, which in turn means inevitable delays in communication, even when your query is urgent.
Response Time and Effectiveness
Response times to support queries are going to depend on what support channels are available from a bookie. As we already mentioned, you preferably want access to live chat as this ensures rapid response times.
Customer support effectiveness is a lot harder to pin down, even if you have instant access to a support team member on live chat. The easiest way to gauge customer support is to check out bookie reviews on TrustPilot - this should quickly give you an idea of how effective bookies are at dealing with issues when they arise.
Exploring Bonuses, Promotions, and Loyalty Programs
Bonuses, promotions, and loyalty programs can have a major impact on the long term profitability of your sports betting. When used strategically, these can effectively give you the edge over the bookie in your sports betting by minimizing losses and maximising returns.
Sign-up Offers and Free Bets
Sign up offers and free bets don't offer any long term value, but are a helpful sweetener when getting started with sports betting.
These special offers work by matching your first deposit and bet/s with a free bet that can be used on any market of your choice.
There are two basic types of free bet offers:
- Matched free bets are straightforward and match your first cash bet with a free bet of the same stake.
- Free bets with play-through requirements require you to play through the value of your free bet several times to redeem free bet coupons.
The second type of free bet is something to be aware of as it is much harder to redeem the full value of the free bet offer, and it is quite likely that the amount you eventually redeem will be lower than advertised.
However, having to play through your free bet offer should not be a deal breaker if the bookie in question otherwise offers a top-notch service.
Likewise, bookies who make it easy to cash in your first free bet offer are certainly worth a visit but may not provide genuine value in the long term.
Ongoing Promotions and Incentives
The majority of big-name bookmakers provide ongoing incentives to punters, including, but not limited to:
- Place specials on horse racing, paying out extra places each-way on selected races.
- Money back specials, which refund losing bets as a free bet if certain conditions are met during an event.
- ACCA boosters which boost payouts on qualifying accumulator bets.
- Best odds guarantees and no runner no bet offers on horse racing.
A word of caution. Bookmakers like Paddy Power place a lot of emphasis on their specials. However, the value they extend in this department is raked back by bumping up their overround on high profile events - i.e., by providing less overall value and lower odds where it counts most - betting markets.
Who are the best online bookmakers?
You're unlikely to have a terrible betting experience at any major online bookmaker. Major bookies are also, on average, likely to provide more features and extras than their smaller competitors.
Of the major bookmakers three stand out:
- Bet365 is the best-known sports betting brand in the world. They offer the widest selection of sports and markets for betting, a range of ongoing betting specials, competitive odds, and good customer service. If you're only going to pick one bookie moving forward, bet365's the one to pick.
- William Hill is one of the oldest bookmakers in the world and offers its customers competitive odds, good customer service, daily specials on high profile sports events and a bunch of extras including William Hill TV - a free live racing feed for its customers.
- Boylesports is an Irish bookie that has been overshadowed by its compatriot, Paddy Power. However, of the two big Irish bookies it offers better odds and customer service, while keeping pace with Paddy Power in the special's department - without any of the bad attitude its rival has become notorious for.