Sign-up bonuses can give bettors an edge, but read the fine print

(The Washington Post illustration/iStock)

Nearly every sports fan now endures a bombardment of advertisements from gambling operators, each making seductive sign-up offers in the name of customer acquisition. These companies hand out money — in the form of free bets — and count on you eventually giving it back. Take $1,000 now and become a sucker for life!

Over the long haul, the sportsbooks will beat most bettors. But sign-up bonuses can level the playing field in the short term.

A common offer is a “risk-free” or “no-sweat” bet that allows you to place an initial wager — in the case of Caesars, up to $1,250 — and get the money back in bonus funds if you lose. But to turn those bonus funds into actual cash you can withdraw, you have to earn it with successful bets. The promotion does not completely remove risk (or sweat), but it does mitigate it, allowing you to take bigger swings with less fear of striking out.

For the risk-averse, you can sometimes hedge free bets against one another to guarantee yourself some green.

This series will examine the impact of legalized gambling on sports, through news coverage, accountability journalism and advice for navigating this new landscape. Read more.

In January, when New York introduced mobile betting, a Reddit post explained, “How to make $7K guaranteed from these sign-up offers.” Through a carefully calculated and precisely timed series of bets at various sportsbooks, users with enough liquidity could have ensured a nice profit.

That methodology is a bit extreme, and the sign-up offers consistently change, but by simply registering for each site and taking advantage of their bonuses, you initially tilt the odds in your favor and can build a healthy bankroll.

Keep in mind: This behavior can also normalize betting larger amounts than you’d usually be comfortable risking, which is exactly what the sportsbooks are banking on.

What are the current sign-up bonuses?

Each of the eight most widely available sportsbook apps in the United States has a sign-up offer. They are ranked below by how valuable they are, with concise explanations.

Be sure to read a promotion’s details before using it, as some specify that bets must fall within a certain odds range. And as mentioned, typically a “free bet” does not return the stake of the bet, only the winnings. That means if you successfully use one, you’re effectively just turning what was fake money into real money.



Two risk-free bets: Up to $500 for a normal fixed-odds wager and up to $1,500 for a points betting wager. (A points betting wager is when you multiply your bet amount by the number of units your bet wins or loses by. It is a high-risk/high-reward alternative.) For both risk-free bets, losses are refunded in free bet credits that must be used within seven days.

A guide to the most popular sports betting apps



One risk-free bet up to $1,000 on your first wager; a loss is refunded in free bets. Unlike most other promotions, your free bets here will return the stake of that bet. You must play through all of your bonus money to convert it to cash, though, which means using it in at least one more bet.



One risk-free bet up to $1,250 on your first bet; a loss is refunded with a single free bet that must be used within 14 days. So if you wager the full $1,250 and it wins, you get a nice payday on Caesars’ dime; if it loses, you would have to nail a subsequent $1,250 free bet just to break even. (You are not required to bet the full $1,250 if the thought of consecutive losses at that value makes you squeamish, but playing these promotions to their maximum limit offers the highest expected value.)



One risk-free bet up to $1,000 on your first wager; a loss is refunded in free bets that must be used within seven days. If your losing wager is more than $50, you get multiple free bets adding up to the sum of that bet — rather than one single free bet of that amount. (For the max $1,000 wager, you’d get back five $200 bets. This allows you to diversify your free bets, which could result in you winning back a portion of your money.)



In most states, a $1,000 no-sweat first bet that is refunded if it loses with a single free bet that must be used within seven days. This is similar to BetMGM’s promotion, except the free bet arrives in one lump. In Virginia, the offer is a bet match up to $250 on the first wager, which is less appealing.



An initial deposit is matched up to $250 in bonus money. Users must play through that bonus within 30 days. This is less risky than the other offers, because you don’t have to make a single large bet to make the most of the promo; you could deposit the full $250 and then make 25 bets at $10 apiece.



Bet $100 and get a free bet of $100. (The initial bet must have odds of -120 or greater, so no picking an easy winner.) The free bet expires within 10 days and must be used on an event with odds at -150 or greater.



A 20 percent match, up to $1,000, of your initial deposit. On its face, this sounds cool; you can deposit $5,000 and get $1,000 free. But read the fine print! With stiff play-through requirements, DraftKings doles out just $1 at a time for every $25 you bet over the course of 90 days. DraftKings will indeed put $1,000 into your account, but only if you wager $25,000 — yes, $25,000 — over the course of three months.