Forget record TV ratings, closer-than-you-think scores or Kurt Warner’s passing stats. The most impressive facts and figures when it comes to the Super Bowl are tied to that greatest of American pastimes: gambling. Specifically, sports gambling—and the Super Bowl wins the championship every year in that category. No wonder ESPN The Magazine editor in chief and sports betting expert/author Chad Millman calls Super Bowl Sunday “our national betting holiday.” And if you want to know who’s behind this gambling frenzy, well, just look in the mirror. “More bets are placed on the Super Bowl than on any other sporting event of the year,” according to the American Gaming Association, “including March Madness.” Since it seems like everybody and their cubiclemate has a brackets sheet in at least one NCAA tournament pool every year, that’s got to add up to a lot of money. How much? According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, some $94 million was wagered on the 2012 Super Bowl at “sports books” across the state—the only one in the U.S. where sports gambling is legal. But it’s estimated that legal bets represent just 1.5% of all Super Bowl wagers, which means the total pot on Super Bowl Sunday approaches $6.3 billion. (By comparison, it’s estimated that legal and illegal March Madness betting adds up to less than $3 billion.) And some experts have the figure approaching $10 billion.
If those figures give you pause, you can thank … yourself. What distinguishes Super Sunday betting from all other sports-related gambling is not the size or number of wagers but rather the breadth of the wagerers. That is, more individual people make bets on the Super Bowl than on any other single U.S. sporting event—legally in Nevada, possibly legally online and definitely illegally but also mostly harmlessly in countless pools/squares” and other casual wagers with friends, colleagues, classmates, relatives and the occasional stranger. This herd mentality is in large part a function of three factors. (Four if you count Super Bowl parties; even Real Simple has gotten into the game.)
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1. It’s easy for casual fans to think they actually know something. Those two weeks between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Big Game serve to do more than allow the AFC and NFC champions to rest, heal and strategize. This fortnight bestows upon the Sports Media Industrial Complex (half a billion Google hits and counting!) more than enough time to make myriad match-ups, personalities, story lines and other angles of the game more-than-usually familiar to fans. And familiarity, we know from the field of behavioral economics, breeds emotional investment and overconfidence, such that people are more likely to think they have an understanding of some aspect of the game when, in fact, they don’t—not in comparison to the professionals setting the “lines” or betting against them. And not enough to overcome the house-favoring odds. Sports betting is a lot like active stock investing: a lot of people do it but very few make money at it over time.
2. It’s easy to bet on the Super Bowl… As fun as March Madness bracketology might seem to you and the president, it takes a work to fill out those sheets, especially if you’re trying to make informed decisions but even if you’re picking match-up winners based on mascots or team colors. Either way, there are still a lot of blanks to fill in! For the Super Bowl, on the other hand, you can keep it as simple as making one bet on the winner (online, through a bookie or with a pal) or buying one box in a pool.
3. …and more fun too! Then again, if you’re a serious sports bettor who’s not inclined to keep it simple—or a casual football fan who is inclined to dip your toe in gambling’s murky waters—the sports betting industry has just the option for you: a prop bet!
If you think you haven’t heard of this type of wager, think again. Since its humble beginnings nearly 30 years ago, the prop bet has become ubiquitous in sports books. That’s never more obvious than in the two weeks leading up Super Bowl, given how prop bets have wormed their way from sports culture to pop culture. “Prop” is short for “proposition,” as in: a bookmaker (in Nevada, online or at a sports bar or gym locker room near you) has a proposition for you, and that proposition is the chance to bet on something other than the score of the game.
The original prop bet, most people agree, centered on the prospects of William “The Refrigerator” Perry scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XX in 1986, when his Chicago Bears were playing the New England Patriots. Perry, a defensive player, had miraculously morphed into a part-time offensive player, using his massive body to block for ball carriers and, every so often, carrying the rock himself. Looking to scare up bets from casual fans, a Las Vegas bookmaker posted the odds on “the Fridge” scoring a TD, setting off a surprising frenzy of betting, much of it from people who would otherwise never have laid money down on the game. (Perry did, in fact, score, costing the bookmaker dearly.) And thus the prop bet was born, with wagers being offered on such eventualities as which player or team would score first, which passer would would throw the first interception, which player would fumble the ball first, which would be the first to recover a fumble and so on.
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Except that a funny thin happened to the prop bet over the years: The wagers have grown increasingly less related to the game and more outrageous, funny, strange, connected to outside events or otherwise likely to generate news. Which is the point, of course: The more news generated by the offered bets, the more likely it is that people will be drawn to them and place bets. These days, in Nevada, prop bets are said to account for more than half of all legal Super Bowl wagering.
And this year’s Super Bowl prop bets don’t disappoint. You can Google the term if you want to dive deeply into the subject and—horrors!—bet online yourself. If not, here’s a sampling of bets being offered this year in (loose) connection to the Super Bowl.
You can, if you’d like, bet on…
… Whether Alicia Keys will flub any part of the National Anthem.
… Whether the pre-game coin flip will land on heads or tails.
… How many times the name “Harbaugh” will be uttered during the TV broadcast. (Brothers Jim and John Harbaugh are the head coaches of the two teams, Jim for the San Francisco 49ers, John for the Baltimore Ravens.)
… Who will the game’s eventual Most Valuable Player thank first upon accepting the award.
… Whether Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby will score more goals that day than TD passes thrown by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (Crosby, of course, will be playing in a hockey game far from New Orleans, but prop bets know no boundaries.)
… What will happen to the Dow Jones Industrial Average on the day after the game.
And a personal favorite:
… Whether Beyoncé will be showing her cleavage during the first song of her halftime performance.
If all this sounds a little crazy, there’s also a certain logic to it. Gambling is one of the main reasons the NFL has become as popular as it has—to the public chagrin and private glee of NFL execs—so it’s only fitting that on the day America goes bonkers for the ultimate game of its national pastime its citizens should throw caution to the wind and bet on how many times the coaches’ mom will appear on TV during the broadcast.
What’s $10 billion among fans, after all?
Plus, it’s not even a fifth of the $56 billion bet on U.S. lotteries in 2012.