Explaining the history of Super Bowl proposition bets
1 Feb 2016
By Gary Trask
By Gary Trask
The week before the Super Bowl, the crack staff at the resort's SuperBook officially releases its highly anticipated portfolio of 400 or so proposition bets. Anxious bettors jam the place, standing in line for hours for the chance to have first dibs betting on everything from total passing yards for Peyton Manning to whether or not Stephen Curry will score more points on Sunday than the Carolina Panthers.
Offshore, the laundry list of prop bets is even more zany and diverse, with books like Bovada Sportsbook and BetOnline Sports extending odds on items such as the amount of time it takes to sing the National Anthem, the color of shoes Beyoncé will be wearing for the halftime show (black is the favorite at +150), or the number of wings Buffalo Wild Wings will sell on Super Bowl Sunday (over/under 12 million).
Insanity? You bet. And the person we have to credit (or blame?) for the prop bet craziness is William "Refrigerator" Perry. Or, maybe more deservingly, Mike Ditka.
You see, in the early days there were only a few ways to bet the Super Bowl. A point spread, an over/under, a money line and, if you were really lucky, you could find a shop that offered a halftime line. That was it.
The number of wagers available, however, began to grow in the early 1980s. Generic props like total rushing yards or passing yards started to proliferate, but the explosion of prop popularity came after the 1986 Super Bowl between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots. That was the year a handful of Las Vegas bookmakers tried to get creative.
And it blew up in their faces.
"The appetite for Super Bowl prop bets, and sports betting overall, was growing bigger and bigger so we wanted to try and give the public what they wanted and that was more ways to bet the game," explained Jimmy Vaccaro, the dean of Las Vegas sportbook directors, who was at the original MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Las Vegas in '86. "So me, Art Manteris, who was at Caesars at the time, and Jerry Ludt, who was running the Barbary Coast, thought it'd be a good idea to offer a prop on the Refrigerator scoring a TD in the game. We were looking to generate some interest, and we sure as heck got it."
Perry was a popular rookie defensive lineman for the Bears whom the team occasionally used as a fullback in short-yardage situations. Vaccaro opened the odds of Perry scoring a TD in Super Bowl XX at 50-to-1 and the "yes" got hit so hard he closed it at 8-to-1.
The game was a blowout, and with the Bears leading 37-3 late in the third quarter, they faced a 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line — when out came Perry, lining up behind quarterback Jim McMahon and to the left of star running back Walter Payton:
"I was in the back of the book sitting in my office when he scored and all I heard was this huge roar; the place went absolutely bonkers," Vaccaro remembered. "About five minutes later I picked up the phone and it was Jerry and he screams, 'Can you believe what just friggin' happened! Ditka has Walter Payton in the backfield and he gives it to the freakin' 'Refrigerator'? You gotta be kidding me!'"
Vaccaro said the MGM lost around $48,000 on that one play.
"And we did better than most books; most everyone else got murdered even worse," said Vaccaro, who currently runs the sportsbook at South Point Hotel Casino and Spa. "All we could do was laugh about it. Nothing we could do at that point."
The buzz generated by the TD and its ensuing massive payout to the public was immediate. Newspapers and local TV stations started calling Vaccaro and his fellow bookmakers to ask about it. The following year before the Super Bowl, the media was inquiring about unique prop bets, and it has escalated every year since.
"Yeah, ever since then every bookmaker has tried to outdo the other with the creativity and it has just continued to grow," said William Hill Director of Trading Nick Bogdanovich, a 30-year veteran of the sportsbook industry. "The Super Bowl is the one game where the masses really come out and there's a natural tendency for them to want to bet the props. The average guy out there is going to watch the game with his buddies or go to a party and he wants to have action on 10 or 15 different props for $20 or $25 apiece. And that adds up."
So much so that that Westgate Vice President of Race and Sports Operations Jay Kornegay says he expects prop bets to make up more than 50% of his book's Super Bowl handle this year. Of course, the Westgate (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton) has become the Mecca of proposition bets. Kornegay spent much of last week doing several TV spots for ESPN, the NY Post and other national outlets to talk about prop bets.
"That wasn't happening five or 10 years ago," said Westgate Assistant Sportsbook Manager Jeff Sherman. "And that's really one of the best things about the proliferation of the prop bets. It's becoming more and more mainstream with every year. Everyone is talking about them."
But Sherman apologizes in advance if he isn't overly talkative on the subject, since he had to spend 12 hours a day for two days straight early last week finalizing the 35 pages of prop bets the Westgate released last Thursday.
"It's a grind, no doubt about it," he admitted. "But when it's all said and done and we get to the point where we are right now, we do have a great sense of accomplishment because even though it's a very tedious process, we know how popular they are and how much everyone enjoys them."
The process of setting the prop odds actually started well before last week. Sherman said he and his staff had the players and numbers for a Carolina-New England Super Bowl already inputted into their computers about two weeks ago, since they were the two favorites to meet in Super Bowl 50. When Denver upset the Patriots in the AFC Championship, Sherman came in Monday morning, swapped out all the New England players for Broncos and compiled all of the statistical info.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, Sherman and Randy Blum, another SuperBook supervisor, met at Manager Ed Salmons' house from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. With the help of "lots of pizza and beer," Sherman said the trio crunched numbers, concocted and considered new and unique offerings, and — at times — got into spirited debates on where a number should be.
"We've been doing this for so long, for the most part — like 80% of the time — our numbers are close enough that there isn't much discussion and we just move on to the next one," said Sherman, who added that the book increases the limit for prop bets from $1,000 to $2,000 for the Super Bowl. "But there are times when we have to really have some back and forth and plead our case on why we have a number and explain the reasoning."
Kornegay is also a big part of the process and is plugged in throughout the day. This year, Sherman's wife, Christy, got into the act and came up with one of the wildly popular cross-sport bets that was on the board Thursday night at the Westgate: The number of holes Rory McIlroy is over par in the fourth round of the Dubai Desert Classic Open 4th (+0.5, -170) versus the number Super Bowl sacks by the Broncos defense (-0.5, +150).
"They're very creative, and Jay and his crew have done outstanding work with the prop bets over the last 10 years," Vaccaro said. "It's really benefited all of us. I wouldn't be surprised if our prop handle this year is around 40%. That's a big jump because two years ago it was around 25% and last year it was 33%. It's just keeps growing."
Offshore, BetOnline Sports Sportsbook Brand Manager Dave Mason said he expects his Super Bowl prop bet handle to be around 20% and the book will be offering more than 300 varieties by kickoff.
Because offshore books aren't limited to offering bets that occur on the actual field of play, they can get much more creative and go well beyond the realm of sports. Last year, BetOnline had a prop on "Will Katy Perry show cleavage?" during her halftime show, and it received huge action, as well as attention from mainstream media.
"Since something like that won't be officially documented in any type of box score, Vegas can't offer it," Mason said. "But we got to rely on our own eyes to judge whether or not she had cleavage."
She did. And "cleavage backers" willing to lay the juice were rewarded.
As for the more traditional prop bets, the most popular are usually the player to score the first TD (Cam Newton is this year's favorite at 6-to-1), the coin toss and will there be a safety ("yes" is +450 and "no" is -600).
"The house always gets killed when there's a safety," Mason added.
The reason is that the typical bettor likes to find something to bet where they can wager a little to win a lot. Until recently, the house made out handsomely on the safety bet. But of the nine safeties recorded in Super Bowl history, four have occurred since 2009, including three years in a row from 2013-2015.
But none of those two-point scores hurt the books as much as that fateful TD plunge by the Refrigerator Perry back in 1986.
"No, I don't think we'll ever see something like that again," laughed Vaccaro, who told us last week he won't be surprised to see a record-breaking handle in Nevada for this year's Super Bowl. "In fact, I'd be surprised if any book has lost money on props over the last 15 years. Now, that doesn't mean we're making a boatload of money on them, but we're just getting so much volume from the general public and a lot of it is two-way action, so we're making out on them.
"But no matter who wins or loses, the bottom line is that they are a hell of a lot of fun and the bettors enjoy playing them. And that's not going to stop anytime soon."