From the Greeks and their Gods drawing lots to wagering on the outcomes of horse races in the nineteenth century, sport and games of chance have an inexorable link.

This is especially true when it comes to America’s largest sporting event — the Super Bowl. More than 100 million television viewers (along with more streaming on their tablets or other mobile devices) will watch Tom Brady and the New England Patriots seek their fifth Lombardi Trophy when they play Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the high-powered Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas, on Sunday.

Last year’s game between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers saw more than $132.5 million legally wagered in Nevada sportsbooks. [1]

If there is a number attached to the game, someone’s likely to bet on it. Around 400 proposition bets are available to people either in Vegas or simply in their homes for entertainment purposes throughout the game and include everything from the first song Lady Gaga will perform in the halftime show to the mentions of Rob Gronkowski during the on-air broadcast and if a two-point conversion attempt will be successful.[2]  Even cross-sport prop bets are popular with bets, such as Tiger Woods’ cumulative total score in Dubai vs. Tom Brady’s passing yards.[3]

Historical background on the prop bet

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William “Refrigerator” Perry spiking the ball after his touchdown in Super Bowl XX. (Original Photo: The Atlantic/Transformed by the SLS Blog)

How did we come from a game that mattered on the field to a game whose importance is in some ways secondary to the action surrounding the game?

The place to start is with the Super Bowl Shuffle and a young rookie with a large appliance nickname and a personality to match.

When the Chicago Bears faced the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX in 1986, the team was known for its ferocious ‘46’ defense, the rebellious personality of quarterback Jim McMahon, and the “Sweetness” of running back Walter Payton.

But it was 300-pound rookie defensive tackle William “Refrigerator” Perry that captivated audiences with his infectious smile and personality.

Prior to the Super Bowl, Las Vegas sportsbooks looked to cash in on the “Fridge” and posted a bet with odds as high as 75-to-1 that Perry would score a touchdown in the game.[4]  This bet was not completely without merit. Perry scored two rushing touchdowns in the regular season, including a 1-yard plunge against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football[5], and caught another TD against the Packers two weeks later.[6]  However, he had not touched the ball in the prior six games for the Bears. Still, it made for an interesting side wager and figured to draw some action.

When the national media outlets picked up the story and the sharp bettors began betting heavy on it, the odds dropped down 2-to-1 by the day of the Big Game, deflating the bet’s curiosity value significantly.[7]  The bet did pay off, though, as Perry scored late in the third quarter of the Bears’ 46-10 rout and bettors collected their winnings.

Although some sportsbooks took a loss on the Perry bet, casinos saw the potential gain of offering prop bets, and it soon became a staple of the National Football League’s signature game. By the early 1990s, as many as fifty prop bets could be found for the Super Bowl.[8] In a way, the Super Bowl’s greatest weakness turned into the prop bet’s survival. Blowouts in the biggest game during the late 80s and into the early 90s forced casinos to offer prop bets that did not pay off until the end of the game to try and keep people interested.[9]

Even as close games became more of the norm than exception over the last 20 years, the prop bet remained a part of the Super Bowl experience as much as the halftime show. In 2012, nearly half of the wagers on the Super Bowl were from prop bets.[10]

Legality of Super Bowl prop bets

Prop betting, like gambling, is a legal activity in certain states for adults with some regulation. There is no federal law against making bets on sporting events, but several states have “ancient laws” still on the books about not making bets.[11]  Other states have stricter statutory language defining gambling houses.[12]

Some states are trying to pull prop betting into the same definition of a parlay or daily fantasy sports bet[13], while others carve out exemptions for pari-mutuel betting on horse racing.[14]

Depending on the legislature’s intent, each state could in theory prosecute house parties that include wagers on the contest. However, courts are willing to find that mere bettors on the Super Bowl are not professional gamblers under the statute’s definition.[15]

Further, most states with laws on the books rarely enforce them at bars or Super Bowl house parties.[16]

Unique prop bets

Prop bets, like most gambling lines, try to balance the money on both sides of the ledger so the house can make profit while the winning gamblers have a story to share. Some bets have a more interesting story.

In 2014, Seattle scored a safety on the opening play of Super Bowl XLVIII when Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning mishandled the snap. Not only did the Seahawks celebrate, so did bettors who took safety as the opening score of the game. Vegas sportsbooks had 8-to-1 odds for any safety and 50-to-1 for it being the game’s first score.[17]

Iconic and rare plays in the Super Bowl can also lead to elation or deflation in the casino. Patriots defensive back Malcom Butler’s game-saving interception on the goal line against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLI or Steelers linebacker James Harrison rumbling 100 yards on an interception on the final play of the first half of Super Bowl XLIII against Arizona are just two recent examples of big prop bets cashing in.[18]

What play will be this year’s iconic moment? Will it be a last-minute touchdown pass by Tom Brady? Or Julio Jones threatening Jerry Rice’s record for most receiving yards in a Super Bowl (215 yards, accomplished in Super Bowl XXIII)? Whatever the result of Sunday’s game may be, there will be plenty of exultation and dejection—just not necessarily on the field.

Follow James on Twitter @jameswoldbdc and connect with him on LinkedIn


Sources

[1] Scott Sonner, Record $132.5 Million bet on Super Bowl at Nevada sports books, Associated Press (Feb. 8, 2016), http://pro32.ap.org/aggiesports/article/record-1325m-bet-super-bowl-nevada-sports-books-0.

[2] Will Brinson, 2017 Super Bowl prop bets: Here’s 51 of the best, worst and weirdest things to bet on, CBS Sports.com (Jan. 30, 2017), http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/2017-super-bowl-prop-bets-heres-51-of-the-best-worst-and-weirdest-things-to-bet-on/.

[3] Sean Fairholm, Quick Take: Predicting Golf-Related Prop Bets for the Super Bowl, Global Golf Post (Jan. 30, 2017), http://www.globalgolfpost.com/now/2017/01/30/quick-take-predicting-golf-related-prop-bets-super-bowl?utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=referral.

[4] David McIntire, When The Final Score Doesn’t Matter, SB Nation (Jan. 31, 2013), http://www.sbnation.com/longform/2013/1/31/3932806/super-bowl-prop-bets-history.

[5] Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears – October 21st, 1985, Pro Football Reference, http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/198510210chi.htm (last visited Jan. 30, 2017).

[6] Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers – November 3rd, 1985, Pro Football Reference, http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/198511030gnb.htm (last visited Jan. 30, 2017).

[7] McIntire, supra note 4.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] James F. Peltz, Super Bowl 50 to draw an estimated $4.2 billion in bets—most of them illegal, L.A. Times (Feb. 1, 2016), http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-agenda-super-bowl-20160201-story.html.

[12] See Ark. Stat. § 5-66-103 (2015); Ind. Code § 35-45-5-3 (2016); Wis. Stat. Ann. § 945.02.

[13] People v. Fanduel, Inc., 2015 WL 8490461 (N.Y. Sup. Dec. 11, 2015). (Editor’s Note: Find case PDF here).

[14] See Mont. Code Ann. § 23-5-221(1)–(2) (2016); Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-7-101(a)(i) (2016).

[15] Auten v. State, 542 N.E.2d 215 (Ind. Ct. App. 1989). (Editor’s Note: Find case PDF here). 

[16] Peltz, supra note 11.

[17] Erik Matuszewski, Super Bowl Safety is Blow for Broncos and Las Vegas Sportsbooks, Bloomberg (Feb. 2, 2014), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-02-03/super-bowl-safety-is-blow-for-broncos-and-las-vegas-sportsbooks.

[18] Kostya Kennedy, Coin flips, sharps and safeties: Super Bowl Sunday stories from Las Vegas, SI.com (Jan. 27, 2016), http://www.si.com/nfl/2016/02/01/super-bowl-sunday-las-vegas-betting.

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