No more than five minutes after the New York Giants beat the San Francisco 49ers to win the National Football Conference championship on Jan. 22, the Giants were established by Las Vegas bookmakers as 3½-point underdogs to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
The two-week build-up to football’s biggest game —kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 ET on NBC—had only just kicked off for Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the LVH Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, which used to be known as the Las Vegas Hilton. He learned a long time ago that people like to bet on more than a point spread.
Kornegay is widely regarded as the king of Super Bowl proposition bets, “prop bets" for short. He went to work establishing an astonishing list of about 350 betting lines on smaller outcomes to be determined in the big game, down to the pregame coin flip. (Heads and tails are even money.)
Besides being America’s most-watched game, the Super Bowl is also America’s most-wagered-upon game. According to the Nevada Gaming Commission, $87.5 million was wagered at the state’s 183 sports books last year on Super Bowl XLV, won by Green Bay. Kornegay estimates that prop bets accounted for up to half that total.
“You see people at Super Bowl parties holding one ticket on the game and six tickets with prop bets,” Kornegay says. “We have a couple of guys, who, every year, bet on every single prop. When you have hundreds of them, that can really add up.”
Fan Fun Factor
Prop bets tend to make the Super Bowl more exciting, even if it turns out to be a lopsided game. They also help the books drive up the handle, especially when bettors, like many others, are watching their money more closely.
(Betting on the Super Bowl in Nevada reached $94.5 million when Pittsburgh beat Seattle in Super Bowl XL in 2006, but swooned to $81.5 million when the Steelers beat Arizona three years later. The total increased to $82.7 million when the New Orleans Saints won in 2010.)
As recently as the late 1980s, according to Kornegay, sports books only offered perhaps 20 to 30 prop bets on each Super Bowl, and they tended to be pretty generic, such as how many field goals would be kicked.
“Every Super Bowl was a blowout then,” Kornegay says. “You could see the game was over halfway through, and by the third quarter everybody was bored.”
When the San Francisco 49ers were established as an 18-point favorite to beat the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIXon Jan. 29, 1995 (the 49ers won by 23 points), Kornegay and his peers figured they needed to expand the number of prop bets dramatically, so they did.
Betting on the Super Bowl was much simpler when Jimmy Vaccaro, now with Lucky's Race & Sports Book, went into business in Las Vegas in 1979. Sports books merely offered wagering based on the point spread, the number of points (one can bet over or under a set number) and the halftime score.
"Refrigerator" Perry & LeBron James
The linchpin for prop bets, Vaccaro says, was a 335-pound defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears, named William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Perry had occasionally lined up in the backfield prior to Super Bowl XX in 1986, throwing blocks for the running back Walter Payton.
Perry had rushed for two touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass prior to that Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, and bookmakers set a prop bet on Perry scoring a touchdown, opening at 100-1 odds. The line was bet down to 5-1 — and then Perry scored.
“When he crossed the goal line, you could hear a collective groan from all the sports books in Las Vegas,” says Vaccaro, whose sports book lost $34,000 on that prop bet alone.
Nevada sports books are prohibited from offering prop bets that cannot be verified by the NFL. Offshore books offer prop bets, for example, on how long Kelly Clarkson will take to sing the national anthem this year. (The over/under line was set at 1 minute, 32 seconds.)
The lists of prop bets offered at LVH and Lucky's number in the hundreds and are amazingly specific. Most prop bets are based on the statistics compiled by individual players in the game, but LVH has a prop bet offered on which coach will use his replay-challenge flag first. Lucky's offers a prop bet on the number of the jersey of the first player to score a touchdown — odd or even.
There is also a series of prop bets that tie Super Bowl performances into performances on Super Bowl Sunday by athletes in other sports.
“Those draw a lot of publicity, but actually, not a lot of people bet on those,” says Jeff Stonebeck, a manager at the Mirage sports book.
What draws more action are the instant-gratification bets, like which player will score the first touchdown (the favorite is Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks). Prop bets are offered all game: there is a prop bet on whether the game will go into overtime (which would be a Super Bowl first).
Even though Kornegay says most people will not place a bet on the game until the weekend of the game, he posted this year’s lengthy list of prop bets 10 days before the Patriots and Giants tangled — if for no other reason than it draws attention to his sports book.
“The prep work is the busy work,” he says, before adding with a laugh: “You get all this work done and put it up on the board, and people will just come and stare at it.”