Most gaming historians point to Super Bowl 20 between the Chicago Bears and, ironically enough, the New England Patriots as the game that ushered in the era of the “prop” bet.
Super Bowl 20 was played following the 1985 season. The 1985 Chicago Bears are considered by many to be the greatest defensive football team of the modern era. Not only did the Bears blitz through the regular season, starting 12-0 and finishing 15-1, they won both of their Playoff games leading to the Super Bowl by shutouts, defeating the New York Giants 21-0 and then winning the NFC Title with a 24-0 win over the LA Rams. In the regular season the Bears allowed just 196 total points, an average of just 12.4 per game.
The Bears were 10-point favorites over the Patriots, which was the second largest pointspread in the 16 Super Bowls since Super Bowl 4. Fearing a blowout some sportsbooks were looking for ways to attract bettors who might be reluctant to lay such a large number with the Bears or who were intimidated by playing such a large underdog.
The Bears featured a defensive lineman, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who was generously listed at 325 pounds. A larger than life character, Perry was occasionally inserted into the offensive backfield to block for the late, great running back, Walter Payton. Sportsbooks decided to offer a wager on which you could bet if Perry would score a touchdown. Initially offered at odds in the 15-1 to 20-1 range the prop proved popular and attracted nationwide coverage because of its uniqueness and the public-at-large’s insatiable appetite for any and all information surrounding the Super Bowl; it dropped to a range of 4-1 to 5-1 by kickoff.
Naturally, Perry got the chance to score a touchdown and did so in what was a Chicago 46-10 rout. It was a loss for the sportsbooks but was more of a “loss leader” as a new industry was spawned and has grown tremendously in terms of popularity, creativity and, most importantly, in wagering volume, ever since.
Here in Las Vegas and throughout Nevada virtually every sportsbook offers pages upon pages of ways to bet on the Super Bowl by offering a wide variety of props. The release of their “propositions packets” toward the end of the first of the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl has become one of most highly anticipated events each year.
Perhaps the leader in this niche is the Westgate whose packet of props this season runs a full 30 legal sized pages containing in the vicinity of 400 individual props. To give an idea of how props have proliferated over the years I went to my archives and found the packet prepared by the Imperial Palace for Super Bowl 30 played in January 1996 between Dallas and Pittsburgh.
Jay Kornegay, VP of race and sports at the Westgate, was at the IP at the time and is one of the major people behind the increased interest in and growth of props over the years. The packet from the IP for Super Bowl 30 consisted of eight pages that contained a total of “just” 90 props in addition to the full game Side, Total and Money-Line wagers – the print was much larger in those days!
Props come in three major categories – head to head props, multiple option props and what can be referred to as “needle in a haystack” props.
Head to head props basically give you two options – generally “Yes or No” and “Over or Under.” An example of the first would be whether there will be a score within the final two minutes of the first half. An example of the second would be whether Tom Brady will have Over or Under 21.5 pass completions in the game.
Many head to head props are priced at equal vig such as -110 for each side of the prop. Some that favor one half of the prop versus the other might be priced at -150 for one side, +130 for the other. Some props, such as though involving whether or not there will be a safety, might be priced at -900 for no safety and +600 for there will be one.
One of the more creative approaches to props has been the cross sports prop, which involves an element of the Super Bowl compared to an element of another sporting event, usually held on the same day or the day before or after the Super Bowl (although some prop bets have spanned a period of six months or more).
An example might be whether the total goals scored in Sunday’s game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals will be greater or less than the number of pass receptions made by New England’s Danny Amendola, with Amendola’s total reduced by 0.5 to eliminate the possibility of a push on the prop and a refund to all who bet it.
In many cases a significant adjustment is made to one half of the prop such as the total points scored by the Boston Celtics in their game at Portland to be played earlier on Sunday, -14.5, compared to the total rushing yards gained by the Pats.
Usually the adjustment is in a range to balance both sides of the prop so it can be priced, initially, at -110 for each half.
Multiple option props generally give you from three to five or so options from which to choose. An example might be what the first scoring play of the game will be – Eagles touchdown, Patriots field goal, etc. Or the combination of the first half results with the final result as in Eagles lead at the half and Patriots win game, game is tied at half ans Eagles win game, etc.
The “needle in a haystack” prop involves picking one of often 10 to 20 or more possible offerings such as the exact number of points the Eagles will score or the 20 yards range in which Tom Brady’s gross passing yards will fall. Odds are given for the possibility that can often range into four digits.
If you think the Eagles will be shut out, scoring exactly 0 points, you could get paid at odds of 30-1. The odds for the Eagles scoring exactly 21 points are at 10-1. The odds for Tom Brady passing for between 281 and 300 yards will pay off at odds of 7-1. The odds for between 381 and 400 yards are 15-1.
Such odds are also offered for the player to score the first touchdown of the game, the last touchdown of the game and which player will win the MVP award. Examples are Zach Ertz, Philadelphia’s tight end, to score the first touchdown at 8-1 odds or for Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski to score the game’s final touchdown at odds of 7-1.
Pats QB Tom Brady is an odds on 4-5 favorite to win the MVP award with Philly QB Nick Foles the second choice at 3-1 odds. If you think a defensive player will win the MVP you can find Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox at odds in the range of 30-1 to 40-1. Defensive lineman James Harrison of the Pats can be found at odds of 100-1. Harrison was the player who scored on a 100 yard interception return as time expired in the first half when playing for the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s win over Arizona in Super Bowl 43.
There are literally hundreds of ways to have action in the Super Bowl without having to have an opinion on which team will win or cover or whether the game will stay under or go over the total.
There are many as many different approaches to playing the props as there are bettors playing the props. For the most part the props add to the entertainment value of the Super Bowl and most who bet the props do so with the hope of showing a small profit or even enduring a small loss.
There are professional bettors who spend countless hours breaking down each prop and looking for what they perceive as edges based upon the data used in their analysis. The precise determination of edges is difficult given this is the only opportunity to play the overwhelming number and types of props that are only available during the Super Bowl.
That throws the typical form of analysis mostly out the window as the Super Bowl is unlike any other game played during the season. And there are only 51 prior Super Bowls to use for comparison and those games were played over 51 years and under a variety of circumstances surrounding the nature of the game itself as to rules, styles of offenses and defenses, etc.
So making anything close to precise determinations about the probability of specific props hitting is a challenging, if not downright futile, exercise at best with only one chance per season to be right or wrong.
One example is the proposition concerning whether the first pass thrown by each QB will be complete or incomplete. The complete part of the prop is usually a heavy favorite with the incomplete option usually priced in the range of +170 to +200. In playing the incomplete option I only need one of the two to hit to make a profit.
Another such tandem might be whether each punter will have at least one touchback during the game. I often look to play the team to score first will not win the game. This is often priced in the vicinity of +140 to +150.
Whatever approach or strategy you choose, remember two vital aspects about playing props that can be considered the most important statements I will make about props in this column.
First, be sure to read the “fine print” regarding each prop. Props that may appear to be identical often are not. Some props, for example, may require a specific player to see action for the prop to be in play while others may state there is “no action” if the player does not play.
Secondly, to the extent possible, shop around to find the best price and/or vig for the props you are considering.
But for the most part, look at the props as a way to add enjoyment of the game and to have something to root for on almost every play. Don’t expect to get rich and try not to go broke. But props have certainly added to the appeal and enjoyment of the Super Bowl experience.