clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Wagers clamor for Super Bowl betting action

The numbers are staggering.

And impossible to confirm.

But the intelligent estimate is that 200 million people throughout the world have placed bets totaling $5 billion on a football game that's scheduled to be played this evening in Miami.

Not all of the money, of course, has been wagered legally, which is one of the reasons it's impossible to get a handle on the handle for Super Bowl XLIV between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints.

But you can be sure it's X times M to the nth degree.

In Nevada, where sports betting is legal, the bookmaking operations in the state's casinos expect to see about $90 million in action.

Internet operations, legal or quasi-legal depending on how they operate, will see about $2 billion, according to industry estimates.

The rest is anybody's guess.

"Your volume's going to double, maybe triple," said Johnny B, who has been in and out of the sports betting "business" in Philadelphia and South Jersey for the last 20 years.

"I was small. I used to do about $100,000 a week," he said. "Super Bowl, I'd do about $200,000."

Everyone, he said, wants a piece of the action.

Regular customers are trying for one last big score or trying to make up in one game for all they've lost during the season.

"It's get even ... or get even worse," said a South Philadelphia gambler named Jack who said he has been in that position.

(Nearly everyone interviewed for this article requested anonymity or wanted to be identified by his first name only because bookmaking is illegal outside Nevada.)

There are first-time, novice gamblers caught up in the excitement of the event. And invariably, Johnny B said, there are women who don't understand or care about football, but who have a husband or boyfriend who has turned the game into a social event.

Shaking his head and rolling his eyes, Johnny B talked about women who would bet $50 on a team because they liked the quarterback, liked the team's colors, liked the nickname.

"Now the boyfriend or the husband is betting $5,000 the other way because he's trying to make up for everything he's lost all year, and she's screaming and hollering the whole game because she has $50 riding on it," he said. "Next thing you know there's yellow tape around the house and it's a domestic crime scene."

Another bookie called the Super Bowl "amateur night" and said neither the real gambler nor the experienced bookmaker is crazy about a one-game event.

"Gamblers like to win, but most of them, what they really like is the action," he said.

Someone running a sports book "wants as many bets as possible. That's how you make money."

Most gamblers, when they lose, they "chase," meaning they bet on another game to try to recoup what they lost, said another bookmaker. And inevitably, they lose some more. During the playoffs, there is less to chase.

The Super Bowl, in terms of betting action, is almost slow motion compared with a full-scheduled, regular-season football weekend that includes college games. Consequently, for a small-time, independent bookmaker, the game can be a financial nightmare.

"It's a pain in the b—s," said one. "You can get crushed."

"To tell you the truth, when I was in the business, I couldn't wait for the day to be over," said Johnny B. "You just hope you're not going to ruin your whole season."

Bookies stay in business after the football season, but other sports in the United States don't attract the action or generate the emotion that football brings.

No other national sporting event comes close to matching the Super Bowl in terms of interest and wagering, according to those in the business of taking bets. But worldwide, the action on soccer's World Cup "dwarfs" the play on the Super Bowl, according to Jimmy Vaccaro, one of Las Vegas' best known and most influential bookmakers.

The Super Bowl is the culmination of a macho betting season that is a national phenomenon, even if the NFL won't acknowledge it.

"Guys like to bet football," said one bookie. "They've played the game. They think they understand it. Or they're die-hard fans. ... Bookies like guys who bet with their hearts."

And they make it easy to do just that.

Unlike Nevada or the Internet, where gamblers have to put their money up to place a bet, illegal bookmaking operates on the honor system. Some bookies will allow players to continue betting until the wins or losses reach an agreed-upon level. Then there's a payoff or a collection. Others take care of business each week.

The Super Bowl adds another twist to that scenario.

"If you're collecting weekly, usually the guy's going to pay up because he wants to bet the next week's games," explained one bookie. "With the Super Bowl, there's no next week. So sometimes it's a little more difficult to collect. ... There are a lot of variables."

But the numbers are mind-boggling.

Johnny B, who at different times worked with and for two of the biggest bookmakers in the Philadelphia-South Jersey area, predicted that one of his former employers, who takes about $1 million in bets each week during the football season, would see his volume double or triple for today's game.

"It would be nothing for him to do $2 million, maybe $3 million," he said, shaking his head as he cut into a large pork chop over lunch in a restaurant just outside Atlantic City one day last week.

That's volume, not profit, of course.

A good book's profit will average between 5 and 10 percent of its volume. But the Super Bowl can change that as well.

"It's the one time of the year when a bookmaker becomes a bettor," said a Johnny B associate who also had experience in the bookmaking business.

Johnny shook his head in agreement.

If everyone is betting the same team, it's almost impossible to "edge off" — to take some of the action to another bookmaker.

So in essence, you're betting against your customers.

It's simple math.

The whole concept of bookmaking is to balance the books each week, have roughly the same amount bet on each team in each game. With dozens of games each week during the college and pro football seasons, it's a goal that can usually be met.

The bookmaker profits from the "vig," which in layman's terms is the fee he assesses for handling everyone's action. For example, a gambler bets $110 to win $100. The bookie takes $10 from each losing bet and passes the $100 on to the gambler who bet the other way.

For serious gamblers, there are really just two bets today: picking a winner and betting the "over/under," a wager on whether the total number of points scored is more or less than the number set by the bookies.

The number for Sunday's game was 56 in most books.

And the Colts were a five-point favorite to win.

Bookies try to adjust for heavy betting by moving the line — the point spread — to get bettors to go the other way. But that also holds risks in a one-game event.

Bookmakers still talk about "Black Sunday," the 1979 Super Bowl, in which the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Dallas Cowboys.

The Steelers began as a 2-point favorite. When most of the early action came in on Pittsburgh, bookies moved the line, eventually making the Steelers a 4-point favorite.

The Steelers beat the Cowboys by four points, meaning the bookies had to pay off to gamblers who bet the Steelers early and who bet the Cowboys late. In the parlance of the betting business, the bookies got "middled."

Traditionally, the Super Bowl, more than any other game, will include dozens of proposition bets. At some Nevada casinos and on most Internet sites, a gambler can wager on almost anything connected to the game, including who wins the coin toss or which team scores first; does the team that scores first win the game; how many kickoff returns will there be during the game; will the first half end in a tie, and if it does will the game go into overtime.

The bets are like playing a roulette wheel. There are big odds for long shots — the halftime/overtime bet is 70-1 — and very little skill is involved.

The Vegas books estimate that prop bets will account for 25 percent of the action Sunday. Independent bookmakers will offer some, but not the potpourri that can be found in the casinos or on line.

For a bookmaker, the game itself is 60 minutes of stomach-churning helplessness. All the hype, the parties, and socializing that surround it fizzle when you know you could be on the hook for more money than you earned all season.

"A bookie can lose everything he made all year in one day," said Johnny B.

Looking at Sunday's game, he figures the heavy play will be on the Colts and the over. Bookies, he said, will be rooting for the Saints and the under.