When I talk with casual fans in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, they tend to be interested in my opinion about who is going to win the big game. But when I’m talking with bettors, not fans, the topic inevitably turns towards props; where sports betting and fantasy sports collide.
Props have been on the Las Vegas betting boards for thirty years. It all began when the juggernaut 1985 Chicago Bears were facing the Patriots in Super Bowl 20. Legendary Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro was a very creative bookmaker at the Mirage (at the time), looking for ways to increase their betting handle. Vaccaro posted odds on whether 350 pound defensive lineman William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry would score a touchdown in the big game. Vaccaro certainly didn’t think it was likely, offering attractive underdog odds for those who wanted to bet on The Fridge would hit paydirt in the end zone.
Vaccaro’s unique offering attracted all kinds of attention both from bettors and from media types. It also accomplished his goal of increasing betting handle, with money pouring in on the ‘Yes, Fridge will score a TD’ side of the prop at big (but quickly declining) plus price odds. From a short term, bottom line standpoint, the first prop bet in Vegas history was a disaster for the books. Fridge famously did score a TD, stealing a goalline carry away from Hall of Famer Walter Payton in the process. Vaccaro: "We lost our ass on that bet. But we won in the long run."
That was the beginning of the deluge of prop bets for the Super Bowl, the forerunner of Over/Under yardage numbers for quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers that are now widely available for every Sunday, Monday and Thursday Night Football game during the regular season. But Super Bowl prop betting didn’t get to the next level until Jay Kornegay took over as the sportsbook director at the Imperial Palace.
I’m being kind when I call the late 90’s Imperial Palace a dump, an aging center Strip property right in the middle of an area that was in the process of getting completely revitalized through a massive building boom. The worst parking garage in town flooded every time it rained. The Sportsbook itself was tucked away in a back corner on the third floor, requiring a ride on one of the longest, slowest escalators in the history of escalators to pay a visit.
But there was only one thing that kept the Imperial Palace or IP (now The Linq following a sale and a $230 million makeover that didn’t touch the parking garage) relevant for locals and sports bettors. That thing? The sportsbook, of course! By the mid to late 90’s, Kornegay was doing a number of fairly unique things to increase handle at his book. The IP would post the following week’s NFL pointspreads at halftime of the 1 PM (Pacific Time) games, something no one else in town was doing, beating the legendary Stardust Sportsbook (with the slogan ‘Where the Line Originates’) in the process.
When I first moved to Las Vegas in time for the 1998 football season, it was already well established that the IP was THE sportsbook for Super Bowl props; a venue that seemed intent on drawing sharp traffic away from the Stardust. My first Super Bowl in Vegas was John Elway’s last game; a Broncos win and cover over the Falcons in Super Bowl 33 that is also known as the ‘Eugene Robinson game’ after Robinson got arrested for soliciting a prostitute on the night before the game.
I watched that game with some buddies at the IP. We all had bets on Denver; there wasn’t much of a sweat there, with the exception of when Tim Dwight ran a kickoff back for a TD in the fourth quarter just to make things a little interesting, opening up a backdoor cover possibility. The real excitement came from the props, not the actual game being played on the field.
At that point – in the late 90’s – Kornegay and his staff at the IP were well ahead of the rest of the world when it came to props. Here in Vegas, the vast majority of other sportsbooks were far too risk averse to offer the bevy of options that Kornegay had posted. You’d see some books in town copy the simple stuff – this is where the tradition of Kornegay NOT offering printed sheets until a couple of days after the props were released began. The IP was at the forefront of the Super Bowl prop betting world, with everyone else trailing behind. Even the offshore books, which were proliferating wildly at the time, couldn’t match the depth and breadth of the IP Sportsbook’s Super Bowl proposition wagers.
When Kornegay moved over to the Hilton Superbook in 2004, which became the LVH Superbook, which became the Westgate Superbook, he brought the focus on Super Bowl props with him. Since that time, the Superbook has become the world leader for Super Bowl props. CG Technology (formerly Cantor) posts a significant array of proposition wagers to choose from as well. Just about every other sportsbook in town offers prop bets as well, although the vast majority of those betting menus aren’t nearly as deep.
The offshore world has gotten more heavily involved with their menu of prop bet offerings over the past decade as well. Those with access to the offshore numbers can take advantage of the handful of solid arbitrage opportunities as the global numbers are posted. When one book has Peyton Manning’s total passing yardage posted at 235.5 and another book has it at 246.5, savvy bettors take advantage with Under 246.5 yards bets or Over 233.5 yards bets; sometimes both (offering the possibility of a middle, cashing both sides of the wager).
The professional bettors here in Vegas do not go nuts betting the Super Bowl side and/or total. It’s just one game at the tail end of a long season; a game where both the pointspread and the total are priced right around where they should be. Many wiseguys will not have a wager on side or total when Super Bowl 50 kicks off.
But the prop betting menu is a different story entirely. When the Westgate Superbook posted their opening numbers last Thursday night, the line stretched all the way to the back of the book. There was at least a half hour wait to get a bet down, yet bettors waited patiently for their turn to fire away at the openers with $2000 limits. Guys who take this seriously can get half a million dollars into play without a hitch, in $1000 and $2000 increments. When the best bettors in the world go ‘all in’ betting these props for Super Bowl Sunday, recreational and casual bettors should take notice!
Best of luck betting the Big Game on Sunday!
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