Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest calendar day in American sports. In fact, it's more like a national holiday. Just consider Super Bowl XL last year in Detroit. More than 140 million people across the United States watched the highly anticipated matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks while filling up on big sandwiches and wings at the neighborhood Super Bowl party. But what is it that makes the Super Bowl the event that it is year after year? Is it the parties? Is it the television commercials or the Rolling Stones appearing at halftime? Hard-core football fans will tell you it's the game itself—the NFC champion versus the AFC champion battling no-holds-barred for the Lombardi Trophy. For me, and millions of others, it's the betting.
Since it was first played in 1967, the Super Bowl has evolved into the biggest single event for those who want to plunk down their dollars. Everyone from Las Vegas sports books and offshore betting operations to local bookies and work colleagues get in on the action. Last year, Nevada State Gaming regulators announced that $94.5 million was bet on the Super Bowl. This year, I estimate that legal wagers in Nevada could top $95 million for Super Bowl XLI. There are also the billions being wagered through offshore bookmakers and over the Internet, person-to-person bets and office pools. The numbers are mind-boggling and they continue to grow every year. People want to bet on football and they want to bet on the Super Bowl.
So what explains the surge in popularity? First, the landscape of the NFL has changed. Revenue sharing, salary caps and clauses in the collective bargaining agreement have brought parity to the league. "Any given Sunday" has become a phrase that's stimulating the public's appetite for wagering, which is especially ravenous on Super Bowl Sunday.
Second, the computer age and offshore books have generated a betting boom. For any fan wishing to make a wager, it's as easy as dialing an 800 number or logging on to a home computer. "The Super Bowl is by far our biggest betting event of the year," says Roger Allen, the manager of Heritage Sports.com, a Costa Rican—based sports book. "It seems like the entire country has to have action on the game." Mickey Richardson of BetCRIS.com Sportsbook in Costa Rica, which produces the Super Bowl's first betting line each year, echoes the sentiment. "People treat the Super Bowl like it's double or nothing," he says.
Finally, there's Las Vegas. In 1969, there were only 12 sports books in Nevada with a total betting handle of $395,000 that year. As of December 31, 2005, the number had grown to 176 books with an annual gross handle of more than $2 billion—46 percent of which was wagered on college and professional football. Break those numbers down further and it's the Super Bowl that's leading the betting mania. "People bet 10 times as much on the Super Bowl as they would on any other game," says Robert Walker, the race and sports book director with the MGM Mirage Group, the biggest sports book chain in Nevada.
It was the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXIX. The San Francisco 49ers, favored by 18 points, were routing the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers had trailed by as many as 32 points, but had managed to cut the lead to 23. "There are still a lot of people interested in the final score of this game," said ABC announcer Al Michaels.
Indeed they were. With one minute to go, the Chargers were on the 49ers' 20-yard line. A touchdown would have been meaningless to the outcome of the game, but for anyone betting, that meaningless touchdown would have meant that the Chargers had covered the spread. San Francisco held.
In last year's Super Bowl, the same thing occurred, albeit in a much closer game. Favored by four points, the Steelers led the Seahawks by 11 in the closing minute with Seattle driving. A touchdown would have given the Seahawks a chance at a two-point conversion, cutting the lead to three and giving them an outside chance at recovering an onside kick and booting a game-tying field goal. A two-point conversion would also have covered the spread. Bettors were glued to the television screen. Some breathed a sigh of relief when Seattle receiver Joe Jurevicius dropped a pass on the one-yard line after a jarring hit. Others moaned.
The question becomes: how do you bet on the Super Bowl? And how much should you consider the point spread when placing a bet? I have four rules to help you bet correctly and win money on the Super Bowl:
Rule #1 The strategy I use most when predicting the Super Bowl is to pick the winner of the game and forget about the point spread. The point spread was created to equalize competition and stimulate comparable wagering between two otherwise unequal opponents. Although the public tends to view the point spread as a measure of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team, its central purpose is not to predict the likelihood of victory. Rather, it's an attempt to balance the amount bet on either side of the game. The spread also allows fans to make what's essentially an even-money wager on any game, no matter how one-sided it may appear.
In the Super Bowl, the spread is practically a nonfactor. Only five times has the winner of the game failed to beat the spread. That's a record of 32-5-3, or an 86.5 winning percentage. Compare that to 58 percent, which is considered excellent for point-spread handicappers. So forget the point spread and bet who you think will win.
Rule #2 Total points wagering (the combined score of both teams) has become a very popular Super Bowl wager. I suggest that when offensively powerful teams are meeting, bet the under. My reasoning is simple and accurate.
Offensive juggernauts tend to play conservatively early in the game, with the idea being they can score whenever they want. Also factor in that many teams are tight in the first half and often score only after they have felt the other team out. Take the last two Super Bowls, for example. In Super Bowl XXXIX, the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles were both considered offensive stalwarts. The over/under was 47.5 points, but the teams only combined for 45. In Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh and Seattle scored 31 total points, way off the 47-point over/under.
Conversely, if two defensively dominated teams square off, bet the over. When you have defensive giants meeting, the offenses tend to open up. They figure that any scoring—be it field goals or touchdowns—will help their defense win the game and they are not as apt to fear making mistakes. This works both ways in covering the over. It's hard to stop a Super Bowl team that opens up its offense, which potentially means more scoring. It also can mean more turnovers, which again could mean more scoring. A good example is Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. The Patriots and the Carolina Panthers were thought to have the two best defenses in the league and the over/under was set at 38 points. The teams combined for 61 points, 37 in the fourth quarter alone.
Rule #3 Stay away from proposition bets such as who will win the coin toss, which team or player will score first, and if the first touchdown will be a pass, run or interception. These are sucker bets for neophytes and people lose money on them in every Super Bowl. The one proposition bet that the public won money on was in Super Bowl XX between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots. The opening odds for William "The Refrigerator" Perry to score a touchdown were 12:1. By kickoff they were 2:1 as everybody and his uncle bet on him to score, which he did. Overall, however, the public lost money on proposition bets on the 1986 Super Bowl, and they will lose money on this year's Super Bowl too.
Rule #4 At halftime, the nation's bookmakers post a new point spread for the second-half action. To come out on top here, bet the team that you think will beat the original Super Bowl line, as the team that has beaten the game's opening point spread has also beaten the halftime spread in 12 of the last 13 Super Bowls. Of course, time is tight, so have your cell phone or computer ready if you want to place a halftime wager.
Danny Sheridan is a sports analyst for USA Today for which he provides the daily odds on all sporting events.