The one thing I didn't do during my year in Vegas was stick around for the Super Bowl. Instead, I went to Indianapolis and saw the New York Giants blow out the overmatched New England Patriots. At least, that's what I remember having happened. Although I've moved out of Sin City and retreated East, I wanted to go back and spend one Super Bowl weekend in town to experience the electric energy and wondrously woeful decision making that goes into the heaviest-bet contest in American sports.
That starts today with this deep, deep dive into the world of Super Bowl prop bets. For the uninitiated, casinos around the world (like the LVH, whose list I'll be working from in this piece) produce hundreds of "prop bets" or "exotics" that allow you to bet on events that are, at worst, tangentially related to the Super Bowl. How slim can the relationship be? Oh, you'll see. And if you're just overwhelmed by seeing any sort of line, I'll be explaining the different types of bets along the way.
I went through the prop bets for last year's game,1 and while I didn't publish the bets that I ended up making, I took the safest bet on the market and saw it lose for the only the sixth time in Super Bowl history. But more on that later. If I have one basic strategy for betting props, it's to try to bet against what I would imagine a drunk idiot coming to Vegas would bet two hours before gametime. Of course, I also have to make sure that I'm not the drunk idiot when I'm placing the bets. I'll post a list of the props I took on Twitter this weekend.
There's no way I can go through each of the hundreds of different bets that the LVH offers, so as I did last year, I'm going to try to highlight bets in a number of different categories that might interest you both in terms of your take on the outcome of the game and the various different categories of minutiae surrounding the contest.
Will there be overtime?
Let's start with one of the simplest ones to understand. As a quick primer, I'll explain how these bets work. The "+700" figure next to "Yes" means that a bettor would receive $700 back in profit if they bet $100 on the event occurring before it actually happened. If you held this winning ticket with $100 and brought it to the counter, you would be handed back $800 (the $700 profit plus your initial $100 bet). The "-1000" figure next to "No" replaces the positive sign at the beginning with a negative sign; it indicates that you have to bet the dollar amount in question to win $100. In this case, if you wanted to win $100 betting against the possibility that there would be overtime, you would need to bet $1000. If there's no overtime, you would win $1100 (the $100 profit plus your initial $1000 bet).
Where it makes sense, I'll try to chip in with some logic as to whether the bet makes sense. In this case, the "Yes" bet suggests that overtime will occur 12.5 percent of the time, while the "No" bet suggests that the game will end in regulation 91.7 percent of the time. Eagle-eyed readers will note that those two figures add up to 104.2 percent; that 4.2 percent is the vig that Vegas takes from the bets. To estimate what the "true" probabilities are, we have to adjust for the vig, which reduces the "Yes" probability to an even 12 percent and the "No" probability to exactly 88 percent.
Is 12 percent an accurate figure? Well, let's see. From 2010 to 2012, 49 of the 768 NFL games played during the regular season went into overtime. That's 6.3 percent. However, Ravens-49ers is a relatively close contest, as the 49ers are only favored by either 3.5 or four points at most books. On the other hand, this game is on a neutral field; Vegas normally gives the team at home an average of three points on the spread, so if the 49ers were at home, we'd expect this line to be 49ers -6.5; if they were in Baltimore, the line would be 49ers -0.5. To get a vague estimate of how overtime might play out in these games, let's look at teams when they're favored by 3.5 to 6.5 points at home or 0.5 to 2.5 points on the road. From 2000 to 2011, ties have occurred in 6.7 percent of those games, so it's not much higher of a figure.
If we believe that a tie would really occur 6.7 percent of the time if they played this Super Bowl a million times, you're getting bad odds with the "Yes" bet on overtime, which pays out like the event should occur 12 percent of the time, nearly twice as frequently. That's no surprise; Vegas loves these sorts of bets, where they can place long-shot odds on an event occurring that are still well below the actual probability of that event happening. Because virtually everybody who plays this bet will be somebody who puts $20 on the long shot event occurring, Vegas weights the odds in the favor of the opposite side occurring to try to draw action on the other side of the bet. The odds on the "Yes" bet should actually be just below +1400, while the "No" should be at -1400. In terms of expected value, every time you bet $100 on "Yes" with the Vegas odds and our "true" probability of an overtime occurring, you should expect to lose $46.40.
The largest lead of the game by either team will be
Over 14.0 points: -120
Under 14.0 points: Even Money
This is your standard over/under bet, where you're betting based upon the likelihood that an event will exceed or fail to exceed a specified total. Here, the bet is based around the idea that the largest lead in the game held by either team will be 14 points. If you think one team will lead by 15 points or more, you would go "over" 14 points with the -120 odds; if you think the game will be close throughout and that neither team will lead by more than 13 points at any given time, you would be the under at even money, which means that you would have your bet doubled in return if you win. (You can also think of it as +100 odds, if that's any easier.)
Will the game be decided by exactly three points?
More NFL games end with a three-point margin of victory than any other number. Using the categories from earlier, games with similar spreads to the 49ers-Ravens tilt finished with a three-point margin of victory 15.4 percent of the time. After adjusting for the vig, the "Yes" bet here implies that the game will finish with a three-point margin 21.5 percent of the time. This is another bet that would seem to favor betting "No," but if you think the game will be tight, the most likely outcome is a three-point margin.
Will the game be tied again after 0-0?
This bet has a special rule: On touchdowns, it's evaluated after the completion of each extra point or two-point conversion. As an example, if the Ravens go up 6-0 and the 49ers score a touchdown, the 6-6 tie pending the extra point won't count as a "Yes" for the purposes of this bet unless the 49ers miss the extra point or two-point conversion, since the 49ers would go up 7-6 or 8-6. If the Ravens are up 20-17 and the 49ers kick a field goal, though, the bet would be at 20-20 and the "Yes" would be confirmed.
I tried estimating this one and found that about 42 percent of NFL games during a given season are tied at some point after 0-0 under those rules. If you assume that games with smaller spreads are a little more likely to be tied, the 46.7 percent figure implied by the "Yes" mark is only slightly exaggerated.
Bet on a specific margin of victory.
Ravens win by 1-4 points: +450
49ers win by 1-4 points: +350
If you really thought the game was going to be close, you could bet $100 on either side of this line and basically get +300 odds that the game was going to finish with one team winning by three points or fewer, since you'd win $250 if the Niners prevailed by 1-4 points (the $350 prescribed in the odds above minus $100 for a losing bet on the Ravens winning by 1-4 points) and $350 if the Ravens won by 1-4 points.
Take an alternate 49ers point spread
49ers -7.5: +165
49ers -10.5: +230
49ers -14.5: +360
49ers -17.5: +500
In the LVH sportsbook, the standard line for the game has the 49ers favored by 3.5 points. If they win by four points or more, 49ers -3.5 covers and you win your bet; otherwise, Ravens +3.5 wins. Those bets are at -110. These are bets to return more significant value if you have faith in a comfortable Niners victory. If you host a Super Bowl party and the Niners have blown out the Ravens for three and a half quarters and they're up 23 points with six minutes to go, as your guests are filing out and not paying attention to the TV, just remember that poor guy who has an inappropriate amount of money riding on 49ers -17.5. Because that guy is in Vegas.
Total number of different 49ers to score
Over 3.5: -130
Under 3.5: +110
This includes the kicker, so this is basically a referendum on whether three different 49ers will cross the goal line with the ball in their hands. A defensive or special teams touchdown would make this one really likely to succeed, so you could parlay the +165 odds on that occurring with the Over 3.5 odds here if you wanted.
The combination bet of
49ers score first and win: +160
If you expect a Niners blowout to occur, chances are that you would also expect them to score first and never look back. Of course, the 49ers blew out the Packers in the divisional round and allowed Green Bay to score first (on a pick-six), so there are no guarantees there, either.
How many rushing yards will the 49ers accrue?
Over 154.5: -110
Under 154.5: -110
When teams win football games by hefty margins, they almost always accrue gaudy rushing yardage totals in the process. That's how you get those graphics noting that a team is 29-1 when their starting running back rushes for 100 yards, but it mistakes cause for effect. Teams with those big yardage totals are often running the clock out with a big lead in the second half and accruing their yardage that way. With that in mind, a big win for the 49ers would almost surely put them over 154.5 rushing yards; they've averaged 183.1 rushing yards in their 13 regular-season and playoff victories.
How many players will attempt a pass?
Over 2.5: +300
Under 2.5: -360
This is basically a referendum on whether Alex Smith will throw a pass in this game. (Two-point conversions don't count for the purposes of the bet, so the only other exception would be on a throw by a non-quarterback or by Tyrod Taylor.) If the 49ers get ahead and they're up by two or three scores late, doesn't it seem likely that the team would give Alex Smith a series to work with as a "thank you" for being professional? Of course, the real heartbreak would be if you bet "Yes" on this and Smith came in for a series but only handed off the ball.
Take an alternate Ravens point spread
Ravens -3.5: +240
Ravens -7.5: +400
Ravens -10.5: +600
Ravens -14.5: +800
The Baltimore moneyline, which is the price on them winning outright by any margin, is at +150. Because Baltimore is already a 3.5-point underdog, even turning them into a slight favorite can produce some lucrative opportunities. When the Ravens beat the Colts in the first round, they brought Ray Lewis onto the field to take the final snap of the game on offense; if they're beating the 49ers by 15 points in the fourth quarter, they might just bring Lewis on to play quarterback. And that will probably happen because Joe Flacco will literally be swimming in a pool of money on the sidelines.
How many rushing attempts will Ray Rice accrue?
Over 17.0: Even Money
Under 17.0: -120
Bernard Pierce has looked more explosive than Rice has during the playoffs this year, and Rice does have that bizarre history of fumbling during the playoffs, but the Ravens aren't stupid. If they have a lead in the second half, Rice is getting the football. He might get 17 carries in the second half alone if they have a healthy lead.
In which half will Joe Flacco have more passing yards?
First Half: +140
Second Half: -160
If the Ravens do win comfortably, it would follow that Flacco would throw them into the lead in the first half before settling in with runs and play action in the second half. There's always the possibility that the Ravens could come on late, as they did against the Patriots, but the odds are weighted toward Flacco doing more in the final 30 minutes of the game.
Which team will score first?
Again, if you're predicting that the Ravens will end up winning by a big margin, chances are that they'll get out to that margin by scoring first. With the odds weighted slightly against them, that expected outcome would make these +110 odds look rather nice.
Will the Ravens score in all four quarters?
Then again, if you think the Ravens are just going to go buckwild and score at will on the 49ers, here's your chance to get a ticket backing that logic.
Will there be overtime?
You saw this one at the beginning of the article. Again, "no" seems like a strong answer.
Will there be a safety?
This was my biggest prop bet loss last year. I laid out the logic suggesting that betting "No" was a good play, followed through with a bet, and managed to lose within seven minutes of the opening whistle. It was such a big loss that I needed to win every other one of my prop bets to break even (and that didn't happen, either).
But here, again, I'm going to point out why the "No" bet is the right one. Over the past five years, there have been 1,280 NFL regular-season games and 82 safeties, suggesting that safeties will occur in 6.4 percent of games. The odds above suggest, after adjusting for the vig, that safeties will occur in 9.7 percent of games. Furthermore, the most likely scenario that leads to a safety — a quarterback getting sacked in the end zone — is unlikely to occur, since these two teams have had relatively anemic pass rushes during the playoffs. So, again, I think there's value in betting "No" here. I'll do it again. Of course, this is "picking up nickels in front of a steamroller," and last year I got steamrolled.
Will there be a successful two-point conversion?
Just getting a team to attempt a two-point conversion is hard enough, let alone actually seeing them succeed at one. The Ravens have turned down opportunities to take two-pointers in situations that might seem to call for them on multiple occasions this season, suggesting to me that they're a pretty conservative team in terms of when they'll go for two. I don't think the 49ers are quite as conservative, but I still don't think there's an obvious opportunity to vote "Yes" here.
Will Joe Flacco score a touchdown?
This is as a ballcarrier, so Flacco would need to run one in or — gasp — catch a pass as a receiver to put this one through. He has eight rushing touchdowns across 92 professional games, meaning that he's scored in 8.7 percent of his NFL contests. Those odds have him scoring 13.9 percent of the time. You wouldn't feel very excited about this bet if the Ravens have the ball on the San Francisco 1-yard line at any point, but the odds are again in "No"'s favor.
Will Vonta Leach score the first touchdown of the game?
You can bet on a variety of players to score first, from Frank Gore (+700) to Bruce Miller (+7500), and you can even bet that there won't be any touchdowns (+20000, which seems tempting for a matchup that only produced one touchdown last year). To me, though, Vonta Leach seems like the most exciting combination of long odds and plausibility. He carried the ball nine times this year and scored on six of those carries, so it's pretty clear that the Ravens trust him as a goal-line back. Now, imagine if the Ravens get the ball to start the game and advance the ball to the 1-yard line and you have Leach to score first at +3000 and Flacco to not score at -800? Welcome to Vegas.
How will the opening coin toss land?
This is basically a sobriety/IQ test from Vegas to see if you're interested in giving them free money. The LVH actually moved the vig on this up from one cent (-101/-101) a year ago to two cents this year, suggesting that they think they can get just as much action on this bet with the extra juice. FYI: For some reason, people tend to favor "heads" on this bet. Just donate your money to charity instead. Or light it on fire.
Which team will make the first coach's challenge?
If only the Steelers were in the Super Bowl
How long will the first field goal of the game be?
Over 33.5 yards: -110
Under 33.5 yards: -110
The bets are all refunded if neither team successfully converts a field goal. Will the 49ers let David Akers try a field goal much longer than 33.5 yards? Considering they have Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, should they? The Ravens seem more likely to be conservative with their short fields and their excellent kicker, but the 49ers have struggled to stop teams from scoring touchdowns in the red zone, so I don't really see a way into this one.
Which team will accrue more penalty yards?
These are two of the most penalized teams in football.2 The Ravens are, in fact, the most penalized team in the league, giving up 69.2 penalty yards per game. The 49ers are the fifth-most penalized team in football, and they're at 59.4 yards per contest. Then again, the Ravens were the fourth-least penalized team in the league with a very similar roster last year, so I don't know how meaningful those 2012 regular-season numbers are in figuring out who will be the more penalized team in one game.
Will the 49ers score exactly four points?
No team in football history, to my knowledge, has scored exactly four points in one NFL game. There's only one way to get there, and it requires scoring two safeties without producing even one additional point the rest of the way. The Falcons were only one additional safety away from doing this to the Giants in the playoffs last year! I don't know what the true odds for this one should be, but you can probably add another nine to the end of that line and still be safe.
Why a special section on Kaepernick and nobody else? Because he's attracted attention and prop bet activity like no other player in history, thanks to the fact that he played his college ball at Nevada. Kaepernick is reportedly getting 20 times as much action on his props as would an average prop, so he gets the special supplementary section.
How long will Colin Kaepernick's first rushing attempt go?
Over 5.5 yards: -110
Under 5.5 yards: -110
If Kaepernick doesn't have a rushing attempt, the Under bet wins. If his first run is a kneel-down at the end of the first or second halves, the Under bet wins. The median run for Kaepernick this year is four yards, but the mode (most frequent) run for Kaepernick across his 81 carries is for seven yards.
How many rushing yards will Colin Kaepernick accrue?
Over 48.5 yards: -110
Under 48.5 yards: -110
After his 181-yard game against the Packers, Kaepernick ran just twice for 21 yards against the Falcons, whose scheme was built around forcing Kaepernick to hand the ball off to Frank Gore. If the Ravens decide that they would rather attack the Pistol that way, Kaepernick will need a big run to hit 49 yards. If they decide to take away Gore and try to tackle Kaepernick in the open field, well, Kaepernick could beat his game-day total on one snap.
Which will Colin Kaepernick throw first?
Touchdown Pass: -230
These two figures roughly correspond to his actual touchdown-to-interception ratio from the regular season (10:3), but his 1.4 percent interception rate was a little fluky, so there might actually be a tiny bit of value in the interception coming first. If Kaepernick does throw an interception early, though, those people who remember the Packers game are going to rush to the betting window and try to get a live bet in on Colin Kaepernick throwing five touchdowns (which you can actually get at +3000 right now).
Who will score the first touchdown of the game?
Colin Kaepernick: +1000
Another bet that came up earlier, Kaepernick's odds of scoring first aren't that great; he's only scored on the ground in three of the nine 49ers games he's started since taking things over in the Bay Area. He's also +1000 to score the last touchdown of the game, which strangely seems more plausible.
Who will have more?
Colin Kaepernick, completions +4.0: -110
Dwyane Wade, points vs. Raptors -4.0: -110
Confused by that one? Let's move forward to the next section and I'll explain it there.
The bet above is comparing Colin Kaepernick's total number of completions in the Super Bowl to Dwyane Wade's total number of points against the Raptors in the Miami-Toronto NBA game Sunday morning, with Wade a four-point favorite; in other words, if Wade scores 30 points and Kaepernick goes 25-for-41, Wade would win narrowly. If Kaepernick went 27-for-41 instead, he would win by a tiny margin.
Which side is right? Well, Wade's averaging 20.7 points per game this season at the time of writing, but the Raptors are a terrible defensive team. They allow 108.6 points per 100 possessions, which is the fifth-worst rate in the NBA. Wade also dropped 35 on them during an overtime victory last week. Kaepernick, meanwhile, has been averaging just 17 completions per game since taking over, and he's only been above 20 completions in one NFL game once. Wade seems like the right side here, even giving up the four "points."
There's more where that bet came from.
Who will have more?
Kobe Bryant, points vs. Pistons -4.0: -110
49ers points +4.0: -110
Detroit has a league-average defense to work with, so they're a step up versus the slate that Wade will go up against that morning.
Who will have more?
Steve Nash, assists vs. Pistons +3.5: -110
Distance of the first TD pass of the game -3.5 yards: -110
Nash averages about eight assists per game, so we need Flacco or Kaepernick to pick up a touchdown that travels 14 yards or more to win that side of the bet. With all the big, talented downfield receivers on either side of the rosters, that seems like a bet worth taking.
Who will have more?
Torrey Smith, touchdowns: +110
Jozy Altidore, goals vs. Groningen: -130
Altidore is having a career year for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, as the former New York Red Bulls striker is maturing into one of the next great U.S. Men's National Team players by scoring freely for his club. This is a pick 'em in terms of touchdowns and goals, so a tie would return the bet back into your pocket. After watching the Falcons burn the 49ers deep last week, though, Torrey Smith seems like a good idea.
Who will have more?
Frank Gore, touchdowns +0.5: +105
Lionel Messi, goals vs. Valencia, -0.5: -125
Life is too short to bet against Lionel Messi, that's for sure.
Most of these bets aren't legal in Vegas because they're arbitrarily defined and decided; because of that, these are bets from the Bovada online sportsbook.
How long will Alicia Keys's national anthem go on for?
Over 2 minutes, 15 seconds: -110
Under 2 minutes, 15 seconds: -110
Someone out there has watched a lot of anthems and listened to a lot of Alicia Keys concert bootlegs (or watched that credit card commercial a lot) to try to figure out just how long Keys's anthem might go. It also doesn't count if she segues directly into Empire State of Mind. Have to save that for next year's Super Bowl.
Will Beyoncé be joined onstage by Jay-Z during the Halftime Show at any point?
Speaking of Hov, he has the opportunity to win some money by joining his beloved onstage during the halftime show. "No" is rightly a favorite, and for a good reason: Far too many NFL fans actually like Jay-Z for him to appear onstage during a halftime show.
Will Beyoncé's hair be straight or curly/crimped at the beginning of the halftime show?
Curly/crimped: Even Money
Just go watch the Puppy Bowl instead. (No betting there.) (Yet.)
Which color will the Gatorade/liquid dumped on the winning head coach be?
Red just seems like such a great long shot when you consider that one of the teams wears red as its primary color. Finding purple Gatorade to soak John Harbaugh might be a little more difficult.
How many times will the game be referred to as Harbaugh Bowl, Har Bowl, or Super Baugh during the game?
Over 2.5: -110
Under 2.5 -110
Someone is going to get paid by an online sportsbook during the game to watch the contest and just listen for whether the announcers refer to it by any of the above names. What a wonderful, dumb world we live in. This seems low to me, even if the Harbaugh family isn't in attendance; one video package might be enough to knock this one out.
I also went through the prop bets a number of times during my run at Football Outsiders, who have actually had a prop bets column going all the way back to 2003. Their look at the bets for this year's game are here.
Remember that the next time you hear some announcer tell you that football is about remaining disciplined and being smart and avoiding dumb penalties.