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Gaming Guru

Matt Youmans

Super Bowl offers a winning proposition

4 February 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Thirty years ago, when Tom Brady was in diapers and Terry Bradshaw was quarterback of the NFL's dynasty team, wagering on the Super Bowl was a trend in its infancy.

Only a handful of sports books dotted a much more desolate landscape in Las Vegas. Tumbleweeds danced across the Strip, not football fans.

Parlay cards and proposition bets were yet to be born into popularity.

Only serious gamblers treated the biggest game of the season as a major wagering opportunity.

"The Super Bowl was just like another Sunday, to some degree," longtime Las Vegas bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. "The mass public truly just was not involved yet."

Vaccaro arrived on the Strip in the mid-1970s. He ran the Royal Inn sports book and remembers first booking a Super Bowl in January 1978 -- it could have been 1977, but, as he said, details get fuzzy after so many years.

"That first Super Bowl, I think our handle was about $350,000," he said.

The Royal Inn was among four prominent sports books attached to hotels, he said, with the Castaways, Stardust and Union Plaza. The Nevada wagering handle for Super Bowl XII in 1978, by his estimate, was no more than $5 million.

On Sunday, when the New England Patriots and New York Giants meet in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., the ripple effect on the Strip will be dramatically different.

Las Vegas casinos roll out the red carpet for football bettors, celebrities flock to town for parties and the legal wagering handle in the state is expected to set a record by approaching $100 million.

"You've just got everybody betting, and mainstream America is back into it. I believe sports is on a new boom," Vaccaro said.

The state's record handle for a Super Bowl is $94.5 million, set two years ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks. The total 'dipped' to $93 million for last year's Super Bowl, when the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears.

With Brady and the Patriots seeking to cap an unbeaten season, the game's hype is at an all-time high. Vaccaro predicts a record handle in Nevada.

In 1991, the first year the Nevada Gaming Control Board collected Super Bowl wagering figures, the handle was $40 million.

"Every year, it has gotten to be a bigger and bigger event for the casino industry," said Frank Streshley, the control board's senior analyst. "It's definitely one of the biggest weeks of the year."

All handle figures prior to 1991 are educated guesses. Streshley said when Super Bowl weekend became a major revenue source for casinos -- and the event was being used as a marketing tool -- the control board made a decision to monitor and report the handle.

It's the only sporting event for which the Nevada board records specific wagering figures. According to various estimates, between $6 billion and $10 billion is wagered worldwide on the Super Bowl through various outlets such as underground and offshore books.

Kenny White, chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, said money from professional bettors overwhelmed the amount bet by the general public on the Super Bowl even into the mid-1980s. That scenario has reversed to the point where the public accounts for about 70 percent of the game's wagering in Nevada.

White, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1968, has been a bettor, bookmaker and oddsmaker for more than 20 years.

"I can remember in the 1970s," White said, "when sports bettors were really looked down upon as degenerates."

But those attitudes changed, Vaccaro said, and he sensed in the early 1980s that the Super Bowl was destined to become a super-sized betting event.

"You could just see it coming," he said. "It just kept rolling and rolling."

Vaccaro credited Las Vegas hotels, especially Caesars Palace, for promoting Super Bowl parties with guest appearances by NFL stars. Media coverage of the gambling aspect of the game started to spread in the early 1980s.

"The hotels brought the sports books out of the back rooms," he said. "There was more coverage from out-of-town newspapers, and more people wanted to be in Vegas than go to the game.

"One thing led to another."

The creation of prop bets also helped the game grow. In the early years, the side and total were about the only betting options. Vaccaro said in January 1980, his first Super Bowl at the Barbary Coast, he posted five to 10 basic point-spread props after getting the idea from former Las Vegas Club bookmaker Mel Exber.

The previous year, when Bradshaw and the Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII, is remembered for "Black Sunday." The Steelers opened as 21/2-point favorites with some underground bookies, and the line reached as high as 41/2.

Vaccaro, still at the Royal Inn, opened the Steelers minus-31/2. The final margin of four points crushed the books.

"The early money was bet in the right places. Some of (the bettors) had life-changing experiences because they were taking 41/2 points (with the Cowboys) and laying 21/2 (with the Steelers)," Vaccaro said. "The thing that would have saved us a lot of money, but we weren't doing it then, was the props."

The Royal Inn lost $180,000 on the game, he said, and the Stardust lost $1.7 million.

"We got plastered on it. The joints in Vegas got beat up pretty good," Vaccaro said. "There wasn't a bookmaker in sight. They were all at the airport Sunday night."

Such a setback for the sports books is rare. Since the control board started keeping records, Nevada's casinos have posted a win in 16 of 17 Super Bowls.

Odds are the trend will continue Sunday, and the total wagered might set a record.


Performances by Nevada sports books for the past 17 Super Bowls:
Year   Wagers   Win/(Loss)   Win Pct.   Score
2007   $93,067,358   $12,930,175   13.9   Colts 29, Bears 17
2006   $94,534,372   $8,828,431   9.3   Steelers 21, Seahawks 10
2005   $90,759,236   $15,430,138   17.0   Patriots 24, Eagles 21
2004   $81,242,191   $12,440,698   15.3   Patriots 32, Panthers 29
2003   $71,693,032   $5,264,963   7.3   Buccaneers 48, Raiders 21
2002   $71,513,304   $2,331,607   3.3   Patriots 20, Rams 17
2001   $67,661,425   $11,002,636   16.3   Ravens 34, Giants 7
2000   $71,046,751   $4,237,978   6.0   Rams 23, Titans 16
1999   $75,986,520   $2,906,601   3.8   Broncos 34, Falcons 19
1998   $77,253,246   $472,033   0.6   Broncos 31, Packers 24
1997   $70,853,211   $2,265,701   3.2   Packers 35, Patriots 21
1996   $70,907,801   $7,126,145   10.1   Cowboys 27, Steelers 17
1995   $69,591,818   $(396,674)   (0.6)   49ers 49, Chargers 26
1994   $54,483,221   $7,481,541   13.7   Cowboys 30, Bills 13
1993   $56,811,405   $7,174,869   12.6   Cowboys 52, Bills 17
1992   $50,334,277   $301,280   0.6   Redskins 37, Bills 24
1991   $40,080,409   $3,512,241   8.8   Giants 20, Bills 19