This coming Sunday, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field in Super Bowl XLV, a sporting spectacle of the grandest scale -- and one that just gets bigger and bigger each year. It's also a huge day for American commerce, with people flocking to bars, purchasing NFL merchandise, and throwing parties where they down copious amounts of food, soft drinks and booze. But few single industries benefit as much as betting operations -- or, as they're known in their Vegas and offshore habitats, sportsbooks.
According to recently released figures, Las Vegas sportsbooks have raked in cash nine out of the past 10 Super Bowls. The forces behind the Super Sunday gaming explosion aren't hard to single out: There's the NFL's enormous popularity and there's the boom in online gambling via offshore internet sportsbooks like Bodog.com and SportsBook.com. Taken together, these trends all but guarantee that bookmakers will be big winners this Sunday.
Chad Millman has been chronicling sports gamblers and the sports gambling industry for more than a decade. He wrote a book on the subject in the late 90s, and for the past few years has covered sports gambling for ESPN.com with a regular column and frequent podcasts. Millman told The Lookout that he estimates sportsbooks in Vegas and offshore will combine to handle hundreds of millions of dollars in bets this weekend.
"The amount of money bet on the Super Bowl in Nevada will be $85-90 million. What they take in is varying degrees of that," Millman told us. "But it's by far their biggest day of the year ... I would expect it to be a banner year."
Offshore sportsbooks -- typically licensed in places like Costa Rica and Antigua -- take in much more money in bets than Vegas casinos do, as anyone with a credit/debit card and an internet connection can make bets, though it's technically illegal in the U.S. to do so (but that may soon change). How much exactly is anyone's guess, because those operations aren't as regulated and as scrutinized as casinos in Nevada are.
"It's just impossible to say how much money they handle, because the estimates are so wildly inaccurate. But they always base it in the high hundreds of millions of dollars," Millman said. "It's significantly more than" the norm on a typical busy day of betting in Vegas, he notes.
Millman added that internet gaming sites "have become so much more relevant and prevalent in the past ten years that you can't really get a handle on how much they're actually making. It's given rise to a new generation of bettors, and it's blurred the lines between squares and sharps."
"Squares" and "sharps" are the gambling terms of art for recreational bettors and the professional caste of sports wagerers -- and their gradual conversion is one of the great leveling achievements of the internet age. Before the web, the only options on offer for most sports wagerers were the illegal services of local bookies, or often-expensive treks to Las Vegas to place legally sanctioned bets -- keeping the barriers of entry to a career as a professional bettor quite high. Meanwhile, the web also has dramatically leveled public access to the valuable inside information that professional gamblers formerly made their exclusive stock in trade. In one of his recent ESPN podcasts, Millman mentioned how, prior to the internet, some gamblers paid people in cities all around the country to read the local papers and report back to them in the hope of finding tidbits that could provide any sort of betting advantage.
Sports betting is now "so much easier to do, and it's changed the perception about what it really is," Millman said. "I know a lot of Vegas wiseguys who follow every beat writer for the NFL and the NBA and Major League Baseball and all of the major columnists for these sports on Twitter. So the second there's an injury update, they're making a bet based on the injury update. Whereas years ago, a guy I wrote about in my book, he would call the scorer's table pretending to be a student reporter for the local newspaper to see who was going to be playing that day and get the most updated information. It's a vastly different way to make bets."
Additionally, Pittsburgh and Green Bay are two of the NFL's more storied franchises, with nine Super Bowl championships between them. Their stature as so-called public teams -- i.e., franchises that attract a sizable fan base well beyond their regional markets -- will further enhance Sunday's likely betting volume, Millman observed.
"They are two of the three most public teams that there are, with the Dallas Cowboys being the third," Millman said, noting that public bettors tend to place bets on their team of choice, along with other well-known teams. "And the Packers are the favorite and they haven't been there in a while, so there's nostalgia for built in for that team. You're looking at potential for record volume."
And if the football aren't inducement enough, there are also the many "proposition" bets that sportsbooks will promote for the Super Bowl -- wagers that sometimes have nothing to do with the game at all. Among this year's likely fodder: How long Christina Aguilera's performance of the national anthem will last (and if she will don a cowboy hat in recognition of the host city of Dallas), what color of Gatorade will the winning team pour on its head coach, and what the outcome of the pregame coin toss will be.
But there are a couple of proposition bets in particular Millman says Vegas "wiseguys" are high on: whether one of the two teams will score on three consecutive possessions -- Millman says that people "generally bet against that, but it happens more frequently than not" -- and whether both teams' kickers will boot field goals of 33 yards or more. "People think 33 yards is so short that they're surely going to do it, but more often than not, it actually doesn't happen."
Both those examples serve as a reminder: If you're planning to make a bet or two this weekend, keep in mind that there's a reason that they say that the House always wins.
(Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)