What would become the most lucrative Super Bowl to date for Las Vegas sportsbooks began with a massive loss on the very first play of the game.
In NFL history, only 6.8% of regular-season games — approximately one in 15 — have included a safety, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Yet, year after year, the betting public loads up on a safety occurring in the Super Bowl, despite odds nowhere close to 15-1. The going price for a safety in the Super Bowl this year is 7-1.
Meanwhile, savvy pro bettors annually short the Super Bowl safety, sometimes waiting until just before kickoff to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars for a chance at winning a few thousand dollars. Sportsbooks align themselves with the pros on the safety prop and end up with tons of small bets on the “yes” at long odds, and a handful of giant wagers on the “no” that pay only a little.
“Laying a big price is not sexy,” said Rufus Peabody, a professional bettor known for his prowess on Super Bowl props. “If it wins, you don’t win a lot; if it loses, you lose a lot. I see why the average recreational bettor doesn’t like laying a big price like that. If I made one bet a year, I probably wouldn’t want to risk $1,000 to win $100.”
Indeed, football’s rarest scoring play routinely produces one of the biggest pros-vs-joes gambling decisions on the Super Bowl, and, on Feb. 2, 2014, the squares bested the sharps — and the bookmakers — with, depending on your perspective, the most lucrative or most expensive safety in NFL history.
Nevada sportsbooks won a record $19.7 million at Super Bowl XLVIII between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. That’s nearly as much as the state’s books had won in the previous four Super Bowls combined. The betting public sided heavily with Peyton Manning and the Broncos as small favorites and got clobbered with the Seahawks’ 43-8 rout. The bookmakers crushed it, but it didn’t start out well for the house or the professional bettors, like the wise guy known to some as Marco Robindale.
A stocky, gruff, Las Vegas transplant from Boston, Robindale is a longtime professional gambler who bets sports and travels around the country beating casinos at table games. He’s a grizzled veteran with the chops to handle the big losses that inevitably come with his chosen profession. But the beat he took when the first snap of the game sailed past Manning and into the end zone for a Seahawks safety still haunts him. It changed him as a gambler.
For hours leading up to kickoff, Robindale had been racing around Las Vegas “like Andretti” in his 2008 silver Lexus. He parked where he shouldn’t and ran in and out of casinos, betting as much as he could on what seemed like the deal of a lifetime.
The previous two Super Bowls had included a safety, and recency bias infected the betting public. Books were inundated by money on the “yes” on the safety prop and desperate to mitigate their risk. As Robindale puts it, “The public was betting the ‘yes’ on the safety like they had the box score.”
Sportsbooks were caught off guard by the surge in interest on the safety and began dropping the price on the “No” to unprecedented levels. Typically, books charge around -900 or more to bet against a safety happening, meaning you’d have to put up $900 to win a net $100. But on this Super Bowl Sunday, Robindale was being offered -450 or better to take the “No.” That’s how badly the books needed the money on the other side. Robindale bet it anywhere he could, as fast as he could.
An hour before kickoff, a contact at Caesars Palace called. If he could get there quickly, the sportsbook was willing to give him a bet for as much as he wanted on the “No” on the safety at the unthinkable price of -350. Robindale sped over to Caesars Palace, walked directly to the window, cutting in front of a line of bettors, pulled $70,000 out of the pockets in his cargo shorts and bet it all for a chance to win $20,000 that a safety would not occur.
On the busiest Sunday of the year, Robindale was in and out of Caesars Palace within minutes, before his phone rang again. The sportsbook at the Palms was down to -400 on no safety, but the game was kicking off in 30 minutes. Robindale said he’d be there shortly.
On the way to the Palms, he began calculating his total risk represented on the dozen or so tickets on the safety prop sitting in his car. He paused when he realized how much he had managed to get down: $220,000, significantly more than he’d normally risk on a single outcome, for a shot at winning somewhere around $50,000.
Still, he couldn’t resist betting more at the discounted price at the Palms. It was just too good of an opportunity. He raced over, put another $20,000 down on no safety and immediately called a friend, offering to sell him a chunk of his action as the game was kicking off. At the prices he got, Robindale couldn’t imagine that he’d have any problem unloading some of his action.
Robindale’s friend was interested, but was on the other line and needed to call him right back. Minutes later, Robindale got the call back, but it was already too late.
“Well, I don’t want it now,” his friend said of the offer to buy some of Robindale’s safety action.
“What the [expletive] just happened?” Robindale asked.
“Oh, you’re not watching the game… first play, it’s 2-0 Seattle,” the friend replied.
Robindale was down $220,000 just seconds into the game. It was the second-largest loss on a single outcome of his betting career, and Robindale hasn’t made a Super Bowl safety bet since.
Looking back at it eight years later, Robindale sighs, “Great numbers, great bets, but … I decided after that, it was more trouble than it’s worth. It’s not really my M.O. to worry about wins and losses. I’m far more concerned with getting the opportunity. But I think my bankroll can be in better spots than betting a lot to win a little, with rare exceptions. The safety, the overtime … any of those, I’ve written them off to gambling past.”
But the betting public hasn’t.
The explosion in popularity of Super Bowl prop betting can be traced back to William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the 300-plus-pound Chicago Bears defensive lineman who became a public darling in the mid-1980s.
In 1986, Las Vegas bookmaker Art Manteris, then with Caesars Palace, offered a proposition on Perry scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots. The odds opened around 20-1. Enough action came in on Perry to score that odds dropped to as short as 2-1. Perry scored on a short touchdown run in the second half of the Bears’ blowout of the Patriots, and Manteris lost big. But prop betting was just beginning.
“I think they like to bet it because it keeps them in the game the whole time,” Chris Andrews, a veteran Las Vegas bookmaker now with the South Point, said of the safety prop.
Odds on a safety being scored in the Super Bowl began appearing at sportsbooks roughly 30 years ago. From 1988 to 2007, only one Super Bowl (1991) featured a safety. There was another safety in 2008 and then the run of three in a row capped by the Manning fiasco.
“After the previous two years, you were getting a great price on no safety, because of recency bias,” Peabody said. “We had more on it than we had in the previous years, and I remember the ball going over [Manning’s] head and was like, ‘Oh god, not again.’ I remember grading those and being already down over $100,000.
“I’m down lifetime on betting no safety, for sure,” he noted in a recent phone interview, “because there have been three safeties in the 13 Super Bowls I’ve bet, and I’m laying -800, -900.”
That sensitivity for price distinguishes the serious gambler from the betting public. Sharp bettors compare the probability equated by the odds to the actual probability of an event occurring and bet accordingly — even if that means betting a lot to win a little. They’re willing to risk a lot even for a smaller return, if the price is right.
Recreational bettors, on the other hand, typically want to bet a little to win a lot — even if the odds are nowhere close to the actual probability.
Jay Kornegay, an affable, middle-aged Las Vegas bookmaker, was escorting the final few late-arriving VIPs to their ballroom seats as Super Bowl XLVIII between the Broncos and Seahawks kicked off.
Kornegay, a die-hard Broncos fan, was all the way across the Las Vegas hotel from the sportsbook he runs, but heard the roar when the first snap of the game sailed past Manning and into the end zone for a Seahawks safety.
“Really?” he muttered incredulously, mostly concerned with his favorite team’s unfortunate start.
Moments later, his bookmaker’s instincts kicked in: “Oh, that couldn’t have been good for us.”
Kornegay fired off a text to a sportsbook clerk: “Hey, how much did that cost us?”
“You don’t want to know,” the clerk replied.
Kornegay didn’t respond.
After getting all the high-rollers settled, Kornegay headed back from the ballroom to the SuperBook to assess the damage the safety had caused. In his head, he was estimating close to a six-figure loss. However, Kornegay considered only the action on a safety occurring at any point of the game, which paid around 8-1. He didn’t think about the 60-1 odds they had offered on the first score of the game being a safety by the Seahawks.
“OK, how much did that cost us?” Kornegay asked his team.
“Over a quarter a million,” they responded.
Sportsbooks all over Las Vegas took it on the chin on the safety. In addition to the SuperBook, MGM, William Hill and the Wynn were among the sportsbooks that reported multiple six-figure losses. A bettor at the Wynn had $1,000 on a Seahawks safety being the first score at 60-1. MGM reported taking 141 bets on Seattle safety being the first score.
Kornegay says that Seahawks safety remains the worst loss on a Super Bowl proposition he has suffered in his bookmaking career, but he likes his chances going forward.
The odds of a safety in this year’s Super Bowl between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams opened with the “Yes” +700, with the “No” -1,100.
“We know the odds, and they’re in our favor,” Kornegay said.
The betting public won’t care.