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Kevin Bradley sat in front of his computer last week, and with the prospect of formulating the best, most fun, and most hilarious prop bets, he lost himself in the research.
For two hours, Bradley studied the history of earthquakes in the Bay Area and the probabilities that one would occur on Feb. 7—otherwise known as Super Bowl Sunday. He pinpointed exactly where Levi’s Stadium stands and how many earthquakes hit Santa Clara, California, per day. He Googled and studied and found earthquake tracker sites before finally emerging from the fog with a decision.
Bradley—the sportsbook manager of Bovada.lv, one of the most popular online sports gambling websites in this country—was barely sleeping, and his staff of about 20 oddsmakers had spent all week racking their brains to come up with the best prop bets that money could buy.
Bradley had spent his time researching and thinking and pondering whether the Earth would shake at the site of Super Bowl 50, and he decided that the odds were 10-to-1 that it would.
Welcome to Super Bowl week for the online sportsbook oddsmakers, in which they have to establish point spreads, over-under predictions, and parlays. Yet, for this game, the final contest of the 2015 NFL season, the prop bets are king, and that’s why Bradley spent hours with his oddsmakers and Bovada’s marketing team to invent as many as they could.
About 300 ideas were discussed. Some, Bradley said, were ridiculous. Some were impossible to quantify into gambling odds. Some ideas had too many questions to answer. For example, somebody had the idea to make odds on whether a rainbow would appear during the game. But then the questions: What happens if there’s a rainbow but it’s not shown on TV? What if somebody fakes a picture of a rainbow over Levi’s Stadium? What if nobody finds the pot of gold? Too many questions, in fact.
The rainbow idea was tossed into the trash.
But you know what made the list? This.
Later, Bradley admitted that the 10/1 odds were a bit low. “Maybe,” he told the Daily Dot, “it should have been 100/1.”
But Bradley knows that these kinds of prop bets are a fun exercise that accomplishes three things:
1) They get people excited, because some people will bet on anything.
They’ll bet on which color of Gatorade will be splashed onto the winning coach at the end of the game. They’ll bet on how long the National Anthem will take to be sung. They’ll bet on whether an earthquake will swallow the Super Bowl. They’d probably bet on a rainbow.
2) Bovada can distinguish itself from other online gambling sites—places like 5Dimes, BetOnline, and MyBookie—with fun prop bets.
Don’t think that Bradley and his team aren’t thinking about that when they’re spitballing ideas and don’t think the oddsmakers at the other online sportsbooks are doing their best to counter with their own exotic bets.
3) For the neophyte fan—or the Super Bowl viewer who cares only about watching the commercials—these kinds of wagers make life a little more interesting.
And hey, maybe they’ll open a Bovada account, plop down $5, and have a fun story they can tell between bites of seven-layer dip at the Super Bowl party they’re attending.
“We’ll see a lot of people make their first [Bovada] bet ever on the Super Bowl,” Bradley said. “It’s largely in part because of all these crazy things we put in. They might not care about the game, but they can bet on the Gatorade color. For $5, it gets them interested.”
A site like OnlineBetting has a list of calamity prop bets that include:
- Odds there is an earthquake in San Francisco during game (at least 2.0 magnitude within 50 miles of the stadium): 56/1
- Odds the goal posts fall down: 75/1
- Odds the game gets delayed (by anything): 7/2
- Odds the power goes out in the stadium: 20/1
- Odds a fan throws a burning effigy of [San Francisco 49ers general manager] Trent Baalke on the field: 200/1
- Odds someone parachutes into the stadium: 9/1
For sportsbooks throughout the land, the Super Bowl is their biggest day—Bradley said it accounts for about 2 percent of Bovada’s action for the entire year—and it’s getting bigger every season.
Even though daily fantasy sports sites like FanDuel and DraftKings have been hammered by bad publicity, federal investigations, and finger-wagging state attorney generals, Bovada and other sites like it are allowed to continue unmolested because they’re not headquartered in the U.S. (Bradley spoke to the Daily Dot from his office in Montreal.)
More than $100 million has been wagered on the last two Super Bowls in Las Vegas sportsbooks—reportedly, more than $4 billion is bet illegally overall—and those casinos usually bring in a return of somewhere between 1 and 16.5 percent. (Reportedly, the only time Las Vegas has lost money on the Super Bowl in the past decade was when the Giants upset the undefeated Patriots in the final game of the 2007 season.)
But in the last several years, mobile has become an important part of Bovada’s game. Live betting online is well established for tennis and soccer—that might be why live betting, though it’s growing in this country, is more popular in Europe—but during the Super Bowl, Bovada will have a team of oddsmakers in charge of updating bets throughout the game. Fans can watch the Broncos and Panthers on TV (or on their phones) and then decide right then and there to place another bet, especially if a player or team is close to an in-game milestone.
“People will see that their team is down 14-0 and they think their team will make a comeback,” Bradley said. “So, they’ll put down $10 or $15.”
It’s extremely likely online sportsbooks will make money during the Super Bowl, but oddsmakers like Bradley need to take a number of factors into consideration when setting the betting line. Ideally, Bovada, just like any sportsbook, would receive half the action on the Broncos and half on the Panthers. Then, they’d be assured to make money, thanks to the vigorish (or “vig”)—basically, the money the bettors have to pay in order to play with that sportsbook. And because Bradley has been setting odds for a decade and was a gambler before that, he’s rarely surprised with how customers bet on a particular line. He can’t be surprised. That’s not a part of his job description.
After the conference championship games were finished last month and the Super Bowl participants were set, most of the books opened with the Panthers as a 4.5-point favorite, but more than 70 percent of Bovada gamblers put their money on Carolina. In order to even out the betting, Bovada tweaked the line and made the Panthers a 6-point favorite.
“I am quite surprised how one-sided it is so early,” Bradley said at the time. “But it seems our bettors would rather go with the Panthers offense against what is a very good Denver defense.”
In order not to get caught in a sticky situation, Bradley relies on his and his oddsmakers’ experience as gamblers. If his team is coming up with prop bets, he wants them to answer one question: Would they put money on the bet? In other words, is the over/under too low? Is the line too high for the favorite? If the answer is yes—if the oddsmaker would put down his or her dollars, because the odds are skewed in either direction—it’s probably not a good bet for the book.
But with the props, it’s difficult to know if a bet is good or bad. Ten-to-one odds on an earthquake occurring is probably too low, but what about this option?
Carey is a former Super Bowl referee who’s now employed by CBS to analyze the decisions made by the game officials. The perception is that he’s oftentimes wrong when predicting whether a play that’s being officially reviewed will be upheld or overturned. There’s been so much rabid commentary, in fact, that CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus recently commented, “I’ve seen some of the criticism, and I think some of it is very hurtful, quite frankly.”
But in the world of exotic Super Bowl prop bets, this one is close to perfect. It’s a newsworthy topic, Carey is a controversial figure among the more hardcore NFL fans, and it’s pretty damn funny.
Until the Super Bowl is complete on Sunday, Bradley and his team will continue to feverishly think about odds and props and lines and ways for people to enjoy themselves in spite of the odds against them. The ideal scenario for Bovada, Bradley said, would be if the Panthers took home a one-point victory. The worst case would be if Carolina romped over the Broncos and easily surpassed the over-under total of 45.
Either way, once Super Bowl 50 begins, the staff will take in the action, drink a couple beers, eat some food, and hope for the best. “And once it’s done,” Bradley said, “It’s like, ‘Thank god, it’s over.'”
But it’s not over. It’s never over. Because once the staff pays out its bets and drops the food and drinks into the trash well into the early morning, the work will continue hours later. There are four NHL games on Monday along with 10 NBA contests and three ATP Tour events. All will take action.
And when Bradley clocks back into work on Monday, he’ll unveil his latest predictions—the early odds for Super Bowl 51.
Photo via Keith Allison/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)
Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.