How sportsbooks prepare for the Super Bowl, a betting bonanza like no other

Henry Bushnell

LAS VEGAS — The lines at the counter began forming a little before 6:45 p.m. on Sunday. Before Jimmy Garoppolo could kneel out a San Francisco 49ers victory, before many of the 49 TVs blanketing the MGM Grand Sports Book could flash a Super Bowl LIV matchup, eager bettors queued. A few who’d backed the Packers rubbed their faces in anguish. A majority, however, celebrated. They posed for photos with winning Niners tickets. They collected wads of cash. They enthusiastically counted $100 bills. They buzzed out into the Vegas night.

And as they did, in offices near and far, the savvy men who’ll aim to take back that money two Sundays later got to work.

In fact, they — the oddsmakers at the forefront of a rapidly evolving industry — already had been at work. They’d been stewing, evaluating, discussing, plotting. Because the Super Bowl marks the single most important day of their year. “It’s probably going to be eight times larger than any other event,” Jason Scott, BetMGM’s VP of trading, told Yahoo Sports. It is, of course, a gargantuan sports occasion. It’s also a sports betting bonanza.

Which is why, well before the end of Sunday’s NFC championship game, some books had already accepted Super Bowl bets. Some had been readying themselves all week. Most will take in millions of dollars in wagers by the time the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs kick off on Feb. 2. In total, Americans will bet billions.

What follows is a peek into the process behind the point spreads and the props that entice them. A window into the calculations behind the high stakes. This is how sportsbooks prepare for the Super Bowl.

Setting the Super Bowl line

When Scott and his BetMGM team awoke in New Jersey this past Sunday, they already had numbers in mind. So did their competitors 2,000 miles away in Nevada. They had four potential Super Bowl matchups. They had a season’s worth of data. So they had tentative point spreads for each of the four. And tentative over/unders, also known as totals. And tentative money lines, which allow bettors to pick winners straight up as opposed to against the spread.

Then Sunday’s games started. Patrick Mahomes wowed. San Fran trampled Green Bay. And a very data-driven process became a nuanced art.

Bookmakers weigh numbers and distill them into power ratings, but also anticipate public leanings. Their point spreads, which essentially handicap the matchup, are in part final score projections, in part efforts to get 50 percent of money wagered on each team. When those two considerations call for different lines, the weighing becomes difficult.

At BetMGM, Scott said, “three senior guys” would do it and set an initial spread. But, he said, everybody’s different. “I know some places where every [oddsmaker] writes their line, money line and total down on a piece of paper, and they take a collaborative average.” At the other end of the spectrum, William Hill’s Nick Bogdanovich told Yahoo Sports: “I can ask some opinions, but I’ll basically [set the line] myself.”

Whatever the process, a few books came to second-quarter decisions. At around 5 p.m. PT on Sunday, with the Niners trotting to halftime up 27-0, several pulled their triggers. Caesars installed the Chiefs as a 1.5-point favorite. PointsBet went Chiefs -2.5. Westgate opened even.

The variance was notable but not surprising. And before long, it self-corrected. Oddsmakers respond to their customers, particularly the well-known ones. A five-figure bet from a professional gambler on the 49ers as 1.5-point underdogs, for example, could pull the line down to 1. Oddsmakers also respond to each other. As Scott told Yahoo Sports: “We certainly monitor our competitors to see where their prices are. … And the first price that goes up very rarely stays there.”

Sure enough, by the end of the NFC title game, the gun-jumping books had adjusted to Chiefs by 1 or 1.5. Those who waited opened at 1 or 1.5, with an over/under a shade above 50. Overwhelming majorities and six-figure bets on the over drove the total up to 54. By the end of the night, all major books had a spread, money line and total on offer.

And with that, the real fun could begin.

Setting the props

(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

Once upon a time, Super Bowl betting started and ended with those three genres. In 2020, two years after the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports betting, with the industry moving as fast as ever, money line-spread-total is only half the battle.

The Super Bowl now gives rise to an annual prop bet craze.

Scott said MGM would offer “in excess of 300” bets on the big game. “That’s substantially more than we [offer] on a normal match,” he added. “That’s a lot of prop bets on different players. The color of the Gatorade that gets poured on the coach. The coin toss. And all those kind of auxiliary events.”

Unregulated offshore sites will even set an over/under on the length of the national anthem. Legal books in the States can’t, yet — but hope to be able to “someday,” Bogdanovich said. “This will open up over time,” Scott added. According to Todd Fuhrman, a former Caesars oddsmaker and current Fox Sports analyst, sportsbooks are “aggressively trying to push for” anthem betting allowances.

Even without it, though, some prop menus will list 400-plus items. In 2019, Westgate posted 442. “You’ll start with a baseline, you have the very generic and vanilla props that you use every year,” Fuhrman explained. “Starting quarterback over-under for everything you can think of. Top wide receivers, running backs. Then you have your yes/nos that are available: Will there be overtime? Will there be a safety? Two-point conversion? A lot of those are relatively formulaic. … But that’s where things start to get a little bit more adventurous.”

Before the Super Bowl matchup is set, Fuhrman said, “you’re already trying to identify some of the unique stuff you can do.” That, for many bookmakers, includes cross-sport comps between, say, the length of the game’s longest field goal and James Harden’s point total earlier that afternoon. “We always go to the key soccer game that week,” Bogdanovich said. “If there’s some good NBA players, we go there. And Saturday, if there’s a college basketball player … Whatever’s relevant on that Saturday or Sunday, we’ll try to get into the mix somehow or some way.”

Bogdanovich and a William Hill colleague set their menu on Monday. Then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, they go one by one, setting prices for each of the props. By Thursday, they’ll have them in the public’s hands — and they’ll need some rest. “It’s just exhausting,” Bogdanovich said of the Sunday-Thursday grind.

Elsewhere, however, technology helps. “We automate that,” Scott said of pricing up props at MGM. “We’ll automate that, then we’ll have a look at competitors.”

But care is necessary. “All it takes for a professional bettor is to identify 1-3 props where they find an edge,” Fuhrman said. “And they’ll try to tell you real fast with their dollars.” A bargain is a bargain, whether it’s a point spread or a prop tying LeBron James’ stats to Mahomes’ rushing yards. If a bookmaker projects LeBron James at 33.5 points-plus-rebounds against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night, but “sharks” with spreadsheets full of data quickly realize a more accurate projection would be 38.5, hundreds of thousands of dollars could fly in, and the sportsbook could suffer.

“It really is an art and a science,” Bogdanovich said of the process behind the props.

And for sportsbooks, it has elevated the Super Bowl from a mega-event into something even greater.

The Super Bowl betting boom

“When I first moved out here,” Fuhrman said of his mid-2000s relocation to Vegas, “props were more of a novelty. Now they’re full-blown markets. At some of the bigger books, 50 percent of their Super Bowl handle will come in on props. And I think that’s only a trend that’s gonna continue, as oddsmakers love to be competitive, not only with the bettors, but also with one another, trying to outdo [one another] from a creative standpoint, and create some unique markets that a lot of people have never seen before.”

Collectively, the props could garner hundreds of millions of dollars. In total, with the phenomenon no longer confined to gambling meccas springing out of the Nevada desert, the Super Bowl could attract billions. And the sportsbooks handling the cash will enjoy the heck out of the two-week bash.

“Once those numbers are up, that’s where the fun starts,” Fuhrman said. Pros and Average Joes come to the table with equal enthusiasm and varying levels of aptitude. “You want to try and match wits against some of the sharpest guys that are out there,” Fuhrman said. But you also want to win. And with the average $110 bet only yielding a $100 potential return, the books almost always do. They stack odds against the public, which bites anyway. In Nevada, collectively, they have profited 23 of the past 24 years. They’ll expect to win again next Sunday.

Because, as Fuhrman said: “The juice always works in your favor.”

More from Yahoo Sports: