From The Fridge To Tom Brady: The History Of Super Bowl Prop Betting
The date was January 26, 1986. The Chicago Bears were crushing the New England Patriots 37-3 in Super Bowl XX. Late in the third quarter, the Bears had the ball at the 1-yard line about to add to their lead.
It was a perfect moment for legendary Bears running back Walter Payton to leap over defenders into the end zone, like he had done so many times before, to cap off one of the most dominant seasons in NFL history. Instead, 350-pound defensive tackle William “Refrigerator” Perry came trotting onto the field. With Payton relegated to a decoy, Perry plowed his way into the end zone for a touchdown.
Despite the Bears already having the game well in hand, spectators watching in Las Vegas casinos erupted when the Fridge crossed the goal line. The Super Bowl proposition bet was born.
A man with an idea
It all started 33 years ago when current Station Casinos Vice President Art Manteris, who ran the Caesars sportsbook in the mid-1980s, was looking for a way to attract more casual fans to bet on the Super Bowl.
Manteris believed a bet involving Perry would appeal to average fans. The charismatic rookie appeared on David Letterman and was featured in commercials for Coke Classic, giving him appeal well beyond the NFL’s fan base. Perry scored three touchdowns in the regular season as a goal-line fullback, which gave Manteris the idea to offer the first-ever Super Bowl prop bet.
It was a risk but Manteris, and other oddsmakers, felt confident Perry wouldn’t score in the game. He hadn’t carried the ball since Nov. 24, so Manteris set the line at 20-1 for Fridge to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Legendary oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro put up the same line an hour later at the MGM and soon, other Las Vegas sportsbooks were offering the prop.
Best money sportsbooks ever spent
It didn’t take long for oddsmakers to realize they were on to something. The Associated Press picked up the story and gamblers flocked to bet on the Fridge scoring a touchdown. By kickoff, the odds had dropped all the way down to 2-1.
What was supposed to be a fun gimmick to attract more bettors to the Super Bowl turned into a nightmare for sportsbooks late in the third quarter when Perry jogged onto the field. After he scored, bettors throughout Las Vegas celebrated. Oddsmakers were stunned. The touchdown resulted in six-figure losses for some Las Vegas sportsbooks.
It turned out to be the best money sportsbooks ever spent. Propositions would soon change Super Bowl sports betting forever.
Taking Super Bowl props to the next level
While Manteris was the first to offer a Super Bowl prop, it’s Jay Kornegay who is largely responsible for advancing proposition betting market to its current size and popularity. Now the Vice President of Race and Sports Operations at the popular Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, it was back in 1989 when Kornegay got the idea to expand Super Bowl props.
Kornegay had just opened the sportsbook at the Imperial Palace and at the time, Las Vegas books were offering roughly 25 Super Bowl props.
“It was a standard menu of propositions back then,” Kornegay told RotoGrinders.” It wasn’t really given a lot of thought but more a sidebar to the Super Bowl. Back in those days a lot of people considered those sucker bets.”
Kornegay was the first person to think outside the box. What could sportsbooks offer bettors beyond the typical props like “‘Who will score the first touchdown?'”
Joe Montana vs. Michael Jordan?
For the 1990 Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos, Kornegay created a prop that went beyond just football when he released: Who would score more points that Sunday, the 49ers or Michael Jordan? The 49ers cashed, outscoring His Airness 55-39. The prop was a huge hit with bettors.
“It was just so popular. Everybody couldn’t get enough of that one,” said Kornegay. “We knew we had something big.”
Kornegay went even further in the next few years, thanks largely to a run of Super Bowl blowouts. Fans are spoiled today with so many Super Bowls going down to the wire but that wasn’t the case in the late 80s into the 90s when the mismatches and routs rendered the game itself somewhat “boring.”
Super Bowl blowouts lead to more prop bets
From 1984 to 1997, 11 of the 14 Super Bowls were decided by 13 points or more. Only three games over that span went late into the fourth quarter with the outcome still in doubt.
“We started thinking of propositions as a way to keep people interested in the game to the very end because so many were blowouts at the time,” said Kornegay. “In the early 90s we came up with some prop bets that wouldn’t be decided until later in the game and there was a lot of interest in them. We were pleasantly surprised.”
The tipping point came in the 1995 Super Bowl between the 49ers and San Diego Chargers. San Francisco closed as a record 19.5-point favorite (49ers covered 49-26). To generate more interest in such a one-sided matchup, Kornegay decided to increase the amount of prop bets his sportsbook offered, tripling the number from $50 to $150.
“There was no doubt who was going to win in 1995, so we really took the proposition menu to a new level,” Kornegay said. “We came up with over 100 different props for the game, which really took off. At that time, we were the only ones that had an extensive menu of propositions. From that point, we knew we were on to something.”
Slash decides to run
Kornegay has offered thousands of prop bets over the years but one will always stick out to him. During the 1995 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were using Kordell Stewart in a “slash” role where he played quarterback, receiver and ran the football. Hence his nickname “Slacsh.” When the Steelers advanced to Super Bowl XXX to face the Dallas Cowboys, Kornegay saw an opportunity to offer a unique prop.
“The one that always sticks in my mind is when Kordell Stewart played for the Steelers against the Cowboys,” said Kornegay. “We came up with a prop, would he have a passing attempt, rushing attempt and a reception. I believe it happened only once or twice during the regular season, so we made the No -220 and it was +180 on the Yes. There was so much action that it flipped to where the Yes was -300 by kickoff.
“You go back to the game, he had a reception really early and a rushing attempt soon after that. It felt like everyone in the sportsbook had a bet on the Yes. Later in the game, he lines up in shotgun formation. Everyone is roaring. He took the snap, rolled out to his right, he’s looking, cocked his arm back, then tucked the ball and ran. That was the only chance they had, so we did really well on it but it’s a cemented memory in my head of one of the most famous props we gave out over the years.”
‘Philly Special’ beats the books
While the public has its share of success betting props, the books still come out ahead in the end. Most of the time. Kornegay said last year when the Philadelphia Eagles upset the Patriots 41-33, it was the first time since 1995 his sportsbook hasn’t come out on top in proposition bets. One of the most famous plays in Super Bowl History played a role in the outcome: “The Philly Special.”
“Everything went over. A lot of yeses cashed,” said Kornegay. “We had a lot of liability on Nick Foles scoring a touchdown. We were giving 8/1. Sure enough, the Eagles get inside the 10, they do a trick play and Foles scores a touchdown. At that point we were done. I knew we were going to lose on the propositions.”
Earlier this season when the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams combined for 105 points as every single Over prop hit — on a much more limited regular season menu — Kornegay quipped on Twitter:
Misconceptions about prop betting
When the Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams in this year’s Super Bowl, the SuperBook will offer more than 440 prop bets from Tom Brady’s total passing yards to cross-sports options involving NBA stars like James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Today, you can bet almost anything on Super Bowl Sunday, including how many times President Donald Trump will tweet during the game.
However, Nevada regulations limits Las Vegas sportsbooks to props where the outcome is decided on the field. If you want to bet some of the crazier props often discussed in different media outlets, those are only available through unregulated offshore sportsbooks, where pretty much anything goes for the Super Bowl.
The NFL recently said they would like to see prop bets go away, citing concerns over the “integrity” of the league. Kornegay thinks the NFL needs to be educated on the subject before taking such a strong stand.
“We just want to make sure the NFL gets accurate information from a regulated environment,” said Kornegay. “I think some of the information they’re getting is coming from a non-regulated environment. A lot of people in this country think we take bets on anything. That’s not true. We are bound to a highly regulated environment here in Las Vegas. We can’t take bets on if Adam Levine is going to wear a hat. I understand some of the concern because they do hear that type of information but it’s not accurate.
“The other big thing people need to understand is proposition bets are limited. When you hear people say, ‘They’re going to take $500,000 on a prop bet,’ it’s not true. I’ve never heard anything close to that happening. Depending on the house, proposition bets are limited to $500 up to $2,000, at the most. We are only going to extend those limits to a known, loyal customer. There’s a lot of misconceptions out there. If the NFL wants to pursue that, I hope they come to Nevada and learn how we actually do it.”
A lengthy process
Prop bets aren’t likely to go away any time soon. They’re more popular than ever with both professional gamblers and casual bettors. The SuperBook released its props on Jan. 24. They were met with long lines and extensive media coverage. Kornegay said they took over $400,000 in prop bets in the first three hours and by the following day, the total had already exceeded six figures.
Making odds for all those props takes more time than just coming up with a side and total. It’s a lengthy process that starts before the two championship games are even played.
“As far as getting to the final numbers, it takes our team a good two full days of crunching those numbers,” said Kornegay. “Some are very easy and simple for us, while others take more research and thought process. Especially when we get into the backup fullback or second-string tight end. That takes a lot of research. People don’t realize how much research goes into one proposition.”
Prop betting more popular than ever
Super Bowl prop betting has come a long way in its 33-year history. Manteris had an idea back in 1986 to get more casual bettors wagering on the Super Bowl. It worked.
Last year, Nevada’s 198 sportsbooks reported a record $158.6 million wagered on the Super Bowl. Experts predict that record will be shattered this year and with eight states now offering sports betting, the nationwide total — in states with regulated markets, which now includes New Jersey and Pennsylvania — is projected to exceed $300 million.
Kornegay estimates close to 60 percent of last year’s total in Las Vegas was wagered on prop bets, making it responsible for over $90 million of the state’s Super Bowl handle. Prop bets are the driving force that makes the Super Bowl the most wagered on sporting event in the United States ever year.
“Super bowl betting would decline quite a bit without props,” said Kornegay. “If you were able to just bet the side, money line and total, think how generic that is. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to people. Plain and simple.”
And to think, it all started with a 350-pound defensive tackle scoring a touchdown.