The Super Bowl, Vegas-Style
We spent Super Bowl Sunday with the head of the biggest sports book in Vegas—where lots of people lost money because there was no safety, Gostkowski’s extra-point miss was big, and the Patriots’ comeback turned everything upside-down
LAS VEGAS — The forever advantage of the house, the very lifeblood of the casino, is the gambler’s weakness for sentiment. The common man loves the long shot, which is why an Arizona couple vacationing here for the weekend might wager that Patriots receiver Chris Hogan—not Matt Ryan or Tom Brady—will win the MVP award on Super Bowl Sunday. After all, the payoff on Hogan is 30-1, and what’s $5 when you’re having fun?
To certain people, like Jay Kornegay, it’s everything. The VP of race and sports operations at Westgate Resort & Casino—where the motto is: “Good Teams Win; Great Teams Cover”—manages the largest book in Vegas, housed in a humble, off-strip property opened in 1969 as the International Hotel. His staff estimates that about 80% of the bets coming through for the Super Bowl are long-shot wagers like the one on Hogan; low buys, high returns and slim chance on actually cashing in. The sportsbook isn’t the most profitable venture in a Vegas casino, but on a day like Sunday it’s practically guaranteed to win big.
“This game is a bookmaker’s dream,” Kornegay says after arriving at the casino at 8 a.m. for what will be a 14-hour day.
Whatever consumer confidence there is in the Patriots is mitigated by their unpopularity. “They win too much, so there’s some jealousy there,” Kornegay says, “and people feel they bend the rules. People will bet the Falcons because of that distaste.”
As Kornegay paces through the book, checking on guests in the VIP booths and fulfilling interview commitments, he’s stopped by a sun-kissed 50-something man sporting a Tony Stark goatee dyed black to cover the grey.
“Hey Jay, who do you like?” the man asks the oddsmaker.
Jay smiles: “You know, I’m not sure.”
* * *
When the final tallies arrived on Monday afternoon, Nevada sportsbooks had taken more betting money on Super Bowl LI than any other Super Bowl in history. Sportsbooks in the only state where sports betting is legal won $10.93 million of the $138.48 million wagered, as the Patriots mounted a historic 25-point comeback to beat the Falcons 34-28 in overtime.
Westgate is “not the newest or the coolest,” says new GM Geno Iafrate, “but it’s retro cool. Elvis opened this place.” The “Superbook” at the Westgate boasts the largest sportsbook in the world, with 400 seats spread over 30,000 square feet. Fans watch games in 4K definition from their seats at the bar or one of the plush couches reserved for VIPs. Behind the betting counter, Kornegay oversees four analysts who annually and without fanfare set the market on the Super Bowl prop bets that have proliferated in recent years, contributing to the growing popularity of wagering on the big game in Nevada.
“The Patriots win too much, and people feel they bend the rules. People will bet the Falcons because of that distaste.”
Race and Sportsbook manager Ed Salmons and three colleagues gather the Monday after the conference championship games and hammer out hundreds of prop bets intended to keep gamblers entertained and spending for all four quarters:
Who will score the first touchdown?
How many receptions will Devonta Freeman finish the game with?
Will there be a safety in the first half?
What’s the over/under on Tom Brady pass attempts?
The group determines odds for each prop according to statistics and their collective experience and intuition. Then the Westgate begins the process of putting out the most comprehensive betting menu in Las Vegas.
“A lot of them that have become standard props that you see everywhere that we came up with years ago,” says Kornegay, a married father of two who has watched each of the last 31 Super Bowls from a sportsbook, “In the early ’90s we basically broke the game down 400 different ways. It’s a big deal when we start posting our props. We’re the industry leader, so a lot of what we post you’ll find at other sportsbooks after we post.”
There’s an inherent risk in being first: The majority of bettors on Day 1 are “sharps” or “wise guys”—career gamblers, many of whom make a living betting on sports. If 80% of the wagering on the Super Bowl is done by pensioners and casual fans, 20% of the money comes from a handful of professionals who examine the lines without emotion and seize on the sportsbook’s mistakes.
“Last year,” Salmons says, “we overestimated the number of receptions Jonathan Stewart would have. We took a flood of under money thinking that when the public got here on Sunday, they’d bet the over. And we lost it all.” (After averaging one catch per game in 2015, Stewart had one catch in the Super Bowl; the over/under was 2.)
By Super Bowl Sunday the heavy lifting is done, and all that’s left are minor tweaks. At noon the staff moves the point total from 58.5 to 58 after seeing heavy betting on the under. Mostly they just watch as the bets come through. The casual gamblers make $50 wagers with the tellers on the other side of the darkened glass. True to form, they bet on the long shots. For instance, gamblers submitted 586 tickets betting on the outside shot that a safety would occur in the game—there had been nine safeties in the 50 Super Bowls before this one—compared to 32 who bet no safety would occur. The Westgate board reads:
WILL THERE BE A SAFETY?
Meaning a $100 on there being a safety would win $600, and a bettor would have to wager $900 on there being no safety to win $100.
“Look here,” Salmons says, gesturing at a monitor with a live feed of all bets coming through the book. “$10 to win $29, $5 to win $60. $5 to win $75, $5 to win $60. It’s just nonstop with that. People like to come to Vegas and try to bet a little, win a lot.
“We lose a lot of money if there’s a safety, but the smart money is to bet on it not happening. That’s what the wise guys do.”
Many of the savviest bettors use the smartphone apps adopted by the majority of sportsbooks in Vegas. (The app only works if you’re in the state of Nevada when placing a bet.) Smartphone bets come through the monitors highlighted in blue, usually signifying a bet with favorable odds and low returns.
Occasionally a bet relayed to a computer monitor merits an announcement to the group.
“Some guy just bet $3,000 on heads,” Salmons says. “That’s a 50/50 bet, literally a coin toss.
“Must be nice.”
* * *
The magic of the sportsbook, I discover, is not in the actual winning. Maybe that’s how it is for the cold-blooded sharps, but not for us working saps. The thrill is in watching as the dominoes fall.
I’d never bet on a football game before Sunday, despite having covered close to a hundred of them. My friends aren’t really the betting type, and I’d never felt confident enough about the outcome of any game to put money on it. But there were moments while flipping though Westgate’s extensive prop book that I felt I could beat the system.
Will the Falcons get more than 1.5 sacks on Sunday? Umm, yes.
Will the Falcons cover the three-point spread? Not only will they cover, they’ll win.
Will anybody miss an extra-point? Fat chance.
“Some guy just bet $3,000 on heads. That’s literally a coin toss. Must be nice.”
I place my $40 on the Falcons and $20 on each of the other props and recline as the world bows to my football prescience. Atlanta gets my two sacks—on the same first-quarter drive. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant makes his extra points, and Stephen Gostkowski hasn’t attempted one by halftime, because the Falcons are up 21-3(!!!).
I rejoin the oddsmakers behind the glass to brag about my tickets. Two desks away from Salmon, Randy Blum sets a second half line at -5.5 Patriots, meaning the Patriots are expected to narrow the deficit, and monitors the rest of the sportsbooks, across Nevada and offshore, for deviations. Halfway through the intermission, while Lady Gaga takes flight across midfield, a well-known bettor lays down $10,000, and the book responds by moving the second-half spread a full point.
“You’ve got to account for bets as well,” Blum says. “If a sharp person lays a big bet, maybe you’re a little bit off, but not always.”
I’m not a sharp, yet. And I’m definitely not one of these plebes standing in line to bet $5 on Taylor Gabriel to win MVP. At this point I’m somewhere in that middle ground, pondering how I could make a living on sports betting but just don’t feel like it. I show Blum my three tickets, winners all.
“Looks good so far,” he says, unimpressed.
* * *
In an elaborate scheme to rob me of $80, James White mighty-morphs into Gale Sayers for two hours, and Kyle Shanahan forgets how to call running plays.
Gostkowski’s missed extra point in the third quarter is bad for the book. So is overtime. But the managers and Kornegay aren’t pulling out their hair; their mandate is to provide sound odds and a positive customer service experience, so they watch the game with casual interest. Among fans, the finish is a stunner, with excitement and animosity reaching a crescendo on White’s final touchdown plunge in overtime. Minutes after the conclusion, Salmon gets an update on the book’s modest winnings —Westgate declined to share its final numbers—and forwards it to the GM.
Kornegay says one bettor won close to a half-million dollars on Sunday with a big investment on the Patriots and Brady at halftime. Most of the people waiting in line, however, are cashing in amounts under $500. Some are disappointed to learn that their wager in favor of a lead change in the fourth quarter is not a winner. (The lead changed for the only time in overtime when the Patriots scored the final touchdown.)
All told, Tom Brady winning Super Bowl MVP doesn’t do me or the book any favors, but Westgate turns a profit, as it typically does on Super Bowl Sunday. The last time it didn’t was in 2008, when the Giants upset the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl 42 in Phoenix.
Sentiment won out that year, and the Nevada books lost a combined $2.5 million. Over the next eight years, however, the public gave back that and more, with sportsbooks earning over $60 million on Super Bowls in that span. The proliferation of prop bets has boosted the industry by serving as a buffer against big upsets, as a smaller percentage of the bets are riding on the actual outcome of the game.
Over the same period Vegas made an effort to keep up with the rise of illegal sportsbetting with those smartphone apps make it easier at least for Nevada residents and visitors to bet on games without standing in line at the books. There exists a vision for something bigger, and sportsbooks like the Westgate are positioning themselves for the boom times.
“I think we’re going to get to the point where our kids say, you had to go to a window and get a ticket?” says Iafrate, the Westgate GM. “You’re seeing the evolution with the apps. Casinos used to be confined to Vegas and Atlantic City, and now they’re everywhere.
“I think in our lifetime you’re going to see sports betting as commonplace as a slot machine.”
Kornegay has limited time and enthusiasm for the big picture or the long view. After 14 hours and some 14,000 steps (as counted by his smartphone), he’ll head home, take a shower and crack a beer. He skips the Super Bowl highlights.
“I’ll try to get away a little bit, but I’ll be right back here tomorrow morning,” he says. “We’ll have a long line tomorrow as well.”
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