A Brief History of the Prop Bet

Find out why you can bet on the coin toss.

mandatory-editorsby mandatory-editors

To some football fans, the battle on the gridiron is enough, the dulcet tones of Jim Nantz and CTE-addled ramblings of Phil Simms providing the perfect soundtrack to the league’s 47th championship game. But to many other NFL lovers, true happiness will only come if — regardless of who hoists the Lombardi Trophy — the longest touchdown scored on February 3rd is no longer than 45.5 yards. Welcome to the too-tempting-to-resist world of prop bets.

So why does that guy at your Super Bowl party have his iPhone open to the stopwatch app as Alicia Keys sings the national anthem? Whether it’s waiting to see how long a diva holds the last note of “The Star-Spangled Banner” or what color Gatorade gets dumped on the winning coach, the prop bet has taken over the big game, making those mindless box pools feel as exciting as Psy’s new side gig shilling for pistachios. By now, even the biggest stick in the seven-layer dip has to admit that prop bets are fun — and they’ve changed the way casual fans watch the game.

Last summer in London, countless people lost money when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II showed up to the Olympic opening ceremonies wearing a salmon-colored hat. (Hey, purple seemed like a no-brainer at 5-to-1.) But that’s nothing compared to whoever took the 1,000-to-1 odds that a UFO would show up over Olympic Stadium. These were just two of the bets offered by William Hill, the UK bookmaker with a £1.93 market cap and the inventors of the prop bet.

As that annoying friend who tags along on every Vegas trip likes to say, they don’t build those giant casinos by losing money. But according to William Hill’s longtime media relations director Graham Sharpe, the company’s eponymous founder took a big loss on the first prop he ever offered in 1960: 1,000-to-1 that no man would walk on the moon before 1970. (The victor would spend his £10,000 winnings on a sports car and promptly die in a wreck.)

Losing money may go against the religion of bookies, but all that free publicity cushions the blow, and Hill truly rocked the betting world when they broke even after fielding £250,000 worth of bets on Dallas‘ infamous “Who shot J.R.?” subplot. (Yes, years later they took money from Simpsons fans when Mr. Burns took a bullet.)

Today, William Hill is still famous for offering 1,000-to-1 odds on everything from the Loch Ness or Elvis Presley being discovered alive to, ironically, a sitting president officially admitting that the moon landing was a hoax. But for the company that issued the UK’s first fixed-odds football (that means “soccer”) coupon in 1944, sports betting is still its bread and butter. As such, it’s no surprise that William Hill brought their bizarre bets to the world of athletics.

Even though the NFL continues to foist teams like the Jaguars and Rams on its European fan base, American football is still big business in London. With that comes the Super Bowl prop bet. “I suspect that we have been taking such bets for the better part of a quarter century,” says the thoroughly British Sharpe. “Such bets individually are relatively small beer, but as a whole represent a significant turnover. Many of what used to be known as novelty bets are now mainstream-and they turn over millions.”

Perhaps that’s why, along with making the 49ers 4-to-7 favorites to win Super Bowl XLVII, William Hill also posted 20-to-1 odds that Beyonce will have a wardrobe malfunction during her halftime show. (Hubby Jay-Z making a cameo pays out at just 2-to-1.) As the company’s sports guru, Joe Crilly, can attest: “there will always be someone who wants to bet on a market that we offer, no matter how ridiculous they may seem at face value.”

Still, to find out when the proposition bet went from novelty to mainstream, one need look no further than Super Bowl XX in January 1986. Despite Bears coach Mike Ditka’s pre-game vow not to use his rotund defensive lineman in any offensive sets, William “Refrigerator” Perry ran one in from the one-yard line, upping the score to 44-3.

Perry’s plunge was more than fuel for the George Michael Sports Machine, however. That’s because many intrepid bettors grabbed the odds of such a TD occurring at 75-to-1. That line was eventually bet down to 5-to-1, but Las Vegas still lost a mint. And as Jimmy Vaccaro, the inventor of said prop bet, explained, a boom was born.

By all accounts, wagering on Super Bowl XLVII could give 2006, when a record $94.9 million was bet in Las Vegas alone, a run for its money. LVH SuperBook’s Jay Kornegay estimates it will fall just a few million short, but he’s also confident that prop bets will represent a minimum of 10 percent-and possibly even a full half-of total betting on the game. (SportsBook will grease the skids by offering around 300 different options.)

This, mind you, is only the money being wagered in Las Vegas, where, by law, bookmakers must stick to outcomes that can be documented on the field. (Goodbye, national anthem bet.) That plus offshore wagering means the value of prop bets this year can easily reach nine figures-hardly a surprise in a gambling loving world where the first Super Bowl odds turned up last July.

So will the big game feature a missed extra point or successful two-point conversion? Can Ray Rice (-105) out-rush Frank Gore (-125)? Will Joe Flacco (+200) best Colin Kaepernick (+140) to win the MVP? All these questions will be answered over the last 60 minutes of NFL action this season.

Just try not to laugh too hard at that friend who put his rent money on Vonta Leach scoring the first touchdown (+4,000) because, surprisingly, it might not be a sucker’s bet. “Prop bets are not easy money for us,” says William Hill’s Graham Sharpe. “In fact, they are often suggested by people with more expert knowledge of the subject in question than we have.”

It may confuse the average Super Bowl partygoer, but betting stupid sums of money on ridiculous outcomes may not be so crazy after all. So cut some slack to the friend who uses the prop as his crutch. And when it comes time to make your own bet, hammer “tails” on the opening coin toss. Heads has was won the last four Super Bowls in a row, so tails is totally due.

— Mike Olson