Super Bowl storytelling mirrors the richness of the big game itself.
Top teams, premier players, major comebacks and big chokes mark one debate preceding the Feb. 13 NFL championship game. Top Super Bowl plays, as seen through this author’s eyes, is another.
And here’s a rare collection from the betting side: monumental wagers, won by players, recalled from the vantage point of the books.
Yes, although books do well in this game, they are on the hook for colossal wagers. Some work out, some don’t, but many are remembered.
Johnny Avello, one of the best in the business and the director of race and sportsbook operations for DraftKings, shared some milestone memories with PlayNJ.
It happened one night in New Jersey…
Books want to forget the fastest score in Super Bowl history.
The Garden State has long been a prominent Super Bowl player.
Its MetLife Stadium occupants, the New York Giants, have captured the big game four times.
It was New Jersey legislators who sacked PASPA in 2018, opening the Super Bowl betting floodgates nationwide.
And what happened at MetLife Stadium four years earlier, in the only Super Bowl New Jersey has ever hosted, forever changed a significant Super Bowl prop.
It established, in perpetuity for bookmakers, that the word “safety” isn’t safe.
MetLife Stadium served as the backdrop.
New Jersey’s inaugural Super Bowl featured Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos and Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks at near pick-em betting odds.
Moneyline wagering piled up as expected for this first outdoor Super Bowl ever held in a cold-weather city on Feb. 2, 2014.
Prop-mania was expected to play its usual complementary role of benign side ornament. These wagers often concern novelty more than money.
But not on this night. The fastest score in Super Bowl history — 12 seconds — happened in New Jersey. But this is one record the books wished never happened.
Setting the MetLife Super Bowl scene
Super Bowl activity looked normal right after the kickoff.
Denver had taken the ball on its 14-yard line.
In New Jersey, people settled into their seats, in front of their television sets or huddled around box pools, examining their numbers.
Across the country, at Wynn sportsbook in Las Vegas, Avello did the brick-and-mortar sportsbook equivalent. The mobile betting age was several years away.
Avello tallied the rush of bets that poured in just before kickoff. He was assessing the book’s position and hoping to actually watch part of the game before the second-quarter betting began.
Then it happened. A general buzz humming through the jam-packed book became a sudden, ear-splitting roar.
“I was still down on the counter, looking at where we stand on the game,” Avello told PlayNJ. “I am looking to see where our money tallied up, who we need in this game, getting all that information for the executives, etc.
“I heard this unbelievable noise. People totally burst. It was like a bomb had gone off.”
It was a financial bomb, levying more than six figures of carnage.
What had happened was the strangest first-scrimmage play in Super Bowl history.
Manning walked up the line of scrimmage but moved left. He was either barking out an audible or trying to communicate over the loud MetLife Stadium faithful.
Either way, the ball was snapped unexpectedly to where he had just been. It sailed into the end zone. Manning knocked it out and the Super Bowl’s first-ever, first-play-from-scrimmage safety had happened.
“A lot of people in there had that bet,” Avello said. “The Broncos safety paid out on both the first score and on any safety. We had to have that combination up there around 100-1.”
Avello added, “just like that, we’re down $150,000.”
While the book did not do as well on the game as it wanted to, Avello said Wynn ended up OK.
“…That one play changed the way odds are set on the safety prop,” he said. “You won’t see odds anything near 100-1 again.”
No, it’s often less than +1000 or 10-1 now for any safety. And whether a book wants to make the safety the first score is a matter of conjecture.
Other bizarre first plays in Super Bowl history
Devin Hester’s opening kickoff return for the Chicago Bears against the Indianapolis Colts in 2007 paid bettors well and shook the books, a little (at 14 seconds, it’s the second-fastest score behind Manning’s safety).
But a safety as a first score is extremely rare. Dwight White did it for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl 9. Bettors apparently didn’t crush that one and it was remote, as three field goals were missed before the safety occurred.
And in those days, bettors took the meat-and-potatoes moneyline and spread bets way more than any prop.
The Giants were involved in another first-score safety, forcing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into an intentional grounding in Super Bowl 46. That became the first score in the Giants’ 21-17 victory and apparently did not crush the books.
But the Manning safety did.
As Avello soon discovered, however, bad luck runs in streaks.
One year later, he nearly became Sleepless Because of Seattle.
Seahawks cough up Super Bowl
This didn’t have the craziest start in Super Bowl history. It had the weirdest ending.
You remember the contest. The Seahawks were about to repeat as Super Bowl champs. They had the ball on the New England Patriots 1-yard line. New England was out of timeouts. There were less than 30 seconds left.
But instead of handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch, they threw a slant pattern. Malcolm Butler made the game-saving interception for New England in the end zone.
And lightning had struck the books twice.
Avello’s book had handled a $1 million bet from a New England backer. It was a big deal and was about to become a win for the house.
Instead, the major reversal occurred. One bizarre call, one miracle play and there’s a $2 -million swing.
Wynn had to pay out $1 million when it appeared there would be $2 million more with which to pay other bets.
“I happened to catch up with the guy later,” Avello recalled. “The game had been a pick-em. I asked him why he liked New England. He told me there had been no particular reason.
“He said he just had a dream about the game. I told him ‘Well your dream just became my nightmare.’”
Ironically, the book might have been partially rescued had in-game wagering existed at today’s levels. Avello estimated that with Seattle on the New England 1, Seattle might be laying -400 or -500 for in-game wagering in the final seconds.
If many bettors made Seattle bets all the way through the final drive, and a Seattle victory did seem obvious, the book could have recouped a good deal.
A more routine Giant score
Another big gambling hit had a New Jersey connection. Avello recalls a bettor riding the Giants all the way through the playoffs and a Super Bowl win in 2012. When they beat the Patriots 21-17, the gambler collected in the vicinity of $2.8 million and partied accordingly.
“They had some time after that game,” Avello said, laughing.
At least that outcome was based on logic. No freak play. No crazy ending. One bettor kept riding a hot team all the way through the postseason.
One decade later, books operating in multiple states with mobile capability are far less vulnerable. They have deeper cash reserves.
Avello’s company handles a good number of seven-figure bets. DraftKings took Mattress Mack’s $3.5M successful bet on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to beat the Kansas City Chiefs last year, via mobile app.
They paid the bet in stride. The freak play no longer has the same power.
“At DraftKings, we are all about taking the bets,” he said. “We are not as concerned about taking a side. We try to get as much handle as we can and whatever happens, happens.”
More times than not, the outcomes will make sense.
When they don’t, they become stories.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya