Betting the Super Bowl only seems like a good idea

With an intentional grounding call in the end zone in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady unintentionally made a lot of people in Las Vegas a lot of money. Bill Barnwell was not one of them. Pierre Ducharme/Reuters/Newscom

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Jan. 25 Place Your Bets Issue. Subscribe today!

Gambling on the Super Bowl is very fun. And one of the many joys of the biggest day on the American sports calendar is the hundreds of Super Bowl prop bets posted at Las Vegas sportsbooks.

But I would also not recommend gambling on the Super Bowl to anyone I care about. Because, as someone who foolishly moved to Vegas for a year, I can give you the informed scoop on how to pick the right side of a bet -- and lose anyway. If your dream on Super Bowl Sunday is to stand in a crowded Vegas sportsbook as everyone else in the room cheers, here's your chance.

Generally, if you're looking for a prop bet with an edge in your favor, you're going to want to look for a boring, low-return outcome with a strong likelihood of winning. I did just that for the second Super Bowl matchup between the Giants and Patriots at the end of the 2011 season, when I saw the odds for and against a safety taking place:


Yes +900

No -1300

The "yes" bet pays $1,000 ($900 profit) on a $100 wager, but the odds are not in your favor. A +900 bet on "yes" implies that a safety will take place 10 percent of the time, while the -1300 wager on "no" suggests that there won't be a safety 92.9 percent of the time. (You might notice that these odds add up to 102.9 percent; that 2.9 percent amounts to the casino's vigorish, the profit it hopes to lock in if it can get equal amounts of action on both sides of the bet.) As we're looking to evaluate this bet from a bettor's perspective, the goal is to figure out whether a safety is more or less likely to happen than either side of the line.

Over the prior three years -- from the beginning of 2009 to the 2011 conference championship games -- the NFL had combined to play an even 800 games. Just 47 of those games yielded a safety -- a mere 5.9 percent. Obviously, that's not enough to hit the "yes" side of this bet, but the "no" sure seems in play. The -1300 line returned $107.69 on a $100 bet, but given the "real" odds of a safety occurring based on those games over the prior three years, the true payout should be only $106.27. Sure, that expected return on a "no" bet -- 1.34 percent -- might not seem particularly exciting, but it isn't bad given that you could place the bet an hour before the Super Bowl and theoretically collect your money Sunday night. At the time, I wrote that it was "one of the best prop bets you can make this year."

The problem, of course, is that bets are risky. Oh, are they risky. In February 2012, I was living in Vegas when I noticed that this safety bet had modestly favorable odds. Wanting to be smarter than the tourists who foolishly backed the side of the action with negative expected value and hoped to cash their lottery ticket, I placed a few hundred dollars on the "no" side of the line and then went off to Indianapolis to cover the game. On the Patriots' very first play from scrimmage, Tom Brady was pressured and threw the ball away -- to nobody in particular, out of his own end zone. That's intentional grounding and a safety, and in the process, Brady unintentionally made a lot of people in Las Vegas a lot of money. I was not one of them.

The next year, I found myself in Vegas for the Super Bowl between the 49ers and Ravens. Again, the odds against a safety were -1300. Before the Giants-Patriots game, there had been exactly one safety in the Super Bowls played between 1991 and 2010. I know that each game is an independent event, but the safety math was still favorable. I had been on the right side of the line the previous year and was unlucky to lose. What were the chances that there would be a safety in consecutive years?

As it turns out, quite good. I made it through 59 minutes and 48 seconds of the Super Bowl with a winner in my pocket before John Harbaugh got creative. With the Ravens up 34-29 and about to punt the ball away to the 49ers from their own 8-yard line, Harbaugh called timeout. The crowd in the sportsbook started murmuring, and my heart began to sink. I knew what was coming. Indeed, when Ravens punter Sam Koch took the snap, every Ravens blocker did his best to grab a 49ers player and drag him to the ground. Koch ran around in the end zone to kill as much time as possible before deliberately running out of bounds. Harbaugh took an intentional safety, which was a smart move for the Ravens and a wildly successful move for what sounded like every person in the raucous sportsbook besides me.

After that, I stopped throwing good money after bad. I was lucky too, because the Seahawks managed to force the Broncos into a bad snap and a safety on the very first play from scrimmage in the subsequent Super Bowl. I watched from my couch with no action on either side. There haven't been any safeties since, but even if the math checks out, I'm never going to bet a dime against a Super Bowl safety again. I'd have to be right every big game for the rest of my life to get even.

The stress of watching the Super Bowl every year and rooting against another safety might significantly reduce that life span.