Are you feeling lucky? This Sunday, millions of viewers will be tuned in to the Super Bowl, but they won’t just be watching football. They will have money—sometimes thousands of dollars—on the line.
Americans wager billions of dollars on the Super Bowl, the biggest day of the year for sports betting. But in recent years, since the Supreme Court allowed states to legalize sports gambling in 2018, the industry has exploded.
Experts say it has changed the way we watch games, including the Super Bowl.
Casual fans tuning into Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers may be confused by the onslaught of ads for betting sites and apps. The sheer number of possible bets has also skyrocketed. Fans can venture far beyond simple betting to bet on things such as:
Who will win the coin toss? Which player will score the first shot? Will Christian McCaffrey rush for more than 90 yards? And, more importantly, what color Gatorade will the winning coach be tossed?
Even people who know nothing about football can get in on the Super Bowl betting action with something called a prop (short for “prop”) a bet on, say, how long it will take Reba McEntire to sing the national anthem national.
Here’s a closer look at how sports betting works and how it can affect fan interest in the game.
Although many fans place bets with each other or in small groups, most legal sports betting now takes place at online sportsbooks. Some sites are legit and some are not, but hundreds of betting options are available for people to choose from.
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Billions of dollars will be wagered on Super Bowl LVIII, which will be played at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Most are football-focused bets, such as which team will lead at halftime or, say, how many yards 49er Brandon Aiyuk will gain on his first reception.
Others have nothing to do with football, like how many songs Usher will sing at halftime or which Kansas City Chiefs star will be seen first in a State Farm commercial.
A sports book is offering more than 50 bets just on pop star Taylor Swift, who is expected to be there to support her boyfriend, Travis Kelce. Among them: How many times will it appear on the air? Will he wear a foam toe? These types of back bets are usually limited to smaller amounts to prevent insiders from making money.
The wide range of bets reflects the recent growth of sports betting, which is now legal in 38 states. Ads for apps and sites like Draft Kings and FanDuel are everywhere, placed by artists and sports figures like Kevin Hart and Rob Gronkowski.
Betting has always been intertwined with sports, experts say. Even in sports television, it has been an open secret. In the 1970s, CBS NFL commentator Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder used to predict the results of games on the air, a sly way of giving bettors insight into his picks and which bets to take.
Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder meets the press in New York in 1976 to explain how he will analyze football games for CBS on “The NFL Today.”
The popularity of the college basketball tournament informally known as March Madness has long revolved around gambling – how is your bracket — while the NFL has been gaining audiences for years because of the millions of people who play fantasy football.
But in 2024, sports betting is open.
“Now, we get the Kevin Hart ads,” said Jason Kido Lopez, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies sports media. “But that doesn’t mean (bets) haven’t always been at work and haven’t always had an effect.”
Podcasts dedicated to sports gambling have tons of dedicated listeners looking for information on where to put their money. Even big-name sports broadcasters have gotten in on the action: Last year, ESPN launched its own online sportsbook, further blurring the line between game coverage and in-game betting.
Like any industry, sports betting has its own terminology. A “point spread” is a term that usually dictates one team as the underdog and the other as the favorite, and gives a number of points needed to level the metaphorical playing field.
For example, most betting sites have the 49ers as 2-point favorites over the Chiefs – in other words, pundits expect them to beat the Chiefs by about 2 points. So if you’re betting the Niners against the spread, they not only have to win the game, they have to win by more than 2 points.
This form of betting stands in contrast to the “money line”, which simply refers to betting that one team will beat another. Experts say implementing a spread can make a potentially lopsided game more suspenseful and keep fans watching until the end, even if one team is well ahead.
Apps like DraftKings, FanDuel and others allow fans to place bets in seconds from their phones.
So why does this matter? The spread was invented because of football and has helped increase interest in NFL games, especially games that are thought to be scrimmages, Lopez said.
Prop bets are used on specific aspects of a game, such as whether Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will throw more than two touchdowns. This started as a way to make betting more profitable.
Such bets have increased by including bets not related to the game itself. Several sites this week are even taking bets on what color lipstick Taylor Swift will wear to the stadium (red seems to be the favorite) and whether Kelce will propose to her after the game.
“The same mechanisms that keep people engaged in sports media make the league more profitable,” Lopez said. “Because now more people are going to engage with it, do research on it, and more people are willing to watch games in full or watch games that they wouldn’t normally watch.”
In many ways, sports betting is becoming another close game to sports, Lopez said, similar to playing ghost football or filling out a bracket. For many people, sports betting has become second nature.
“I already like sports, so betting with friends is more,” said Ben Ellicott, 41, of Austin, Texas. Ellicot told CNN that he uses betting sites to place bets on football games. “It’s not serious, it’s more like a little dopamine hit and using the knowledge I already have.”
But for some, sports betting has its pitfalls. At the bottom of every ad for betting apps is a number to call for help with a gambling addiction.
Is the sports industry now promoting something that could be harmful to fans?
Right now, it’s too early to tell, said Ken C. Winters, a scientist at the Oregon Research Institute who studies addictive behaviors. In the past, data has suggested that previous gambling expansions have not led to a significant increase in the proportion of people with gambling problems, he said. Most adults learn to adapt, Winters said, by limiting their gambling and staying out of trouble.
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Fans betting on March Madness games at the sports book at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
There is anecdotal evidence so far that most people treat sports betting as a low-stakes recreational activity and don’t risk their finances, Winters said.
“I bet on sports because of the anxiety/anxiety that comes from hoping for something,” said Sam Williams, a 36-year-old father in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who is active in several online sports communities. “Nothing like sweating a five-team game for 50 cents that can make you $15.”
When you’re gambling in a casino or the lottery, the game is random – there’s often no real strategy, just chance. But sports betting is different. Students of the game think they can sometimes predict what will happen, which in theory gives them a better chance of winning.
“There is … a belief (among some fans) that one’s interest and background in sports can create an advantage over the betting industry,” Winters said.
To gain an edge, fans study analytics, listen to podcasts and get picks from trusted experts. All this feeds the perception that sports can be predicted, thus making sports betting different from ordinary gambling.
This illusion of control fuels the larger ecosystem around sports betting. And it changes the way fans interact with the sport, experts say.
Sports betting is an information game, Lopez said. It’s not just about cheering for a team – it’s also about gathering knowledge about how that team plays.
Lopez used the San Francisco 49ers as an example. Fans who bet on the 49ers can study the team more deeply than those who don’t. For example, how does McCaffrey and the 49ers’ offensive line match up against the Chiefs’ defense?
“It just changes the way I can look at the game when I’m looking for the information to make a good prediction,” Lopez said.
So on Sunday, fans who bet on the Super Bowl might see the game a little differently than those who didn’t.