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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Prince's pants rip? Paydirt!

These days, odd side bets are key to keeping Super Bowl interest and casino profits robust. Only imagination limits the nature of the wager.

February 01, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Inveterate gamblers, rejoice.

If the Super Bowl wasn't occasionally deadly dull, you probably wouldn't be able to bet this week on which will be greater Sunday, the number of passes caught by Marvin Harrison against the Chicago Bears in Miami or the number of free throws made by LeBron James against the Detroit Pistons in Cleveland.

Or whether Bears Coach Lovie Smith or the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy will slam his headset, what color the sports drinks consumed by the players will be or whether Prince will split his pants open during the halftime show.

Side bets, known in casino parlance as "propositions" and encompassing just about anything under the sun, have grown so wildly popular that they rival more traditional wagers made on the Super Bowl, Las Vegas sports book operators say.

About $100 million is expected to be bet in Nevada on the Super Bowl this week, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants.

Jay Kornegay, executive director of the race and sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton and the so-called king of propositions, estimated that 55% of the money wagered at the Hilton would be put down on "props." Fifteen years ago, he said, that figure probably was closer to 15%.

"They're a huge piece of the Super Bowl pie," said Robert Walker, sports director at the MGM and nine other properties on the Las Vegas Strip, who guessed that props would account for about 30% of the bets placed at most sports books.

Brian Girard of Las Vegas will put money down on a few props this week, he said, including two he has bet every year since 1999: that the game will go into overtime and that a safety will be scored. (The Super Bowl has never gone into overtime, and none of the last 15 has produced a safety.)

"My millennium mutual fund, as I call it," said Girard, who increases his wager on the two bets every year in the belief that they'll pay off in his lifetime. "I started out with a little bit of money on them and I'm kind of doing the ultimate chase."

The odds this week on an overtime game or a safety being scored are each about 7 to 1. That means, for example, if Girard bet $20 on each and both happened his profit would be about $280.

Girard said he had bet props for more than 20 years, recalling that he was a winner, at odds of 10 to 1, when lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry scored a late touchdown for the Bears against the New England Patriots in 1986.

"That was probably the best one I did," Girard said, but he has also bet on the Bud Bowl, a mock game matching animated bottles of Budweiser against Bud Light during Super Bowl commercials, and four years ago got 2,000-1 odds when he wagered that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would score only four points against the Oakland Raiders.

The Buccaneers won, 48-21.

"I remember Tampa Bay had a terrible offense," said Girard, still holding what would have been a $20,000 winning ticket, "but I was way off on that one."

NO matter the score, props keep bettors engaged from the national anthem -- wagers are being taken on how many seconds it will take Billy Joel to get through it Sunday -- to the awards ceremony, when the correct most-valuable-player choice could send a gambler home a winner.

Which is why props have been so heartily embraced, of course.

The number of props offered has mushroomed, bookmakers said, because a string of lopsided Super Bowl results left bettors searching for something new.

"These games were so boring, always blowouts," said Kornegay, who moved to the Hilton three years ago after spending 15 years at the Imperial Palace. "If you were to look through the sports book, maybe halfway or three-quarters of the way through the game, people had left because they were bored with the game.

"One way we decided to try to keep them in their seats was to make up different propositions that affected the third and fourth quarters, or wouldn't be decided until the third and fourth quarters, so we expanded our prop menu in the early '90s, and it really took off the year the 49ers played the Chargers," in 1995.

The 49ers were favored by nearly three touchdowns.

"There was no doubt who was going to win that game," Kornegay said, "so while most books had probably around 30 to 40 props, we put up about 100 to 120 for that game. That was the year we realized we really had something."

This year, Las Vegas sports books are offering as many as 300 props, many of which are shunned by professional gamblers and dismissed as "sucker bets," and offshore betting sites are offering more than 1,000 over the Internet.

Kornegay said that he and his staff hunkered down for 26 hours over two days last week dreaming up props and calculating what odds to assign them.

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