How sportsbooks prepare for the Super Bowl, a betting bonanza like no other

LAS VEGAS — The lines at the counter began forming a little before 6:45 p.m. on Sunday. Before Jimmy Garoppolo could kneel out a San Francisco 49ers victory, before many of the 49 TVs blanketing the MGM Grand Sports Book could flash a Super Bowl LIV matchup, eager bettors queued. A few who’d backed the Packers rubbed their faces in anguish. A majority, however, celebrated. They posed for photos with winning Niners tickets. They collected wads of cash. They enthusiastically counted $100 bills. They buzzed out into the Vegas night.

And as they did, in offices near and far, the savvy men who’ll aim to take back that money two Sundays later got to work.

In fact, they — the oddsmakers at the forefront of a rapidly evolving industry — already had been at work. They’d been stewing, evaluating, discussing, plotting. Because the Super Bowl marks the single most important day of their year. “It’s probably going to be eight times larger than any other event,” Jason Scott, BetMGM’s VP of trading, told Yahoo Sports. It is, of course, a gargantuan sports occasion. It’s also a sports betting bonanza.

Which is why, well before the end of Sunday’s NFC championship game, some books had already accepted Super Bowl bets. Some had been readying themselves all week. Most will take in millions of dollars in wagers by the time the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs kick off on Feb. 2. In total, Americans will bet billions.

What follows is a peek into the process behind the point spreads and the props that entice them. A window into the calculations behind the high stakes. This is how sportsbooks prepare for the Super Bowl.

Setting the Super Bowl line

When Scott and his BetMGM team awoke in New Jersey this past Sunday, they already had numbers in mind. So did their competitors 2,000 miles away in Nevada. They had four potential Super Bowl matchups. They had a season’s worth of data. So they had tentative point spreads for each of the four. And tentative over/unders, also known as totals. And tentative money lines, which allow bettors to pick winners straight up as opposed to against the spread.

Then Sunday’s games started. Patrick Mahomes wowedSan Fran trampled Green Bay. And a very data-driven process became a nuanced art.

Bookmakers weigh numbers and distill them into power ratings, but also anticipate public leanings. Their point spreads, which essentially handicap the matchup, are in part final score projections, in part efforts to get 50 percent of money wagered on each team. When those two considerations call for different lines, the weighing becomes difficult.

At BetMGM, Scott said, “three senior guys” would do it and set an initial spread. But, he said, everybody’s different. “I know some places where every [oddsmaker] writes their line, money line and total down on a piece of paper, and they take a collaborative average.” At the other end of the spectrum, William Hill’s Nick Bogdanovich told Yahoo Sports: “I can ask some opinions, but I’ll basically [set the line] myself.”

Whatever the process, a few books came to second-quarter decisions. At around 5 p.m. PT on Sunday, with the Niners trotting to halftime up 27-0, several pulled their triggers. Caesars installed the Chiefs as a 1.5-point favorite. PointsBet went Chiefs -2.5. Westgate opened even.

The variance was notable but not surprising. And before long, it self-corrected. Oddsmakers respond to their customers, particularly the well-known ones. A five-figure bet from a professional gambler on the 49ers as 1.5-point underdogs, for example, could pull the line down to 1. Oddsmakers also respond to each other. As Scott told Yahoo Sports: “We certainly monitor our competitors to see where their prices are. … And the first price that goes up very rarely stays there.”

Sure enough, by the end of the NFC title game, the gun-jumping books had adjusted to Chiefs by 1 or 1.5. Those who waited opened at 1 or 1.5, with an over/under a shade above 50. Overwhelming majorities and six-figure bets on the over drove the total up to 54. By the end of the night, all major books had a spread, money line and total on offer.

And with that, the real fun could begin.