This column appears in the Feb. 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
You could hear the roar all the way down the Vegas Strip. Each step that Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison took as he galloped the 100 yards toward an improbable pick-six in Super Bowl XLIII elicited an escalating "go, Go, GO, GOOOO!" from the sports books. At the Orleans, at the Hilton, at the Mirage, they pumped their fists, stood on chairs, then hugged like hot-tubbing lovebirds on The Bachelor after the TD ended the first half.
Crazy Steelers backers, right?
Nope. Just bettors.
Welcome to the Super Bowl countdown, where the only things bigger than the hype are the bets. And I'm not talking about who's favored or by how much. I mean proposition bets, like "Which team will win the coin flip?" or "How many songs will be on the Who's playlist?" or -- wait for it -- "Will the defense score a TD?" These are the wagers that transform the Big Game from a degenerate's holiday (and I use that phrase with affection) into a full-on flat-screen festival connecting, oh, around 100 million TV viewers. "The best props," says Hilton bookmaker Jay Kornegay, "keep people engaged the entire game."
Kornegay knows a thing or two about the subject. Around Vegas he is known as King of the Props, because his institution offers more than 300 of these wagers, passed out to bettors in legal-paper-size packets that seem as thick as the health-care bill. Each year, as soon as the AFC and NFC title games conclude, Kornegay and his staff hole up in one of their homes, crack some beers and spend the next day or so dreaming up enticing scenarios. Many carry over from season to season. Sometimes Kornegay's crew debates suggestions from hotel guests. Other times they call sports-crazed friends to ask for ideas. Bets run the gamut from "Will the first play be a run?" to "Will Paul Pierce score more points on Super Bowl Sunday than the NFC squad?" The permutations and combinations are nearly limitless. And so is the appetite for this action. These are the ultimate sweat bets, giving even casual fans a chance to be part of the national conversation. "Really," says Kornegay, "we can put up a prop on anything."