When millions of Americans with wagers on Sunday’s Super Bowl watch it, they no doubt want to win, but for many there’s additional value merely from “the sweat.”
Whether you have a stake in a $2 block pool, $20 wager with a friend, $200 bet with your favorite sportsbook in one of 20 legalized states, or some other element of risk, a gamble on the game’s outcome can add all the more excitement in the closing moments of America’s biggest sporting event.
In 2021, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first such ending ever in a Super Bowl.
Yes, there had been four prior Super Bowls (though they weren’t called that at first), but there was little adrenaline rush involved — at least not for gamblers on either the game’s moneyline or point spread.
In the first two championship contests, the Green Bay Packers were a heavy favorite and easily won and beat the point spread. In the next two, the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs were big underdogs as representatives of the former AFL, and they not only beat the spreads but won convincingly.
Which brings us to Super Bowl V, the “Blunder Bowl” of Jan. 17, 1971.
No chance of hitting that 36-point o/u
The Baltimore Colts, still led by Johnny Unitas in the twilight of his great career (but sidelined by rib injury midway in the second quarter), were 2.5-point favorites over the Dallas Cowboys. It was the first season after the two pro football leagues merged, and Baltimore represented the AFC after becoming one of three longtime NFL franchises that shifted into the new conference.
Both Baltimore and Dallas excelled more on defense than offense, resulting in a 36-point over/under in Las Vegas, which was the lowest of any Super Bowl up to that point. (At the time, of course, Nevada was the only place in America for a legal wager on the game, though millions of fans watching it elsewhere had made things more interesting by interacting with Cheech from the corner bar, or someone similar.)
To define the game and era, the two teams never came close to hitting that low “over.” That’s because there were a record 11 turnovers on top of a vast number of penalties, bad decision-making, questionable officiating, and other miscues that made a lot of football fans recoil from their TV screens — unless they had action on the contest.
What bettor on either side could turn away, after all, from a game tied by the Colts 13-13 with a TD midway through the fourth quarter? With so much offensive ineptitude on display, a next-score-wins attitude would have been appropriate. The first Super Bowl sweat was on, though the number who wagered on the game and are still alive to remember it is dwindling at a rate just behind that of World War II veterans.
One more turnover came at critical time
After a couple of punts further lobotomized anyone looking for exciting offense in the game, the Cowboys held the ball past midfield with less than two minutes left in the game. The hearts of those who had bet on Dallas as a small underdog were no doubt beating faster.
The Cowboys lost ground on a holding penalty, however, and then, symbolic of this contest, a pass from Craig Morton went through the hands of Dan Reeves (as a running back, before becoming more famous as a coach). It was picked off by linebacker Mike Curtis, who returned it to the Cowboys’ 28.
In that moment, the pulsations accompanying expectations reversed field. Colts backers switched from slumping back in their chairs to leaning forward toward their boxy RCAs. And yet, the sweat was still there for them, even when Baltimore’s Jim O’Brien lined up for a 32-yard field goal with 9 seconds left, in that an O’Brien PAT attempt had been blocked after the Colts’ first TD.
This time, the kick sailed through. It was game over, essentially, although it still had to end moments later on a last-play interception — just to cement its Blunder Bowl status, if nothing else.
Not quite a bad beat, but notable in its own way
That game a half-century ago will not go down as one of the great Super Bowl “bad beats,” which is a whole different category.
No, that will be reserved for the memories of bettors like those who had the Seattle Seahawks in a toss-up game in Super Bowl XLIX. The Seahawks were down 4 points to the New England Patriots at the Pats’ 1-yard line with a half-minute left, only to throw an interception instead of trying to run the ball in with Marshawn Lynch.
Or maybe, more recently, you had the Atlanta Falcons +3 in Super Bowl LI and already had that money spent in your head when they led 28-3 midway through the fourth quarter, only to see the Pats win in overtime, 34-28.
Those are the kinds of outcomes that make a sports bettor — or at least the half of them on the losing side — ponder giving up that aspect of life entirely … at least until the next big game comes along.
But a sweat like Super Bowl V? Well, those are good in making things interesting for all bettors, and they can’t really be counted on, as the next one in a Super Bowl didn’t come along for another five years (the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 21-17 win as 7-point favorites over the Cowboys).
So let’s hope Kansas City and Tampa Bay can provide such intrigue to the end for bettors Sunday — but please, without the 11 turnovers.