Bettors spend billions of dollars betting on the Super Bowl each year – and that figure only counts the legal bets.
The appeal of betting on "the big game" is obvious. The Super Bowl is one of the most-covered sporting events in the world, and it doesn't hurt that the league and TV stations compile a week's worth of PR leading up to the big day. The Super Bowl involves two of the league's powerhouse teams, and usually highlights a fair share of popular elite athletes. An entire season's worth of NFL prognosticating and tension leads up to one single game. Emotions run high, as do expectations. You'd have to be heartless to be a football fan and skip out on betting on the Super Bowl.
But there's a problem.
The Super Bowl is such a hotly-anticipated event, and it means so much financially for the sportsbooks, that it's hard to get a good read on the actual likely outcome. All championship games are over-analyzed, but the NFL's Super Bowl seems the most likely to involve a severely-inflated line. The Super Bowl is the best-rated sports event of any year, so it's no surprise that it's the most wagered-on.
Oddsmakers make a lot of money on sports championships. The Super Bowl in particular draws in a lot of amateur money. This in turn affects the line, though not as much as some people think. What really affects the line at Super Bowl time is smart money.
"Is it possible to make a smart move on the Super Bowl?" I've been asked this question a few times, and my answer is always the same. You can absolutely make an informed Super Bowl pick, and the method I promote uses a set of numbers that anyone can find with a simple Google search.
The easiest method I know of for predicting a Super Bowl champion uses a simple stat comparison between the NFC and AFC champions. That means you can't use this method until after the conference championships are decided.
This method compares the point totals of both teams in fifteen different categories. Teams can score up to 60 points – points are handed out based on performance during the regular season. I've found that time and again, the team with a higher point total is much more likely to win the big game.
There's another caveat – you should consider the size of the difference between the two team's point totals as a measure of this method's accuracy. If the teams have a huge gap between their totals, then the prediction is exponentially more accurate.
How accurate? I've used this method to correctly pick nine of the last ten Super Bowl champions.
You need a pencil and a piece of paper. Make two columns – one for the NFC champ, one for the AFC chap. Then follow along with this list, awarding points when they're due.
The first seven steps are the most significant – they tend to produce an early indication of who's favored to win:
You've now handed out 43 points out of a possible 60. The final 17 points are used to further refine the pick – they're based on statistics, and involve some half-points so the math gets trickier. You can probably make an educated pick based on the first seven numbers – but go ahead and finish the list and see how much clearer the picture is.
By the end of this list, you should have some separation between the sides, and be able to make some prognostications about the outcome of the game.
I ran these numbers for the 2015 Super Bowl game between the Patriots and the Seahawks. We all know that New England won (after a controversial play call at the goal line by Seattle) – but what would these numbers have told us if we ran them BEFORE the game?
After the first seven items on the above list, it's already clear that the game is going to be tight. By the rules of this method, New England has a one-point advantage over Seattle, 23-22. Part of the reason for parity is that both teams earned 10 points for having won a Super Bowl within the past three seasons.
After running the number in the final five steps, the situation isn't much better. By the above numbers, New England is favored by a tiny margin, 32 points to 30. That tiny margin would indicate to me that this game is going to be close – and in fact it was. The official line on the game had the Patriots favored by two points, oddly close to the metric we just ran. New England ended up covering the spread by just two points.
This is one of a few different numerical approaches to picking a Super Bowl champion that exist. I like this metric because it's effective, it includes an approximation of its own validity, and it produces a pure single digit that's easy to read. Also, all the stats listed above are included based on their value in the big game, and even the most casual fan can understand what the stats refer to. I really think this is one of my favorite pure tools for handicapping games.
My point is simple – don't shy away from Super Bowl games just because they're popular, or you think the line is weak, or you don't want to feel like a square. With a little patience, some statistical knowledge acquired from the Internet, and $10, you can place an educated bet that you can feel good about.
It's true – the Super Bowl (and all other league championships) draw in lots of dumb amateur bets that can affect the line. But you shouldn't think about that – compete, instead, against the bookmaker. Try to find a statistical edge, and make sure you remember to enjoy yourself along the way.