Over 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, but only a fraction of viewers will be Packers or Steelers fans. The audience is just too massive—the entire states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania won’t even account for one-fifth of the game’s viewership. That means tens of millions of Americans watch the Super Bowl for reasons totally independent of the two teams playing. For some it’s their love of football, for others the commercials, but for many it all comes down to money.
Gambling is the one aspect of the game that the NFL would prefer to go unnoticed, but it’s inexorably connected with the Super Bowl. Nearly $90 million is wagered on the game in Las Vegas each year, and many times more than that is wagered illegally or invisibly through bookies, sports betting websites, and friendly wagers. There are countless ways for viewers to get “invested” in the game, from the common “squares” pool to prop bets that make the opening coin toss the highest-stakes flip this side of No Country for Old Men.
There can be a sinister connotation when gambling is linked to sports. It conjures up images of organized crime, fixed matches, and point shaving. But when it comes to the Super Bowl, the majority of the wagering is innocuous. Everyone gets in on the action, even the mayors of the opposing cities, who if tradition holds, will announce some kind of local delicacy-based wager later this week.
Meanwhile, common citizens will simply put their money on the line. The advent of online sportsbooks has made that easier than ever, as fans are just a few clicks away from placing a bet. They can bet on the Steelers or Packers, sure, but the Super Bowl is best known for its exotic betting opportunities. This year you can wager on everything from the color of the winning coach’s Gatorade bath to the number of times Brett Favre will be mentioned.
Of course, most fans don’t bother to make their betting so complex. The “squares” pool, where 100 boxes, each corresponding to a given final digit for both team’s scores, dominates offices and Super Bowl parties because of its simplicity. If the two teams’ scores end in your digits after a given quarter, you win money. But since the numbers for every square are assigned after each box is bought, these pools are no less games of chance than roulette. As frustrating as it is to watch the team you bet against cover the spread on a meaningless late field goal, it’s not as bad as hopelessly rooting for the random score you were assigned, only to find out your pool’s big winner wasn’t even watching the game.
The people with the most at stake may not even have a dollar riding on the game, however. The diehards who will be wearing Cheeseheads and waving Terrible Towels on Sunday have as much invested in the Super Bowl as anyone. Sports fandom is, at its essence, gambling: fans place their emotions on the line every year, opening themselves up to anguish with every loss in hope of reaping the windfall of happiness that comes with a championship. At a subconscious level, fans are making a bet, deciding to invest this meaning in what ultimately, is just a game. And in the NFL, the odds are more stacked against you than at any casino, with only one of 32 teams finishing as a winner. So when I inevitably lose my “squares” pool on Sunday, I’ll take comfort in the fact that I’ve just lost $20, while someone in Green Bay or Pittsburgh will be crying.