Simple rules, huge payoff: This is the oral history of how a little-known NFL betting competition for Las Vegas sharps became a national phenomenon for everyone else.
On New Year’s Day 2017, Damon Graham’s morning started like any other NFL Sunday: He got up, watched some football and headed to his 1 p.m. shift at a Las Vegas Starbucks.
By the time he took his break a few hours later, he’d won nearly $900,000.
Graham became the latest winner of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest, an NFL handicapping competition that started as a local event in the late 1980s and has since become the premier gambling contest of its kind. Through ownership changes and remarkable growth, the basics have remained the same: You plop down the $1,500 entry fee and then pick five NFL games against the spread each week during the regular season. Every correct pick is worth a point, every push half a point. Most points at the end of the year wins.
The simplicity is the allure. Graham beat 1,853 contestants that season, and every year social media juices the growth of the SuperContest even more. As the competition expands, it naturally gets harder to win: While Graham bet correctly on 65 percent of his picks, SuperContest winners are increasingly finishing above 70 percent. That’s unbelievably accurate for Vegas, where a bettor generally needs to hit 52.3 percent to make money above the standard vig (the amount charged by a bookmaker to take a bet), and the pros have a good year if they beat the house 55 percent of the time.
So how exactly did an underground contest among Vegas insiders become a million-dollar national sensation, one where a new wave of bettors, far from the Strip, take home quit-your-day-job money? The SuperContest’s rise is not just a matter of luck and timing but also a reflection of the people who created and play this super-rich, super-tense, super-fun competition.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Las Vegas casinos started looking for new ways to attract business. Some bookmakers offered odds on unusual topics, like who shot J.R. Ewing on Dallas. The SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hilton decided to take a different approach.
DAVE TULEY, SENIOR REPORTER, VEGAS SPORTS AND INFORMATION NETWORK (VSIN):
Contests in Vegas casinos—football, horse racing, slots—have always been about driving people into the property so that they then stay for dinner, go to a show, gamble in the casino.
JIMMY VACCARO, LONGTIME VEGAS BOOK-MAKER:
Casinos don’t make any money from contests, but back then you came in to pick up your ticket and then you brought it back in—which means we got you two more times during the week.
JOHNNY AVELLO, DIRECTOR OF SPORTSBOOK OPERATIONS, DRAFTKINGS:
The SuperBook opened in 1986. There was nothing like it. And then they launched the contest. Art [Manteris] launched it. That was his baby.
JAY ROOD, VICE PRESIDENT OF RACE AND SPORTS, MGM RESORTS:
You didn’t know about it unless you were in the business. Even then, you could walk up to 10 people in the book and nine of them wouldn’t know about it.
CHRIS ANDREWS, SPORTSBOOK DIRECTOR, SOUTH POINT CASINO:
Not everyone has $1,500 to throw around. Anyone who entered it was a relatively serious handicapper.
BOB SCUCCI, VICE PRESIDENT OF RACE AND SPORTS, BOYD GAMING:
In the early ’90s, our Stardust Invitational handicapping tournament was going on at the same time. Most of the radio shows compared the selections of our handicappers—we only had 16—against the consensus plays at the SuperContest. A lot of our guys were in the SuperContest as well.
ART MANTERIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF RACE AND SPORTS OPERATIONS, LAS VEGAS HILTON (1986-2001):
We tried to add different features. If you picked over 67 percent winners, you’d get a bonus whether you won the contest or not. We also had a separate contest for the last four weeks of the season to reentice folks who were out of the running.
TULEY: I started following it in 1999. At that time it was Las Vegas locals, professional bettors and then some players from around the country who knew people from Vegas and heard about the contest. The SuperContest requires contestants to submit weekly entries in person. However, a proxy is allowed to manually submit picks each week, as long as the contestant signs up in person before the season. What started as favors for friends quickly became a cottage industry in which proxies can charge about $300 per entry for the season.
TONI LAW, CONTEST PROXY, FOOTBALL CONTEST.COM:
The first year, we were doing it for a handicapper out of Detroit. I would come down here, grab the line on Tuesdays, fax them to him and then he would send me all the picks. I’d come back down to the SuperBook on Thursdays and Fridays to enter them.
MATTY SIMO, CONTEST PROXY, FOOTBALL CONTEST.COM:
It sounds a little crazy and shady that I am going to fly out to Vegas and meet with some guy who is going to handle my picks for the season.
CHUCK ESPOSITO, SPORTSBOOK MANAGER, THE HILTON (1987-2000):
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