Behind the scenes at a Las Vegas sportsbook during the Super Bowl
By Sam Panayotovich
FOX Sports Betting Analyst
Watching a Super Bowl at a Las Vegas sportsbook is something you should experience at least once in your life. Watching a Super Bowl inside a sportsbook’s trading room is an entirely different monster.
I had the privilege of being invited behind the counter at the infamous Westgate SuperBook on Sunday, and that's where I watched the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.
I met sportsbook director John Murray near the entrance to the back about 15 minutes prior to the 3:30 p.m. local time kickoff. He unlocked the door and walked me past the ticket writers and counter positions, down a hallway that leads into the heart of the sportsbook – the trading room.
This is where a sportsbook creates its numbers and manages all the risk. Eight SuperBook staffers were bracing for more than five hours of clicking and scrolling during and following the NFL title game. After all, grading hundreds and hundreds of propositional bets takes a ton of teamwork. Many of those wagers are graded in the first quarter or first half.
The SuperBook’s rectangular trading room is decked out with 13 large television monitors and 32 computer screens. There are four positions on each side of the room, and all voices bounce back toward the middle.
For this Super Bowl, each masked and socially distanced staffer sat at a plexiglassed position with four computer screens – two to view and grade wagers, another to scroll through Twitter for breaking injury news and the fourth to confirm exact play results and stats.
It was like a scene out of a Star Wars movie.
Decked in a creamsicle-colored shirt buttoned at the wrists, vice president of risk management Ed Salmons was clearly running point. He’s Chief NFL at the SuperBook and has been doing this for 30 years in Vegas.
"When the game starts, the only conversation is here," Salmons said as the national anthem was about to begin. There is no room for side conversations during the Super Bowl.
As team captains of the Bucs and Chiefs met at midfield, it was time to grade the first prop bet. The opening coin toss is one of the most popular props across the world. The coin landed on "heads," and Kansas City deferred to the second half.
"We just lost five figures," Salmons said.
Murray immediately laughed out loud.
"It's good luck to lose the opening decision," he cracked.
The next prop involved the opening kickoff. This was a bettable prop in which customers could bet if the kick would be a touchback or not. "Touchback" was a heavy favorite, and "no touchback" was more than a two-to-one underdog (+210).
Salmons scrolled to a position on one of his screens and let the room know what it was rooting for.
"We need a touchback," he blurted as Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker trotted up to the tee and drilled the ball with his right foot. It landed 3 yards into the end zone – and Buccaneers return man Jaydon Mickens ran it out for 26 yards.
"Un-f---king-believable," one staffer quipped.
"Godwin catch for 1 yard," Salmons said. "Brady’s first pass complete."
Boom. Two more results.
"Fournette’s first rush is 3 yards. ... Third-down pass, incomplete. ... Buccaneers to punt first."
Three more results.
This went on for the entirety of my first-half visit behind the book. The broadcast play-by-play was muted to make room for sportsbook play-by-play. It was a combination of the SuperBook team discussing specific plays, graded results, game observations and random outbursts.
On the Chiefs' third offensive play from scrimmage, quarterback Patrick Mahomes scrambled to his left and rushed for a first down.
"Mahomes over 4.5 yards on his first rush," Salmons announced.
"S---," said a voice from the back.
"That’s 11 yards on the run for Mahomes," Murray added.
After Kansas City’s first drive halted at its own 49, punter Tommy Townsend blasted a 51-yarder into the end zone for a touchback. The result was just another in a series of unfortunate events to start the game for the SuperBook.
"We lost five figures on that?!" Murray asked rhetorically after glancing at one of the ledgers on the screen. "Come on."
Shortly after the punt, executive vice president of race and sports Jay Kornegay walked into the back room wearing a beautiful blue checkered sports coat.
"Everything you’re seeing here, I’m responsible for," he joked. This was Kornegay’s 34th Super Bowl in Nevada, and he knows better than to overreact to the early results.
"Long way to go," he said. "We’ll see where we’re at when it’s over."
When Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill took a handoff 5 yards with 8:33 left in the first quarter, the first big result went the way of the house.
"Will either team score in the first 6.5 minutes of the game?" Murray said. "That’s a no. Count it."
"We finally got one!" risk manager Rex Beyers shouted.
On this day, Beyers was solely responsible for managing the in-game wagering. Bettors are able to fire wagers at any point of the game at the adjusted numbers, and Beyers is the one setting the live betting spread, money line and total.
Necessary adjustments are made based on the game flow, as well as on what the book needs for the bottom line.
"We’ve already taken about mid-five figures of [live] action," Beyers told me with about six minutes to go in the first quarter.
As the Chiefs approached the Tampa Bay 30-yard line, Salmons again made it very clear what the house was rooting against. These worst-case scenario comments never stopped flowing. The SuperBook had a laundry list of results it didn’t need.
"We do not need Patrick Mahomes to score the first touchdown," he declared.
After Mahomes fired incomplete on third down, the Chiefs sent out Butker for a 49-yard field goal attempt.
"We need a miss," Salmons said as Butker kicked the ball. "So of course, he makes it. Kansas City scores first. First score of the game: 'any other.'"
It was a nonstop sweat for these guys. The first time I thought Salmons was going to leap out of his chair was when Bucs tight end Cameron Brate caught a pass from Brady deep into Kansas City territory and picked up a block.
"Oh, no," Salmons shouted as Brate began his rumble down the field. "Don’t score!" Brate was tackled 15 yards later on a play that made even me nervous.
"Who do we want to score the touchdown?" Murray joked.
"Let’s see … we don’t need Gronkowski either," Salmons said.
Naturally, Gronk scored less than two minutes later.
"The jersey number of the first player to score is ‘Over’ and odd," administrative operator Casey Degnon added.
Yes, you can bet "Over" or "Under" the jersey number of the first touchdown scorer and whether it will be even or odd. The SuperBook’s number was 18.5, so Gronk’s 87 won for the "Over" and odd bettors.
My favorite swing of emotions came when Tampa’s offense had the ball inside the Kansas City 10-yard line in the second quarter. After Bucs running back Ronald Jones was stuffed at the goal line, it set up fourth-and-goal at the Kansas City 1-yard line.
"Here comes that 1-yard touchdown," Salmons feared. "It better not be Brady either. That would be a killer."
Most American sportsbooks offer a prop on the game’s shortest touchdown. The Over/Under is always 1.5 yards, and more people bet "Under," so books really don’t want a 1-yard score. Jones looked to be short on his fourth down carry, so Kansas City appeared to be taking over on downs heading into the commercial break.
"Should I post or wait?" Beyers asked of the in-game betting line.
"You have to wait," Salmons said. "Tampa might challenge the spot."
"Right, right," Beyers added. "If I’m wrong, it’s several thousands of dollars."
Tampa Bay did challenge the spot, and the ruling on the field stood. That was a minor win avoiding the 1-yard touchdown. But there’s always potential drama right around the corner in the trading room.
"Safety is in play now, gentlemen," Beyers warned. "This ain’t good."
Kansas City gained possession at the heels of its own end zone, and of course, the SuperBook had a prop on a safety taking place in the game. A bet on "yes" would’ve paid bettors out at 8-to-1 odds.
It just never ends.
One of the funniest moments in the back room came when Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu intercepted a Brady pass, but the pick was negated by a questionable defensive holding penalty on cornerback Charvarius Ward.
"Wait, the refs are taking control," Salmons opined as the yellow flag graphic illuminated on the television broadcast.
Four plays later, Buccaneers kicker Ryan Succop made a 40-yard field goal that was nullified by an offsides call on the Chiefs.
"Refs!" four of the SuperBook staffers screamed all at once.
"Are they going to put the ball in the end zone for Brady, too?"
Brady launched a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski on the next play to give the Buccaneers a 14-6 lead. It was the closest the Chiefs would be the rest of the way.
"Kansas City is still getting dominated in the trenches," Salmons analyzed on the spot. "I don’t see how they keep this one close."
The craziness eventually died down as the game started to get out of reach near halftime. Two more flags helped the Bucs score a third touchdown of the half, a 1-yard pass to Antonio Brown to make it 21-6.
At the end of the day, the SuperBook had a profitable Super Bowl, thanks to the Chiefs' not covering the 3-point spread or the second-half line. The biggest decision of the day was the game staying "Under" 55.5 and 56 points.
Bettors fired tons of "Over" and "Yes" bets on player props involving Mahomes, Hill and Travis Kelce. Mahomes settled "Under" on passing yards and touchdown passes, Hill failed to reach his number on receiving yards, and Kansas City failed to score a touchdown.
"We won very high six figures," Murray later told me. "Player props carried the day for us, especially the Chiefs player props.
"The total handle on the game was higher than Chiefs-Niners last year. Our Friday and Saturday handle was up year-over-year, but Sunday's handle was down because we grade all the futures on Super Bowl Sunday. There was no way to avoid the futures handle declining without the week-to-week foot traffic due to the pandemic."
Even without the foot traffic, there was plenty of chaos behind the counter that made for an experience unlike any other. Call it the best Super Bowl party of them all.