Chris Palmeri, a pizza shop owner in Las Vegas, held a betting ticket Monday on the Green Bay Packers, who were 3.5-point favorites against the Seattle Seahawks. He was watching the game with a big crowd at the Naked City Pizzeria bar.
The Packers were leading the Seahawks 12-7 as the final seconds ticked off the clock. When Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings leaped high and appeared to intercept Russell Wilson's desperate, final-play heave into the end zone, Palmeri thought he had hit his bet.
Under normal circumstances, sports books would have paid the Green Bay bettors and the Packers would have improved to 2-1. These are not normal circumstances in the NFL. Replacement officials are working the games amid heavy criticism from coaches, players, media and fans.
Those replacement officials decided Seattle's Golden Tate had simultaneous possession of the ball with Jennings, and ruled it a touchdown for the Seahawks. The controversial call gave the game to the Seahawks, 14-12, and cost Palmeri and many others a payday.
Mike Perry, the lines manager at online betting site SportsBook.ag, says about 80 percent of the money on the game was on Green Bay (including straight bets, teasers, parlays and money line wagers).
World-wide, Perry estimated, the financial impact of the call was about $200 to $250 million.
"Vegas lost about $10-12 million, from what I'm hearing, and the online handle is about 20 to 25 times bigger than in Vegas," he said. "That puts this up there around $250 million. It's a huge amount of money."
Betting analyst R.J. Bell of Pregame.com estimated 68 percent of all bets on the game were on the Packers, which makes for a healthy amount of unhappy gamblers.
"I would have thrown something through the TV had it not been my place," Palmeri said, trying to make light of a bad situation.
Mike Colbert, the sports book director for Cantor Gaming, which operates seven books in Nevada, came out on top with the heavily disputed call, but he didn't feel a thing like a winner. He said the handle on the game at the Cantor sports books "was in the millions." He said he took some "pretty significant bets on the game."
Given that most of the action was on Green Bay, it was good for the books' bottom lines when Seattle won the game and covered the spread. This, though, was no celebration for Colbert.
"When the game ended, I was literally sick to my stomach," Colbert said. "I would have much rather lost than taken that money."
The call has outraged the country, but it was far from the first time veteran sports book director Jimmy Vaccaro had seen something like it. He estimated the swing in Nevada was a difference of $15 million, but said it was a minuscule amount compared to what could have been.
He said that had a similar final-play turnaround occurred in Sunday's game between the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings, it would have had a far more devastating impact in Las Vegas.
Vaccaro said better than nine out of every 10 tickets written on that game were on the 49ers.
"If we're talking about a play at the end of that game where you go from winner-to-loser or loser-to-winner, that game would have been massive and could have devastated a lot of people," said Vaccaro, the vice president of public relations for William Hill North America, which operates sports books throughout Nevada.
There were plenty of devastated, and confused, bettors at the end of the USC-Utah game last year. The Trojans were favored by eight, and won 23-14. Leading 17-14, USC blocked a potential tying field goal on the final play of the game and Torin Harris returned it for a touchdown. That made the final score 23-14, and the Trojans would have covered.
Officials, though, called a penalty on USC for excessive celebration. A new rule allowed the officials to take the points off the board, which they did. The game ended with the score 17-14. But the Pac-12 ruled later officials misapplied the rule and put the points back on the board, making the final 23-14. But that ruling came hours after the game ended and most Las Vegas books had the score 17-14.
Vaccaro has booked sports in Nevada for more than three decades and has seen many similar gut-wrenching reversals. He said Monday's Green Bay-Seattle controversy became bigger because of the lockout of the referees.
"It's really not that big of a deal in the state of Nevada," Vaccaro said. "But because of what is going on [with the officials being locked out], it's a major story. Had that been the regular officials working the game, people would have been angry for a little while and then it would have been on to the next one. But with all the problems with the replacements and all the press this is getting, this isn't going to end until [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell does something."
SportsBook.com, which caters mostly to European bettors, gave refunds to those who bet Green Bay. It did a similar thing for Manny Pacquiao bettors after he lost a fight to Timothy Bradley on June 9 that most people believed he won. But SportsBook.ag caters to the American audience and did not offer refunds.
Neither did Cantor, though Colbert said he would have liked to have been able to do so.
"We would love as a sports book to give Green Bay people their money back," he said. "But we took millions of dollars on that game and we can't give millions back. If the handle on that game was 50 grand, a 100 grand, I promise you, we would have given it back. But our seven books took a significant handle on that and we can't do it."
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