Betting on the national anthem: An American tradition

It’s moments before kickoff at the Super Bowl. A singer stands before a lone microphone, and that most familiar of pregame rituals begins with an “Oh say can you see … ”

Millions of Americans are at attention, their eyes focused with diamond-cutting intensity on every syllable, and not just because of American pride. No, they also want to see if the singer’s going to hit the over on their prop bet.

You’ve known what prop bets are since you were a little kid, even if you didn’t know the name: bets on the outcome of a specific, narrow proposition. No game engenders more prop bets than the Super Bowl – the coin flip, first player to catch a pass, whether Russell Westbrook will outscore the Rams – and no prop bet holds more interest than the national anthem.

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At its heart, the anthem prop bet is a simple one: whether the anthem will last longer than the time a sports book pegs as the over/under point, usually in the neighborhood of 120 seconds. The Kentucky Derby’s the most exciting two minutes in sports, but the national anthem – as it creeps toward that over/under mark, with bettors all over the world obsessing over every elongated note – is a very close second.

So as you prepare to lay down a few bucks – or friendly wagers, of course, if you’re in a state where gambling’s illegal – here’s how sports books set the anthem line … and how they guard against anything fishy.

Prop bets: A ‘losing proposition’ for sports books

Most high-level, big-money bets – point spread, over/under on the game – involve significant amounts of research on the part of sports books to establish lines. The Patriots and Rams have played 1,080 minutes of football apiece this season; that’s a lot of raw data that knowledgeable oddsmakers can use to set lines that will attract betting on both sides of the field.

Prop bets, by their quirky nature, don’t have the same wealth of background information. “Prop bets are a losing proposition for sports books,” says Scott Cooley, spokesman for betting site BetDSI. “We just don’t have enough research to plug into our algorithm.”

So why do sports books offer prop bets at all? Good PR.

“People love betting on props,” says David Mason, BetOnline.ag’s sports book brand manager. “The bet counts on props are our biggest. Betting on the coin toss is the American way.”

Note that Mason said bet counts, not bet amounts. Sports books limit their exposure on prop bets precisely because they’re so unpredictable. Fifty dollars a bet on the coin flip isn’t uncommon; $500 on a prop bet is generally the maximum. You’re not going to see someone getting to bet half a million dollars on the color of Gatorade to get dumped on the winning coach. (For the record, BetDSI has “clear/water” at 2/1 odds, “purple” as 10-1 odds.)

Why won’t sports books take huge bets on props? Remember: while the game itself is a mix of myriad variables changing a hundred times a second, a prop bet can be something simple, and thus easily manipulatable.

The NFL has taken notice. In testimony before Congress last year, NFL executive vice president Jocelyn Moore sought permission to allow leagues to ban prop bets precisely because of corruption concerns.

“These types of bets are significantly more susceptible to match-fixing efforts, and are therefore a source of concern to sports leagues, individual teams, and the athletes who compete,” Moore said. “To address concerns regarding risky betting fixtures, we encourage Congress to allow professional and amateur sports organizations to identify which types of bets simply pose too significant a risk to the integrity of sports and to work with regulators not to authorize them.”

That’s not likely to happen, since prop bets make up only a tiny fraction of the overall gambling pool.

How long will a singer sing?

So how do oddsmakers set lines on something with as little concrete data as an anthem? Simple: they set a line and watch the market’s reaction. They’ll do advance scouting on YouTube, checking for old videos, like this one from this year’s anthem singer Gladys Knight in 1991.

That version of the anthem came in at 94 seconds, from the first “O” to the end of “brave.” From a starting point like that, oddsmakers will start to set a line.

“It’s a dramatic moment, so that’s going to add some time,” Mason says. “She’s getting older, so that might add a few seconds. There’s evidence that in warmer weather, singers sing longer. We add all that together and throw [the line] up there.”

If you look to the past as precedent, the shortest anthem since Super Bowl XL was Billy Joel at 90 seconds, while the longest was Alicia Keys at 155 seconds. Most top out just short of the two-minute mark.

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But what if someone’s got some inside information? What if, say, someone paid off a Mercedes-Benz Stadium security guard to record how long Knight’s rehearsal version lasted? Come on. You think sports books aren’t already aware of that?

Oddsmakers will watch betting patterns closely, particularly after something as significant as a rehearsal. If a large number of bets come in favoring one side or the other, particularly bets from established and knowledgeable gamblers, all the oddsmaker has to do is move the line a touch to reduce risk.

It’s an inexact science. One sports book nearly got soaked a few years back when it set lines on the coin toss without realizing that the Patriots call heads every single time. And last year, Pink’s outfit caused controversy because oddsmakers initially couldn’t determine if she was wearing pants or a skirt for the purposes of payout on a costume prop bet.

Pink performs the national anthem prior to the start of Super Bowl LII between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. (Getty Images)
Pink performs the national anthem prior to the start of Super Bowl LII between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. (Getty Images)

The worst-case scenario, of course, would be if the singer – not Gladys Knight, some hypothetical future singer – were to manipulate the length of the song. While sports books can’t prevent against that possibility, the low limits make it highly unlikely. BetOnline hasn’t yet posted its over/under. BetDSI has set its at 107 seconds with a money line of -115, meaning you’d bet $115 to win $100. Not exactly a long-shot score.

“Nobody’s making life-changing money off a national anthem bet,” Cooley says. “The work involved to go to 50 different casinos and lay down that many bets wouldn’t be worth it.”

So kick back and enjoy the national anthem, knowing that the great American tradition of gambling on patriotism is on the up-and-up. And then get ready, ‘cause you’ll need to bet on which song Maroon 5 will play first at halftime.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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