The ‘pure chaos’ of betting on the Super Bowl national anthem

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Adam Burns was lounging on his couch in Montreal last month when he received a message from a colleague, forwarding along an NFL-issued news release about the upcoming Super Bowl. Jolting up, the sportsbook manager for gambling website BetOnline.ag flung open his computer and sprung into odds-making action.

“Right away, within a minute after it was announced that Reba McEntire was singing the national anthem,” Burns said, “I was watching all the YouTube videos of anytime she’d done it in the past. … What’s she wearing? What’s she doing? How long is she taking? How long does the word ‘brave’ last?”

Judging by the hoard of Reba-related content that hit the internet over the ensuing weeks, Burns was far from the only person preoccupied with the wagering implications of the country star’s performance before Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. “Here’s Reba McEntire national anthem time history to help Super Bowl bettors,” one headline read. “Super Bowl 58 national anthem odds, prediction: Over/under pick for Reba McEntire,” another declared.

Despite common assumption, none of the 38 states (plus D.C.) where live sports betting is legal allow people to put money on the Super Bowl anthem. The last to do so was Maryland — a fitting fact given that Francis Scott Key began writing the song in Baltimore — but on Feb. 1, the state revoked its approval for sportsbook operators to offer several well-known categories of off-field wagers, commonly known as novelty proposition bets. Now Maryland bettors, like everyone else, can no longer wager on the anthem, the halftime show or the color of the Gatorade poured on the winning coach. And only Illinois offers an anthem-betting loophole, permitting bettors to wager on game statistics props compared with the anthem length — such as whether the song will last longer than the first offensive drive — according to Illinois Gaming Board director of communications Beth Kaufman.

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Still, the anthem remains a major draw at offshore and international books housed outside the legal limits of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Even though both DraftKings and FanDuel stopped taking Super Bowl anthem wagers in the United States this year, the industry behemoths continue to post lines for Canadian bettors across the border in Ontario. “The anthem is our biggest nongame prop, for sure,” Burns said of the Caribbean-based BetOnline, “and I’d say it’s been up there with some of the game or player props. It’s that popular.”

Dig deeper than the bottom line, though, and broader societal themes emerge. How does the history of anthem bets inform today’s booming prop market? What risks are involved in posting them? And why do they continue to generate such attention in an increasingly saturated landscape in which, according to the American Gaming Association, more than two-thirds of American adults live in an area with legal live sports betting? The answers point to a patriotic conclusion.

As Brendan Dwyer, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Sport Leadership, said, “There’s something very American about our most popular sport and that song and betting on it.”

The biggest big game on the annual sporting schedule has become the largest draw on the national gambling calendar. Per a recent AGA study, nearly 68 million adults across the country are projected to wager more than a combined $23 billion — upticks of 35 percent and 44 percent, respectively, from last year — on Super Bowl LVIII. And more than half of those people, about 43 million, are expected to do so at a sportsbook, on the internet or with a bookie. (The rest engage in more casual betting, such as squares with friends or a party pool.)

Whereas the betting public was once mostly relegated to point spreads and over-unders, a significant portion of today’s haul comes from wagers beyond the final score. According to a Draft­Kings spokesperson, player, game and novelty props totaled 31 percent of the company’s Super Bowl handle — the total amount placed by bettors — last year. Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of sports operations at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, put his number much higher.

“We’re at 68 percent from props,” Kornegay said. “When we started putting them up [in the late 1980s], it was like 5 percent. Then we had a huge spike in ’95 when the 49ers played the Chargers and everyone knew [San Francisco] would win, so we went from around 50 propositions to over 100. From that point, it’s been ticking upward every year.”

The earliest available print references to anthem betting began appearing around the same time. “At last word, the over-and-under for length of the national anthem, to be sung by Harry Connick Jr., was 1 minute, 48 seconds,” the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal wrote in 1992. “Philadelphia columnist Stan Hochman, an expert in this field, believes the number is way too high. Most anthems last 1½ minutes, he says, and only a few reach two minutes. Nervous people sing faster, so Hochman recommends betting the under.” (Connick clocked in at 2:06.)

A decade and a half later, the practice had become so common that it reached the ears of the musician onstage at Super Bowl XLI. “The Piano Man said he is aware that an internet betting site … has posted an over-under line on the length of his rendition — 1 minute, 44 seconds — but he wouldn’t reveal whether he plans to do a slow version or a fast one,” the Baltimore Sun reported in 2007, concluding its story with an off-key quote from Billy Joel himself: “I won’t say anything because I might be betting myself.” (Joel’s time of 1:30 stands as the fastest of the past 25 years.)

There has never been an instance of insider singing, no anthem performer busted for betting on their own literal lines. But scandals have arisen. One was in 2011, when Christina Aguilera not only botched part of the lyrics — “what so proudly we watched at the twilight’s last reaming” — but also went rogue by adding a “woo” after “home of the brave,” boosting her time by a full second.

“A few years ago, we had it as, ‘Until they say the end of the word ‘brave’ for the first time,’” Burns said. “Now we say, ‘First word spoken to last note.’ Just keeps it simpler.”

In 2021, a video of a rehearsal of Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan’s Super Bowl LV anthem duet went viral. “Someone was outside the stadium, recorded it, tweeted it, then every Twitter guy in the world was saying, ‘Go bet,’ ” Burns said. “So we saw a bunch in a row and we closed it. That wasn’t ideal for us.” Then again, Burns added, “There’s always controversy. No matter what, with all these props, I’m going to get complaints.”

To set the lines, Burns requires little more effort than his 17 years of industry experience and laptop access. “My research is literally just sitting there watching,” he said. But in contrast to the coin toss or the Gatorade color, anthem results can, not unlike sports themselves, swing wildly on the whims of real-time human performance. “You never know: Maybe she’ll drag it out, or she’ll just want to get in and out,” Burns said.

As the demand for Super Bowl props has grown, so, too, has the pool of available anthem-adjacent novelty bets. But the near-infinite freedom offshore and international operators have to dream up new props can also lead to fuzzy results. “If Reba’s boots are equally red, white and blue, what do we do?” Burns said. “We say ‘primary boot color’ [in the bet], but we have to make judgment calls. One year we had, ‘Will whoever’s doing the anthem show cleavage?’ And it was really debatable. So we’ve graded both winners.”

It’s almost enough to make an oddsmaker wonder whether the trouble is worth it. Not Burns, however. “The clients love it,” he said. “That’s the fun of the Super Bowl — just pure chaos.”

‘I’d probably put it up, too’

For those on the ground in the world’s betting capital — which, for the first time, is also the site of the Super Bowl — anthem wagering becomes a topic of conversation every year as kickoff draws near. Often, those conversations leave prospective gamblers disappointed. “They’re shocked that we don’t offer these propositions because they saw the over-under on TV or read it in the news,” Kornegay said. “Some take it in stride. Some don’t.”

The danger of predetermined information leaking is one possible reason states have shunned anthem bets. (Even offshore books that accept them tend to set “pretty small limits” on the amount bettors can wager on these potentially predetermined novelty props, Burns said.) The lack of an official, verifiable result is another.

“We decided to move away from allowing [these] bets . . . because they aren’t based on the outcome of the game or statistics or results from the game,” said Seth Elkin, managing director of communications for Maryland Lottery and Gaming. But no matter the root cause, the ultimate appeal is undeniable. “If I was in those markets, in those parts of the world,” Kornegay said, “I’d probably put it up, too.”

For casual bettors, the anthem can provide drama in a short span — according to Covers.com, the record for the longest version belongs to Alicia Keys, in 2003, at 2:35 — before the actual drama begins. “When we don’t have a stake in the game, we look for it in other ways,” said Dwyer, the VCU professor. “I think who sings the national anthem is a big deal, and it’s one of the first things we see, so you want to be involved in that first moment of action.”

Of course, people are only able to wager money on what the sportsbooks want to post. “It’s a creative marketing effort,” said Stephen Shapiro, associate chair of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Sport and Entertainment Management. “The more interesting, unique thing you can come up with, the more attention it’s going to grab in the media. The Super Bowl is such a great platform for that.”

And with that allure comes the possibility of problems. “As more states are legalizing sports betting, these prop bets will draw in more consumers,” Shapiro said. “But if it gets out of hand over time, what’s the responsibility of those that are generating a lot of money to make sure it’s as safe an environment for the consumer and there’s places for people to go to get help?”

Rather than symbolizing how unruly props have gotten in a betting-mad society, though, experts such as Dwyer and Shapiro see anthem wagers as more reflective of an unstoppable financial and cultural spectacle. “It just shows you how much of a monster the NFL and the Super Bowl are that you can get people involved in any aspect surrounding the game that catches attention,” Shapiro said.

If nothing else, the particular matchup of this year’s championship has set the anthem prop market on a collision course with that of another ubiquitous modern American force.

“I almost wish the Chiefs had lost,” Burns said, “just so I didn’t have to deal with Taylor Swift props.”

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