Tuesday, September 10, 2013
The SuperContest is now officially SuperSized.
Even if you’re not in Vegas, if you follow the sports betting world at all you’ve probably heard of the SuperContest, which drew a record field of 1,034 this season for the annual NFL spread-picking contest at the LVH – Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. You might be more familiar with the name of “the Hilton” as the place where Elvis performed sold-out shows in the 1970s and that’s what the property was known as until January 2012 when the name was changed by the current owners to LVH when the brand-naming rights expired, but many people still refer to the granddaddy of all NFL handicapping contests as “the Hilton SuperContest” or even just “the Hilton.”
The SuperContest was adopted by the Hilton as the top contest in town to replace the Castaways Challenge that had been razed on the Las Vegas Strip to make way for the opening of the Mirage in 1989. The entry is $1,500 and contestants pick 5 games against the spread each week for a total of 85 plays. A winning pick counts as 1 point with a push being worth a 1/2 point.
For years, it was mostly a locals’ tournament with entries in the low hundreds even after rules were added to allow out-of-staters to enter in person and designate a proxy to put in their picks every week. I’ve covered the SuperContest as a journalist since moving here in 1998 and I’ve been in it every year since 2000. As recently as 2002, the record for the number of entries was 281 set that year. The contest showed a steady growth the next few years and the field was up to 505 in 2005 before the recession slowed things down the next few years. The handicapper/advantage player known as “Fezzik” (SuperContestants enter under aliases for listing in the standings) won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009 over fields of 350 and 328, respectively. When “Richard Stand” won in 2010, there were 345 entries but things were about to change.
At that time, ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons (who now runs Grantland.com) and Chad Millman started writing more about the SuperContest in their columns/blogs and reaching a wide audience. The exposure helped lead to a new record of 517 entries in 2011 and the ball kept rolling with like-minded sports betting enthusiasts discussing it on social media and the entries grew to 745 in 2012, almost exactly a 50% increase each of those two years.
Also last year, the LVH hosted a SuperContest Weekend on the Friday/Saturday the week before Labor Day Weekend with seminars, a golf outing, and drawings for free entries. The announcement for that event last year came a little late for some people, but this year’s event exploded and helped lead to the field topping the 1,000 mark for the first time.
This year’s prize pool is $1,551,000 with a first-place prize of $542,850. Those are both records, even though the champion’s share was actually trimmed from 40% of the pool to 35% to pay for the increase of paying spots from 20 to 30.
To cash in the SuperContest, it has historically taken around 60% no matter the size of the field though it took 61% last year, which helped lead to the increase in the spots that cash. The champion usually comes around 65% to 69%. There is also a $15,000 (increased from $10,000 this year) bonus that is split by those hitting better than 67% and also a mini-contest over the last three weeks of the season for those that signed up by the early-bird deadline on Labor Day.
Before the field hit 500 contestants, it was quite rare for the 67% bonus to be paid (so I always tell people to question when people claim outrageously high winning percentages, as I hope we all know as I believe visitors to the site are far less likely to be in that naïve category), but it has been hit five of the eight years since 2005. With the field getting so big, it’s made the chance for statistical outliers much more possible. It will be interesting to see if it takes 70% to win the contest, though again we all know how tough this is and the only SuperContest winner to top that mark so far has been the team of “Sans Souci” in 2011 at 58-22-5 (72.5% after pushes discarded). Last year, “Al Sr.” (actually a woman naming her entry after her husband who didn’t enter) was back in the normal range at 56-26-3 (68.3%) despite the bigger field.
The way the SuperContest is covered has certainly changed with the increase of media outlets doing feature stories and more people blogging about it and even books like Bovada.lv putting up prop bets on over/under 59.5 for the point total of this year’s winner and over/under 1 points for the margin of victory of the champ over the runner-up (I’d bet we’ll see more of stuff like this as it continues to grow). It’s also getting even more mentions on national shows such as Colin Cowherd’s ESPN Radio show in which his “Blazin’ Five” picks last year would have had him right in contention. The LVH now has a spot on its website for people to get the weekly lines and posts everyone’s selections after the 11 a.m. PDT Saturday deadline.
Back in the day, the Hilton never wanted to do that because part of the reason for the contest was to make people come down to the SuperBook to pick up the contest lines on Tuesdays (the lines now come out Wednesday afternoons) and then again on Saturday to get the sheets with the leaders’ plays printed on it. Their hope was that people will be there instead of elsewhere, plus maybe they’d go to dinner and/or a show or gamble in the casino. It did take a lot of pleading from me (and a lot of other people, I’m sure) to get them to finally start posting the standings and selections online.
As alluded to above, the sheets with the leaders’ picks were popular for years. People would come down just to see who the leaders of the most-famous handicapping contest. It also became popular for people to post the consensus plays on internet posting forums to see who the majority of the wiseguys in the contest were playing on a weekly basis.
This leads me to the opening week of this season as only 3 contestants out of the 1,034 were able to go 5-0. Now, normally if you’re computing the odds of hitting a five-team parlay (which a 5-0 contest record basically is), you’d say you had a 1 in 32 chance (3.125%) of doing that if every game is a theoretical 50/50 proposition. Now, as sharp handicappers/bettors, we hope to exceed those expectations but let’s stick with it for this illustration. So, normally we’d expect that a field of this size would have around 32 people go 5-0 in Week 1 (the math comes out to 32.3). But instead the 3 that did it were just 0.29% of the field.
How’d that happen? Well, the Top 5 consensus based on the number of times each team was selected, went 0-4-1 as the Texans, the most selected team by 413 contestants (39.9% of the field) taking them -4 vs. the Chargers on Monday, Buccaneers, Browns and Panthers all failed to cover and the Bengals pushed with a 3-point spread against the Bears. Overall, the consensus picks went 4-11-1 (26.7%) and the plays of all contestants went 1766-2986-403 (37.2%). Note: three people did not put in their Week 1 picks so that’s why the total is 15 short.
I mention all this as a warning that using the SuperContest consensus is no guarantee of success. In fact, some people will argue (and it’s mostly true) that the SuperContest now has far more squares in it than sharps. The consensus used to be skewed toward the sharp sides with a lot more underdogs used by the professional bettors and wiseguys, but nowadays it tends to include more favorites that the public tends to bet. However, because we get carried with “the good ole days,” it should be pointed out that there were many years when the field had a higher percentage of co-called sharps that the consensus winning percentage wasn’t much better than 50%.
Some weeks will be better than others, so I’d advise that anyone looking at the SuperContest consensus or even the picks of the leaders (I post all of the above in a weekly thread on my ViewFromVegas.com Forums: http://forums.viewfromvegas.com/user/Discussions.aspx?id=371512
) that you don’t bet those blindly. That also goes for those out there that say the pendulum has swung to make the SuperContest consensus a square barometer that should be faded. Instead, I’d say to just use it as another tool in determining how you feel about your plays.
Good luck the rest of the season.
Dave Tuley is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Las Vegas race & sports beat since 1998, first for the GamingToday newspaper in Vegas and has written for Daily Racing Form since 2000. Tuley started his own website, ViewFromVegas.com, in 2007 and has written for other websites, including ESPN.com. In 2006, he won "Best News Story" by the Professional Football Writers of America, the only time a gambling story has won a PFWA award. Tuley, 45, grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is married with children in Vegas. His roots can be seen in the names of his three children: daughters Jordyn and Peyton (named for Walter Payton, not Peyton Manning) and son Maddux. Dave can be followed on Twitter @ViewFromVegas.