The Super Bowl invariably yields the biggest single day of gambling of the year. Last year’s game produced a record-setting $98 million in wagers, and experts expect this year’s Super Bowl XLVIII matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos to be even more lucrative for Nevada sports books.
With so much money on the line, gamblers tend to scrutinize the Super Bowl more than any other sporting event, wary of the possibility that the NFL, Vegas oddsmakers, or some other party might rig the outcome of the game to suit their own interests. Conspiracy theories began shortly after the game's creation--to this day, some fans and former players suggest that Joe Namath’s infamous Super Bowl III guarantee and the Jets’ subsequent victory over the heavily-favored Colts was rigged in order to drum up publicity ahead of the AFL-NFL merger.
But such accusations were never so prominently discussed as in the immediate aftermath of last year’ Super Bowl XLVII—the night that the lights went out in the Superdome.
In the days leading up to the game, most sports books listed the Baltimore Ravens as 4 or 4.5-point underdogs to the San Francisco 49ers. And yet, by the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens held a commanding lead. Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kick return to start the second half gave the Ravens a 28-6 lead and a massive surge in momentum. Just as the game appeared to be headed for a blowout, the Superdome experienced a power outage.
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The blackout lasted for 22 minutes and caused the game to experience a 34-minute delay. The fan reaction was immediate—Twitter later announced that a record 24.1 million tweets were sent during the game. When stadium staffers did manage to restore the power, San Francisco looked like a completely different team. The 49ers scored 17 unanswered points; at one point, the once-dominant Ravens led by just two points.
Ultimately, the Ravens held on to win the game 34-31, but some fans and players were convinced that the blackout wasn't an accident. Some suggested that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had purposely ordered the blackout in the interest of preserving television ratings—or, perhaps, because he had an interest in manipulating the game’s outcome due to a connection with the Las Vegas gambling scene. Officials would later blame the power failure on an “abnormality in [The Superdome’s electrical] system,” but Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis openly questioned the blackout’s authenticity.
“I’m not gonna accuse nobody of nothing,” Lewis reportedly told USA Today last summer. “But you’re a zillion-dollar company, and your lights go out? No. No way. You cannot tell me somebody wasn’t sitting there and when they say, ‘The Ravens [are] about to blow them out. Man, we better do something.’ That’s a huge shift in any game, in all seriousness. And as you see how huge it was because it let them right back into the game.”
In an interview with the ESPN’s Lisa Salters, fellow Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs echoed his teammates’ comments, and openly suggested that Goodell may have ordered the blackout for gambling-related reasons. “I was like Vegas, parlor tricks, you know what I mean?” Suggs told the newspaper. “I was like ahh, Roger Goodell, he never stops, he always has something up his sleeve. He just couldn’t let us have this one in a landside huh?”
Despite Lewis and Suggs’ claims, it’s unlikely that either commissioner Goodell or some sort of gambling organization could influence the outcome of any game, let alone an event scrutinized as closely as the Super Bowl. Law enforcement officials are constantly monitoring betting action to ensure the integrity of the industry—the slightest irregularity usually triggers a full-fledged FBI investigation.
Earlier this year, the FBI announced an investigation into the UTEP men’s basketball team over allegations that several of its members engaged in “point-shaving,” or willfully altering the result of their team’s games. If a national government agency is willing to devote a task-force to the investigation of a relatively small-scale college basketball scandal, imagine the lengths it would go to probe a similar scandal related to an event as large as the Super Bowl.
Furthermore, there would have been no way for Goodell or any other party with sinister motives to tabulate the effects that a blackout would have the game’s outcome. Lewis and Suggs seemed convinced that the blackout allowed the game’s momentum to swing in San Francisco’s favor, but, as ESPN's Bill Barnwell pointed out, momentum is an arbitrary concept—there’s no way to quantify the effect, if any, that it will have on the outcome of a game.
Last year’s Super Bowl wasn’t even particularly profitable for Nevada sports books. According to The Sporting News, gamblers wagered $98 million on the big game, leading to an estimated $7 million profit for Nevada casinos—well short of record levels. In fact, some casinos lost money on the game, thanks to a prevalence of “Ravens and the over” parley bets.
A slightly more plausible theory would be to suggest that the blackout was Goodell’s desperate attempt to stave off a blowout in order to preserve the game’s television ratings. But, as blogger Mike Rothschild notes, the power outage resulted in 22 minutes of partial darkness within the Superdome, a 34-minute delay to in-game action, and the aforementioned outrage on social media. Why would Goodell allow a half hour of “dead air” if he was attempting to salvage television ratings?
Given the Super Bowl’s gravitas, every questionable call by an official, surprising upset and unexpected occurrence attracts attention. This year’s game won’t be any different—expect Internet message boards to be full full of threads in which users claim that “the fix is in,” and lists of the top “Super Bowl Fixes.” But, in the Super Bowl’s 48 years of existence, not a single piece of hard evidence has been found to link the world’s biggest sporting event to some sort of gambling conspiracy.
Still, don’t be surprised if new waves of theories are dominating your favorite social network by Monday morning.