Super Bowl time is here and many, many more Americans, thanks to legalized sports betting in new marketplaces such as New Jersey, will be able to legally bet on the game and all the hundreds of proposition wagers that go along with it.
So, it’s the appropriate time to tell the inside story of the biggest Super Bowl bet ever made, who made it, how much money was at risk, and how it turned out.
Michael Gaughan’s Super Bowl
As the local Las Vegas newspaper wrote about Super Bowl XXVI in 1992 and was recounted by award-winning columnist Andrew Beyer in the Washington Post 27 years ago, “The game would not be remembered for the heroics of Mark Rypien or Art Monk or any of the Washington Redskins. It will always be remembered there (Las Vegas) as Michael Gaughan’s Super Bowl.”
For the record, the National Football Conference (NFC) champion Washington Redskins were facing the American Football Conference (AFC) champion Buffalo Bills. The winner would become the 1991 season’s National Football League (NFL) champion.
Sports Betting’s growth spurt
Nevada sports betting was well established in the early 1990’s and in the midst of a massive growth spurt. The mega-resorts on the Las Vegas Strip were raising customer expectations with a spectacular exploding volcano at The Mirage and, a little later, talking statues at Caesars Palace. Lots of other attractions were available to lure in customers with more to come.
Properties were installing bigger and better sportsbooks that would gradually transfer sports betting from a minor casino amenity into a must-have. The Las Vegas Strip was going all in on sports betting and the smaller joints on the Strip and off it needed a way to keep up.
It was in this context that the 1991 NFL season, for sports betting purposes, was contested. It was a season featuring the 14-2 Redskins who had led the league with a high-powered offense that scored a league-leading 485 points – that’s an average of more than 30 points per game – during the regular season. The average team in this less offensive-minded era (partly a product of different NFL rules) was 304 points, or 19 per game. Washington head coach Joe Gibbs was after his third Super Bowl victory with the team. But, Gibbs was relying on his third different starting Super Bowl quarterback, Mark Rypien.
The Bills were fresh off a 13-3 regular season to advance to their second of four consecutive Super Bowls, all losses. Quarterback Jim Kelly and their “K-Gun” no-huddle offense was formidable. However, oddsmakers clearly saw the offensive juggernaut Redskins as the better team because the Buffalo defense ranked second to last in the league in total yards allowed.
Bet either side, or both!
Michael Gaughan, current owner of the South Point Hotel Casino Spa and son of pioneering Las Vegas icon Jackie Gaughan, a sports betting visionary, was looking for a way to attract more betting action to a game linemakers had opened with the Redskins as a 7-point favorite.
In an exclusive conversation with Sports Handle, Gaughan recounts for the first time in decades what led up to his decision inviting sports bettors to try and “middle” him — by offering bettors the ability to bet the favored Redskins as -6 ½ point favorites or take the Bills as a +7 ½ point underdog.
If a player made point spread wagers on both teams, it was possible to win both bets if the Redskins won by exactly 7 points, which bettors surely know is a key number and common landing spot.
Gaughan was controlling owner/operator of just two casinos at the time. They were the now-defunct Barbary Coast at what’s known as “Four Corners,” the most famous intersection on the Las Vegas Strip — the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road. His other property was the then relatively new, locals-centric Gold Coast, now a Boyd Gaming property, about a mile to the west of the Barbary Coast.
On the hook for $10 million
“Why did I do it? To attract business,” he told Sports Handle.
And did it ever. Of the total Nevada handle for Super Bowl XXVI, more than $50 million, a whopping 30 percent was pushed through the windows at the Barbary Coast and the Gold Coast.
However, things quickly spiraled upwards to unexpected heights of liability for Gaughan. Thus, when toe met leather on January 26, 1992, at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Gaughan was on the hook for about $10 million if the favored Redskins won by seven points in what has to be the biggest Super Bowl bet ever made.
- How a confused bookmaker briefly circled the game — stopped taking bets — while he tried to figure out what was Gaughan was doing.
- How flamboyant high-stakes gambler and fellow casino owner Bob Stupak bet $500,000 in cash on each side so he could boast he bet $1 million on the Super Bowl.
- The steps Gaughan took to get the cash on hand in case he had to pay out the middle.
- How Gaughan spent Super Bowl Sunday with $10 million on the line and the promise he made to himself that memorable day.