A History of Sports Betting at the First Five Super Bowls

Super Bowl III cover image

The Rams and Bengals meet on February 13 for the National Football League’s 56th Super Bowl. But that’s not all. Far from it, my friends.

The NFC champion Rams opened as a slight 3.5-point favorite over an opponent that was listed at 150-1 to win Super Bowl LVI in August. The Rams opened at 12-1 to hoist The Lombardi Trophy at the same time, well before acquiring Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller from the Broncos, Odell Beckham Jr., from the Browns, Eric Weddle from unofficial retirement, and sending Tom Brady into official retirement.

The Bengals have nothing much to show except three straight playoff victories that include beating the AFC’s No. 1 seeded Titans on the road to then earn a trip, and victory, at Arrowhead over the Chiefs, who are the only team to host four-straight conference championship games. The Bengals earned a puncher’s chance to win the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history on their third try.

Factor in the Bengals also have a cocky-confident QB who can become the first player to win the Heisman Trophy, College Football National Championship, and a Super Bowl, and we have the storylines for a potentially exciting big game.

Aside from hosting Super Bowl XL, a 21-10 Steelers victory over the Seahawks, Detroit is the closest it’s been to the big game with former Lions QB Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Eminem performing at halftime. Everybody from the 3-1-3, you feel me?

Rewind over half a century and the big game clearly was much different, not just on the field, but from the name itself.

The first “super bowl,” then called the “AFL-NFL Championship Game,” was three seasons before the two leagues officially merged in 1970. At the turn of that new decade, professional football, now consolidated as the NFL, titled its championship game as the Super Bowl.

The name was derived from a suggestion by then-Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, for whom the AFC championship trophy is named. Hunt’s sons had a “Super Ball,” a rubber sphere that was “50,000 pounds of compressed energy” and “bounces higher than any other ball.” One son, Clark Hunt, is now the owner of his father’s franchise.

When the Hunt boys were playing with their “Super Ball,” the Roman numeral had yet to make its appearance on the Super Bowl marquee.

What now is customary for labeling the greatest sporting event in the history of Western civilization didn’t come until Super Bowl V, the fifth championship game documented in this installment of Super Bowls and sports betting:

Super Bowl I

Chiefs vs. Packers (Jan. 15, 1967)

Green Bay was a 14-point favorite over Hunt’s Chiefs.

The NFL at this time, and for a couple more seasons, was the superior league, established roughly 40 years before the AFL. That view remained until Super Bowl III, when a guy from Beaver Falls, Pa., helped orchestrate the biggest upset in the game’s history.

More on that soon.

Led by head coach Vince Lombardi, the Packers struck first on a 37-yard touchdown pass from QB Bart Starr.

Just before halftime, the Chiefs pulled to within 14-10 on a field goal. It was the last time the AFL representative scored as the Packers showed their superiority with three unanswered second-half touchdowns, winning 35-10.

Super Bowl II

Packers vs. Raiders (Jan. 14, 1968)

Lombardi’s Packers returned to the Super Bowl as the NFL’s top team and made quick work of the best from the AFL, building a 33-7 lead early in the fourth quarter and winning 33-14 as 13.5-point favorites.

Super Bowl III

Jets vs. Colts (Jan. 12, 1969)

The Baltimore Colts were, and still are, the biggest favorite in Super Bowl history at 18.5 points.

Enter “Broadway Joe” from Beaver Falls, Pa.

Given no shot to beat the Colts, as evident by the point spread and reinforced by media coverage, Jets QB Joe Namath finally bristled at a reporter’s question and made a guarantee, then cashed in. The Jets won Super Bowl III, 16-7, and gave the AFL the credibility it lacked in the first two Super Bowls.

Colts legendary QB Johnny Unitas orchastrated his team’s only score in the final minutes of the fourth quarter after being subbed in for NFL MVP Earl Morrall, who led the Colts that season to a 13-1 record and two playoff victories.

Of note: In Super Bowl VII, Morrall replaced Dolphins QB Bob Griese after Griese broke his leg, and won all nine starts plus two playoff games in Griese’s absence. Griese returned for the Super Bowl and the Dolphins, coached by Shula, completed the only perfect season (17-0) in the Super Bowl era.

Super Bowl IV

Vikings vs. Chiefs (Jan. 11, 1970)

The Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl three seasons after losing to the Packers in the inaugural game and were again double-digit underdogs, this time at 12 points.

History didn’t repeat itself for Hunt’s Chiefs as they led the Vikings 16-0 at halftime and won their first championship, 23-7.

Super Bowl V

Colts vs. Cowboys (Jan. 17, 1971)

Later known as “America’s Team,” head coach Tom Landry led the Dallas Cowboys to their first Super Bowl appearance as 2.5-point underdogs against the Baltimore Colts.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys and their bettors, Unitas rallied his Colts from 6-0 and 13-6 deficits to win Super Bowl V, 16-13, on a field goal from rookie kicker Jim O’Brien, narrowly covering the spread.

The Colts also captured “The Lombardi Trophy,” renamed from the “World Professional Football Championship Trophy” after the Packers’ legendary coach died from cancer on Sept. 3, 1970.

From a Bettor’s Eye

  • Super Bowl I – The favored Packers (-14) easily covered by 11 points.
  • Super Bowl II – The Packers were a smaller favorite, albeit slightly (-13.5), from the previous year and covered by 5.5 points.
  • Super Bowl III – The first upset, and still the biggest, the Jets beat the Colts, 16-7, as 18.5-point underdogs. Guaranteed.
  • Super Bowl IV – The underdog won outright for a second-straight season when the Chiefs (+12) beat the Vikings.
  • Super Bowl V – The Colts won by three points as 2.5-point favorites, marking the closest cover in Super Bowl history through five games.
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Mario Sanelli writes about sports betting for BeerLife Sports. He previously was the editorial assistant and a general-assignment reporter at The Denver Post for five years after serving as chief editor of The Metropolitan at MSU Denver. Mario was a NFL and college football insider with Mile High Sports for six years.