The NFL saw a great meaningless gambling moment last weekend when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu seemed to scored a touchdown on the final play of Pittsburgh’s game against San Diego. While it looked like the lusciously locked DB had successfully nabbed a fumbled lateral and scampered into the end zone, the referee somewhat confusingly allowed, then disallowed the score. The play had no impact on the game’s outcome (Pittsburgh still won 11-10), but the gambling repercussions were serious. The Steelers had been 4.5-point favorites heading into the game, and if Polamalu’s score counted, anyone who bet on Pittsburgh and laid the points would have won. Instead, they lost their bets, which cost these bettors an estimated $64 million, and that’s not to mention those fantasy owners (like this writer) who started the Pittsburgh D and lost a fumble recovery and score from the reversal.
Moments like these aren’t so rare, though. Every once in a while, a seemingly meaningless play that has no effect on the outcome of a game will have serious repercussions for the gambling community. Here are a few tales that will make bettors wince.
1. Chris Duhon’s Heave
As the clock dwindled on Duke and UConn’s 2004 Final Four matchup, Blue Devils fans had to hang their heads. Their underdog squad was going to lose 79-75, thereby ending their title hopes. Worse still, various betting lines on the game were giving the Devils between two and three points, so Duke fans who had bet on the game were going to endure a double punch to the stomach: their team was losing, and so were their wallets. On the final play of the game, though, senior guard Chris Duhon chucked a 38-foot three-pointer off one leg as time expired. The shot banked in to make the score 79-78. It was cold comfort for Duhon and his teammates. However, it was great news for anyone who’d wagered on Duke. Since the underdogs covered the spread on the meaningless play, they all won their bets. The shot swung at least an estimated $30 million to Duke bettors, with some estimates ranging as high as $100 million.
2. The Machine Throws a Wrench at Gamblers
When the Los Angeles Lakers played the San Antonio Spurs in last spring’s Western Conference Finals, it seemed pretty obvious that Kobe and company were going to earn their first NBA Finals trip since 2004. At the end of Game 5, the Lakers had all but clinched a four-games-to-one series victory. They had the ball with a 97-92 lead and needed only to run out the clock and get ready for the Finals. Instead of the customary aimless dribbling to wind things down, though, backup guard Sasha “The Machine” Vujacic tossed off a three-pointer as time expired. Final score: 100-92. The bad news for Vegas? The line was Lakers -7.5, which meant that Vujacic’s shot covered the spread. CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell wrote that given the large amount of worldwide action on the playoff game, the shot may have swung $100 million in bets.
3. Florida-Miami, 2008
This Sunshine State rivalry has never been short on hard feelings, but the animosity between the two traditional powers and their fans peaked following this September’s contest. Florida was widely considered one of the best teams in the country, while the Canes looked like they might have another down year. As a result, the spread was big; the Gators were 21-point favorites. The game played out about as expected with Florida laying down a pretty firm drubbing. With about a minute left, the Gators had the ball and a 23-3 lead. Ordinarily, teams would just run out the clock in this situation and enjoy the victory. Not Florida coach Urban Meyer, though. The Gators kept running plays in an attempt to score. Eventually the drive stopped 12 yards short of the goal line, and kicker Jonathan Phillips poked in a 29-yard field goal with 25 seconds left to move the score to 26-3. Hurricanes coaches and fans were upset with what they saw as a classless attempt to run up the score and cover the spread, but Meyer claimed he just wanted to get the young kicker some late-game experience before the meat of the Gators’ schedule. Either way, Florida covered the spread on the meaningless kick, which must have made countless Gator bettors happy.
4. Robin Ventura’s Grand-Slam Single
Game Five of the 1999 National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets felt like it might never end. The game was tied 2-2 in the top of the 15th inning before Mets reliever Octavio Dotel gave up a run to stake the Braves to a 3-2 lead. In the bottom of the 15th, though, the Mets managed to tie the game at 3-3 when catcher Todd Pratt drew a bases-loaded walk. The next batter, Robin Ventura, clubbed a pitch over the Shea Stadium fence for a walk-off grand slam. The Mets were going to win the game 7-3. Only there was a holdup: when Ventura got between first and second base, his teammates mobbed him in a raucous celebration. He never got to finish his home run trot or even touch second base. Since Ventura only touched first, the official scorer didn’t give him a home run and the four RBIs he had coming from the slam. Instead, Ventura got credit for a single and one RBI.
The “grand slam single” was obviously enough to give the Mets the 4-3 win, but it caused a sticky situation in Vegas. The over/under (combined number of runs scored by both teams) on which bettors had wagered was 7.5. If the Mets had gotten all four runs Ventura’s slam should have scored, the total number of runs would have been 10, and bettors who took the over would have won. Instead, the 4-3 final score resulted in the under bettors winning. Unfortunately for the sports books, it wasn’t immediately clear that the Mets weren’t going to get those three extra runs, so NBC posted the score as 7-3 on its broadcast. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal some casinos started paying out on “over” bets when the 7-3 score was initially posted and didn’t stop until NBC announcer Bob Costas told viewers the correct score five minutes or so later. As a result, if you were quick enough, this game did the seemingly impossible: it paid out for both the over and the under.