The Super Bowl coin toss bet: A surprisingly rich history for a goofy ‘heads or tails’ wager – The Athletic

Nando Di FinoFeb 11, 2024

On Jan. 20, 1985, Ronald Reagan was sworn into a second term as President at the foot of the Grand Staircase in the Entrance Hall of the White House. Hours later, he was flipping a coin before Super Bowl XIX.

It came up tails, and the Reagan Library has a fascinating 11-minute clip of the President preparing for the toss from the White House before he goes live on the broadcast:

Seven years later, the NFL tried to get NASA astronauts aboard Discovery to flip the coin. Unfortunately, plans were scrapped when NASA pointed out that a coin wouldn’t actually flip in the weightlessness of space. The astronauts instead did a demonstration during the pregame show — where Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar held a coin as her crew members spun her backwards — and Chuck Knoll officially flipped the coin back on Earth. It came up heads (both times).

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George Halas’ coin toss in Super Bowl XIII had a unique twist — when the Bears owner was asked to do the flipping he bought a $317 1920 gold coin (to commemorate “the year we started the league“). It landed with Lady Liberty facing up, which Halas had designated as heads. He claimed the loser of the flip (the Steelers) would get the coin — and you can see in this video he actually called over Jack Lambert and gave it to him. It’s worth about $3,000 today.

There’s an unverified story of Marie Lombardi — Vince Lombardi’s widow — never having flipped a coin before, necessitating practices during rehearsal. It went off without a hitch and landed tails up.

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And in 1982, there was a coin toss about two weeks before Super Bowl XVI to determine practice times inside the Pontiac Silverdome. The Bengals won (on tails) and got afternoon practices. The 49ers, who eventually won the game, were stuck with morning practices, which upset Bill Walsh, who pointed out that meant they’d be practicing at 7:30 a.m. their time and getting up at what would be 5 a.m. PT. Prior to that game, all Super Bowls had been played in warm weather cities and could practice outdoors simultaneously. The actual coin toss, also tails, was won by the 49ers, as well.

The coin toss, as you can see, used to have creativity, goofiness and some real gravitas. It’s now subject to scrutiny and regulation, as people throw large amounts of money on the random outcome and things like thick carpeting at the White House or 59 year-old gold coins bought from who-knows-where (by check!) getting flipped from the back of vintage automobiles are probably are no longer in play.

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The Super Bowl coin toss is a silly bet. There’s a 50/50 chance you win. And even if you do choose correctly, it won’t pay you a pure doubling of your money, as sportsbooks take a cut, with both outcomes sitting at -105 at BetMGM. It’s one of the most obviously bad bets you can place. In 2022, three staff members flipped a replica coin 1,751 times. It came up heads 50.4 percent of the time (882 times), and tails 49.6 percent (869 times).

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Bet on it if you so choose, as a way to kick off a day of Bacchanal revelry. But expect to feel the hard sting of losing a pure 50/50 proposition (and, unlike Jack Lambert, you will not be receiving an antique coin as a consolation prize).

All odds from BetMGM.

(Image credit: blackred stock image)

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Nando Di Fino is the managing editor for Fantasy and Sports Betting at The Athletic. He served on the board of directors of the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association from 2016 to 2019. He is an award-winning co-host of The Athletic Fantasy Football and Baseball Podcasts and has worked for The Wall Street Journal, MLB Network, CBS Sports, ESPN and the Associated Press. Follow Nando on Twitter @nandodifino

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