When the Falcons topped the Panthers 22-10 in Week 17 of the 2017 season, it clinched a playoff berth for Matt Ryan and Co. But more importantly for one Portland, Oregon native, it clinched a prize of more than $1.3 million in the Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest.
The SuperContest, which is widely considered the most prestigious pro football betting competition in the world, offers anyone brave enough to test his or her skill picking NFL games against the best of the best the opportunity to win a life-changing amount of money. That was certainly the case for Briceton Jamar Branch Sr., whose "Grannys Boy" entry took home first place in 2017 to win a record top prize. Branch took the lead in Week 13 and hung on to it through the final Sunday of the season, when the Falcons sealed the deal.
The SuperContest has exploded in popularity since the beginning of the decade, going from a few hundred contestants in 2011 to a few thousand in 2017, with more growth projected this year. But what is it exactly, and how can aspiring millionaires participate?
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Each week, Westgate will set SuperContest lines on Wednesday for every NFL matchup. Contestants then have until Saturday morning to submit their top five picks against the spread for the week. Each correct pick earns one point, while a push (when the margin of victory matches the line) earns a half-point.
With 17 weeks in the season, the most a contestant can earn with a 100 percent success rate is 85 points. Typically, it takes a 65 percent success rate to be in play for the top prize, with the best performance on record coming in 2013, when the "CH Ballers" entry nailed 76.1 percent of its picks to win first place with 64.5 points.
But you don't have to reach the top of the mountain to make money. The SuperContest, which costs $1,500 to enter, has paid out 50 places (and ties) over the last few years but is expanding to 100 payouts in 2018 thanks to the growing field. However, last year the Westgate also debuted a winner-take-all version of the competition called SuperContest Gold, where a $5,000 entry fee earned a chance to take home 100 percent of the prize pool, which came out to $470,000 in its inaugural season.
Westgate VP of race and sports operations Jay Kornegay said that signups into this year's competition are outpacing last year coming out of the sportsbook's annual SuperContest Weekend, an event that includes golf, a reception, a raffle and more for entrants.
"We have 1,827 entries versus 1,555 in 2017 after SuperContest Weekend. The Gold sits at 65 entries versus 46 in 2017," Kornegay told CBSSports.com. "So both are well ahead of last year's record pace. I believe we'll end up around 3,300 to 3,500 entries. Based on 3,400, the first place prize in 2018 would be $1,548,360."
That's right: $1.5 million is expected to be on the line for pro football's top handicapper in 2018.
How to play
In order to participate, contestants must sign up in person at the Westgate in Las Vegas before the start of the season. The Westgate also requires participants to submit their picks in person each week, but independent proxy services exist for those out-of-state handicappers who wish to compete.
Matty Simo has run one such service along with business partner Toni Law called FootballContestProxy.com for the last 10 years.
"Prior to that, we each submitted picks for a few people separately," Simo told CBSSports.com. "In our first year together, the number of clients we had were in double digits, and now we will have more than 1,000 for the second year in a row."
With that many clients, the time spent handling the business can add up to basically working a full-time job in season.
"In past years during the season, between running around to different sportsbooks in Las Vegas, submitting and verifying picks and communicating with clients between Wednesday and Saturday, the two of us probably put in between 45-50 hours combined covering three major contests," Simo said. "Then between the start of sign-ups on July 1 and the kickoff of the season, we go down to the sportsbook twice daily to help people enter because we need to be there in person with them. That said, we are always trying to improve our efficiency and figure out how we can serve more clients in less time."
In past years, Simo and Law would send their clients the weekly lines on Wednesdays once posted, then accept email replies by a certain deadline each week. This year, they've set up a website to streamline the process for their clients.
The SuperContest began in the late '80s as a small competition for professional bettors. By 2004, the first year for which historical records exist, the contest drew a few hundred participants, with between 328 and 517 people signing up each year through 2011. Then interest started to snowball, with signups topping 1,000 for the first time in 2013, growing to 1,727 participants two years later and up to 2,748 entries last year.
SportsLine's Kenny White experienced the boom firsthand, winning a now defunct handicapping competition called the Stardust Invitational in back-to-back years in 1995-96 as well as the Barley's Pro Football Handicapping Contest in 1997 with a then-record 68 percent success rate.
"The SuperContest is pretty much the 'World Series of Sports Betting,' and both take a lot of luck to win," White told CBSSports.com.
White, who became the sports book director of the Fremont Hotel & Casino in 1987-88 at the age of 24 before starting an oddsmaking company to supply information to Nevada sportsbooks, also said he's "extremely happy for the evolution of sports betting."
"We should've been having this conversation 20 years ago, but the good news is we are having it [now]," White said.
With the recent SuperContest boom, the Westgate has had to face the challenges that come with scaling up to handle a multi-million-dollar prize pool.
"The biggest challenge is handling the pure volume of entries," Kornegay said. "Most people think of it as a challenge before the season, but it's a 17-week, regular-season contest. Submitting the picks is automatic through a kiosk, but the pure volume of entries also creates more inquiries each week."
And with more interest in the contest comes more criticism of how to make it better.
"As more people are aware and entering the SuperContest, we also get more opinions on how to 'improve' it," Kornegay said. "I know some people believe it should be run like a poker tournament with more places paid out, but this isn't a poker tournament. Those contestants that have a great season will be rewarded for it. The champion will get 33 percent of the pool this year, and it will remain a life changer."
One improvement the Westgate is working on: incorporating mobile betting into the fold and allowing contestants to submit their picks on their phones. And while that option didn't come together for 2018, don't expect to wait much longer to see it in the SuperContest.
"We have been working with our operating company for quite some time to develop a stable, start of the art, secure system. Unfortunately, we were not able to complete to an approved, secure level [for 2018]," Kornegay said. "There is no doubt in my mind we'll have that option next year."
What it's like to win
When Texas hold 'em poker took off as a phenomenon, many credited the Moneymaker effect, when Chris Moneymaker went from an unknown online qualifier to World Series of Poker champion in 2003. The SuperContest may have had its boom moment in 2016, when a Las Vegas Starbucks barista named Damon Graham won a first-place prize of about $900,000 at the age of 32, finishing with a 54-28-3 record on his entry "Pops2008."
When Graham signed up for the contest before the 2016 season, he didn't picture winning the whole thing. Even as the end of the season drew near, he was focused on finishing well rather than eyeing the top prize.
"I really just wanted to finish with a good percentage, to improve from the previous year," Graham told CBSSports.com. "I didn't picture the win, because until the very end, I was never in the position to win it. I was just happy I was doing well enough to make good money that year."
Two years after taking home the big prize, Graham still calls his run "surreal."
"The best part of it is the freedom of time and finance that windfall gives you," Graham added.
White doesn't credit a particular mentality toward winning a handicapping contest like the Stardust or the SuperContest, but developing a routine and maintaining focus.
"You need a strict mental game when betting professionally," White said. "In a contest like the SuperContest, you only have five selections [each week], but some would say five is a lot, and that it's hard to get to five. The secret to success is having a great feel for which teams are the best and which teams are the worst compared to what the market is projecting. In both cases, you're trying to find the most value, whether it is a underdog or small favorite. Whether betting straight bets in the NFL or in a contest, large favorites have the least amount of value."
Graham would spend about four-to-six hours each week trying to figure out which five teams to put on his card.
"You look at line moves, you look at scheduling, whether a team is off a bye, playing after a divisional opponent or against a really physical team," Graham said. "A big chunk of my time is perusing NFL beat writers on Twitter looking for injuries and practice reports."
Once the pressure is on near the end of the season, Simo is riding the wave with his and Law's proxy clients who have a shot at a big payday.
"One of the best parts of this job is rooting on our clients down the stretch in hopes that they finish in the money," Simo said. "We always say that we want all of the winners to be ours, and last year we had a record 29 clients earn money," which is more than half of the 50 who cashed.
"Sometimes we even take it harder than they do when they don't finish higher," Simo continued. "That was the case two years ago when we had a client tie for third, losing a game by a half-point in Week 17 when a win would have been worth an extra $100,000 to him. He was just happy to finish that high, period, and we were still super excited for him regardless."
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So should you play?
I've participated in the SuperContest for each of the last five years and had a blast doing it, cashing in two of the past three seasons and setting a personal best of 18th overall last year. My SuperContest picks go up on SportsLine every Saturday during the season, so you can have access to those picks as well as others I make throughout the year, including the postseason after the SuperContest is over, by signing up today. Using promo code WHITE will get you $1 for your first month's subscription.
I asked Kornegay whether he envisions a future where interested parties outside of Nevada will be able to play directly with Westgate as other states legalize sports betting.
"We're finalizing our new entity 'The SuperBook' that will compete on a national level," Kornegay said. "The SuperContest and SuperContest Gold is a product offered by the SuperBook brand and will be available in other jurisdictions. Until it's legalized nationally, the SuperContest will be operating intrastate as it does in the state of Nevada," somewhat cryptically adding, "More to come ..."
If you don't want to wait to play for that day, the Westgate SuperBook is still accepting entries in Las Vegas until the morning of Saturday, Sept. 8.
Graham points out that there are additional ways to win money in the SuperContest aside from how you finish at the end of the year, as the overall leader after four weeks will earn $15,000, as will the overall leader after eight weeks. And those who sign up before Labor Day have access to the mini-contest, which offers another $15,000 prize and takes place over the last three weeks of the season.
"I think the best advice is to look at like this," Graham said. "$1,500 for 17 weeks is about $90 a week. If that's too much but you want to play, do it with friends and split up the cost."
Simo offered some final words of encouragement for those still on the fence.
"This is a fun contest with the potential to win a lot of money, and you can't caught up in how many people enter," Simo said. "The SuperContest is the largest pro football handicapping contest in the world, and winning it should be secondary to enjoying yourself throughout the season and testing your handicapping skills over 17 weeks. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and getting off to a bad start means little if you can turn it around and finish stronger than anyone else.
"Taking it week to week is also a much better strategy, along with staying the course. Believe in yourself, and put yourself in position to win it in the end. A goal of finishing in the top 10 is much more realistic, and if you're there in the last few weeks, then you'll give yourself a real shot" at the top prize.
Where else can you turn $1,500 into $1.5 million in 17 weeks?