About 30 years ago, the then-Las Vegas Hilton started an NFL handicapping competition, asking bettors to pick a handful of games each week against the spread, then tallying who'd made the best predictions over the course of the entire regular season.
Today, that challenge has grown into the SuperContest, which drew more than 2,700 participants in 2017 and awarded last year's winner $1.3 million.
"It's known as the most prestigious pro football handicapping contest in the world," said Jay Kornegay, vice president of Race & Sports Operations for Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.
The contest, which is accepting entries until 2 p.m. EST on Sept. 8, works like this: Participants pay a $1,500 entry fee before the first game of the NFL season then select the winners of five games each week against the contest line for the 17-week duration of the season. While picks have to be made in person, out-of-state entrants can use an independent proxy service to put in their choices.
"You get a point for a win, half-point for a push, zero points for a loss," Kornegay said.
Whoever has the most points at the close of week 17 wins.
The SuperContest pays out the top 100 finishers, with last year's first place spot earning a record $1,327,284.
"We've had so many first-timers win over the last few years, along with some seasoned handicappers," Kornegay said. "First-timers or casual fans have done very well in the SuperContest."
While the competition is turning 30 this year, the Westgate oddsmaker said that for a long time the contest hovered around 300 or 400 entries, its prize money limited by the size of the pool. That changed around 2010 with the explosion of social media, which helped promote the contest through advertising and word of mouth. It's seen record entries for seven consecutive years, growing by about 30% every year. Kornegay estimated that the upcoming edition may exceed 3,500 participants.
"It's not going to be too long before we're comparable to the World Series of Poker, where you're going to see the winner get $5 million," he added.
That seems especially likely thanks to the Supreme Court's decision this May to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which prohibited commercialized sports betting in most states, with Nevada a notable exception. Illegal wagers on athletics in the U.S. are estimated at $150 billion each year.
Kornegay said attitudes toward sports betting have softened dramatically in just a few years, and with PASPA overturned, competitions like the SuperContest may soon be open to a whole new market.
Last year, Kornegay expanded the Westgate's football handicapping offerings with the SuperContest Gold, a $5,000-entry, winner-take-all competition for handicappers who want to prove they're the best at what they do. In 2017, 94 people participated, a figure expected to double for the 2018-19 season.
"It was so close last year," Kornegay said. "It was certainly a fine line between $470,000 and zero or minus $5,000.
That drama and those big payouts don't just draw more players to the next year's SuperContest and raise the stakes for the first-place winner. They also help expose people to the SuperBook brand for other betting needs and serve as valuable marketing tools for the entire Westgate property. Local media follows the contest, and the resort tracks the progress on its website.
"It's 17 weeks of coverage that the SuperContest and the SuperBook gets," Kornegay said. "It certainly has an impact on the entire property, not just the sportsbook itself."
That's in part because you never know who might win. Two years ago, Kornegay said, the winner was a Starbucks barista, who was in the middle of a shift during the final games.
He took a break to look at the scores. And when he realized that he'd just won $1 million? He finished his break and went back to work.