After five months of bruising NFL competition, the Super Bowl is finally here. One team out of 32 will be crowned champion of the world, and the runner-up will be crowned first loser. If the game is good — or the party you’re at is not — you may even remember parts of it the following day. The battle on the gridiron between the Kansas City Chiefs, with their hotshot QB and fast-scoring passing attack, and the San Francisco 49ers, with their undrafted running backs, will likely be wildly compelling for the football-loving slice of the population. For everyone else, this day is about music, commercials and — most importantly — gambling.
After a long year of football analysis, I look forward to writing about something slightly different — but still adjacent — to the sport I cover. The Super Bowl and its attendant menagerie of props and parlays offers the perfect opportunity to step back, breathe and tackle novel puzzles. That feeling lasts about an hour. Soon I’m up to my ears in web scraping and strange, unclean data about domains for which I possess not even a patina of competence.
This year, instead of predicting how long the national anthem will be sung, I decided to focus on halftime. The Super Bowl halftime show will be shared by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, and they will reportedly evenly split the available 14 minutes or so. Like most years, the 2020 halftime show is littered with interesting and seemingly unquantifiable prop bets. For example, you can wager on whether Jennifer Lopez or Shakira will twerk or whether there will be another Janet Jackson-esqe wardrobe malfunction. I decided to focus on which song J.Lo will play first during her portion of the halftime show.
How is a show set list created in the first place? According to the internet, building a set list requires an artist to tell a story, tailor the song choices to the venue, be alert to key and tempo and even toss in the occasional cover. There’s also an intriguing and slightly counterintuitive admonition to “save your ‘real’ opener for second” and “your best for last.”
Interestingly, sports-book experts seem to think the most likely opener for J.Lo will be one of her “high-energy hits,” songs that Billboard is rooting for. Both of Billboard’s preferred openers, “Let’s Get Loud” and “On the Floor,” are favorites to open her set at various online books. And while “Let’s Get Loud” never charted on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., history suggests that Super Bowl halftime performers don’t often pick their top hits like “On the Floor” as openers.
|2019||Maroon 5||“Harder to Breathe”||18|
|2017||Lady Gaga||“God Bless America”||Cover|
|2013||Beyoncé||“Run the World”||29|
|2011||The Black Eyed Peas||“I Gotta Feeling”||1|
I used a set list wiki to scrape the full set lists for each gig that Super Bowl halftime performers since 2011 have played over their careers. It turns out that the openers often performed worse on the Billboard Hot 100 chart than other songs that came later in the same set. For superstar artists, this makes some sense: If you’re asked to perform at the Super Bowl, it’s likely that you have a large stable of top hits. And if you are indeed saving your best songs for last, putting in one of your less popular songs at the start of a show — when technical problems may be more likely to pop up — seems like a smart thing to do.
J.Lo’s historical concerts follow a similar pattern. Despite having 10 top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits to her name, the song Lopez has opened with most often, the upbeat 2005 track “Get Right,” peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard top 100. This decision-making dynamic is one that oddsmakers may not be properly pricing in. “On the Floor,” one of the two current favorites to open J.Lo’s set, peaked at No. 3. And “On the Floor” was also used very infrequently as a set opener.
Another factor influencing the opener is the recency with which an artist has released a new single. When Justin Timberlake performed in 2018, he opened with “Filthy,” a song he released just a month before the Super Bowl off an album released just two days before the Super Bowl. Halftime performers aren’t paid for their work; it’s purely a prestige gig. So it makes sense that shrewd performers would use the biggest stage in the world to highlight their recent work and drive album sales.
Lopez happens to have a relatively recent single, “Medicine.” And she’s been opening with it almost exclusively (25 times in 2019, good for 83 percent of her shows) since it came out. Unfortunately, there is no option to wager on “Medicine” on the betting sites I reviewed. Among the songs that you can place a bet on: a track that’s seen heavy use as an opener as recently as 2016 and 2017, 1999’s “If You Had My Love.”
|song||odds||implied probability||opener share|
|“If You Had My Love”||1200||8||23|
|“Love Don’t Cost a Thing”||1200||8||4|
|“Waiting for Tonight”||1100||8||3|
|“Jenny From the Block”||450||18||2|
|“Live It Up”||600||14||2|
|“On the Floor”||400||20||2|
|“Ain’t It Funny”||1600||6||1|
|“Let’s Get Loud”||400||20||1|
|“I’m Gonna Be Alright”||1800||5||0|
All told, even though the frequency with which an artist uses a song as an opening number isn’t predictive of which track they’ll use to open the Super Bowl halftime show, both “Get Right” and “If You Had My Love” might have higher probabilities of being chosen as openers than what the books’ money lines imply, making them reasonably attractive bets. “If You Had My Love” hit higher on the charts (it spent five weeks at No. 1), so “Get Right” may be the better proposition to bet.
But even if you find an edge, you’re not getting rich off of these props. Sportsbooks heavily restrict the amounts that can be wagered on Super Bowl props, limiting the upside on many bets. Some books have even pulled wagers after initially offering action on them.
For my part, I have skin in the game this year. I placed bets on both “Get Right” and “If You Had My Love” against the field. While the analysis indicates that those songs may represent an edge on the sportsbooks, there’s a more foolproof way to handicap this prop, and it’s hiding in plain sight.
On Jan. 15, the South Florida Sun Sentinel ran an article about job openings for Super Bowl temps called field members — 600 of them. According to the ad, hires “need to come to all the rehearsals — right now nine are scheduled — … in addition to being there for the big night.” Spreadsheets are cool, but the sharp money doesn’t spend a week wrestling with website scrapers and playing with computer code. That’s for rubes. The sharp money picks up a phone, makes a new friend and profits.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.