A critical analysis of the Super Bowl coin toss (no, seriously)

Next week when we officially enter the calamity that is Super Bowl week with its zip lines, marriage proposals, and eventually a football game, we’ll be rolling out all kinds of wicked fun. Mostly because we enjoy fun, and you should too.

Sure, we’ll continue analyzing the game as we have been throughout this week, writing intelligent things about stuff. We like stuff too. But we also recognize that the Super Bowl is much larger than a football game, which is why a handful of posts will be dedicated to prop bets, and the limitless and glorious absurdity they provide. In advance of that, let’s talk about the coin toss. No, really.

Inherently there are 50/50 odds for both a heads or tails result during every coin toss ever. That’s what makes a coin toss both an efficient and fair way to select who gets possession of the ball first, and it’s also much safer than, say, two players beating the crap out of each other. Despite that, you’d think that over 46 Super Bowls either Team Tails or Team Heads would hold at least a slight advantage. Maybe 51% to 49% in favor of heads. Nope.

According to the Stock Lemon Blog and their thorough — and possibly obsessive — history of the coin toss, it’s exactly a 50/50 split, with heads and tails winning 23 times apiece. However, heads has now won four years in a row (GOODELL CONSPIRACY).

You’re not amazed yet? Wait, there’s more. The universe works in mysterious ways, friend.

In a happening that only perhaps Criss Angel could explain, when the Patriots won last year’s toss they broke a streak while also likely saving humanity. Prior to the Pats — an AFC team — winning that flip, an NFC team had won 14 straight tosses.

That oddity is rooted in the fact that NFC team X was somehow on the right side of a 50/50 chance for 14 straight years. The chances of this happening are 16,000:1, which means it’s far more than just some zany statistical anomaly.

Of course, there are people out there who are much smarter than me when it comes to numbers and how they work. A year ago when this absurd streak was still alive (it’s still pretty ridiculous that the NFC has won 14 of the past 15), financial analyst Cullen Roche had this to say:

The NFC might win the coin flip on Sunday, but it won’t have anything to do with the past coin flips. And history proves this as 22 of the total 45 Super Bowls have had a tails flipped (very near the expected 50% probability of a coin flip).  Vegas is taking advantage of the recency effect in establishing a silly, but profitable bet. Vegas loves the Super Bowl.  And the market loves for you to focus on the recent past.

Fair enough, wise one, but the fluttering ways of our mystical Super Bowl coin seem to go beyond the reaches of the recency effect, which is defined as forecasting an outcome based primarily on the result of recent events. Still, on some level betting on the NFC team to win the coin toss this year feels like rolling with black because the ball has landed there 14 of the past 15 times.

But whatever, there are worse ways to lose money…