As a young boy growing up in East London, Paul Krishnamurty and his friends would bet on pretty much everything: what song would come on the radio next, what show would be on TV that night, which of the two people walking ahead of them would reach the top of the hill first. These wagers were, of course, informal. U.K. bookmakers at the time would offer the odd novelty bet—will it be a white Christmas? Will the royal baby be a boy or a girl?—but mostly they stuck with the standard fare: football, cricket, snooker.
Some 40 years later, the bookies have finally caught up. These days, you can bet on pretty much anything. You can bet on flight delays and COVID variants and gas prices. You can bet on whether the government will shut down and whether a natural disaster will strike San Francisco and whether Oppenheimer will win Best Adapted Screenplay. You can bet on the 2024 Republican vice-presidential nominee and the next James Bond. You can bet on which celebrity will start an OnlyFans account (money’s on Kim Kardashian) and which will be abducted first if aliens attack (money’s on Elon Musk). You can bet on whether McDonald’s will, at long last, restore onion nuggets to its menu. For some reason, you can even bet on the lottery. “We were way ahead of the game on this,” Krishnamurty, now a gambling writer and consultant for two overseas betting sites, BetOnline and Betfair, told me.
The road to where we are today began in 1986, when Las Vegas oddsmakers started taking bets on whether the Chicago Bears’ defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry would score a touchdown in that year’s Super Bowl. This is believed to have been the American gambling industry’s first formal prop bet—a wager that is not directly contingent on the final score of a sporting event. The phenomenon quickly caught on among football fans during the regular season. How many yards did so-and-so pass for? How many fumbles did the defense recover? And come Super Bowl time, they could bet on events that had no relation to the action on the field, such as which song the half-time performer would play first, how many times the TV cameras would pan to Gisele Bündchen, or what color Gatorade the victors would dump on their coach.
The latter sort of bets, referred to as “novelty bets” within the industry, are not always, strictly speaking, all that legal. With rare exceptions, regulated American sports books take bets only on stats that appear in a box score or on propositions whose outcomes are determined by some official, established arbiter (such as a sports league, or perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Jason Logan, a senior betting analyst for the online sports-betting publication Covers, told me that, as a general practice, those sports books tend to avoid bets on subjects where the outcome could be up for debate (are Kim and Odell dating or just “hanging out”?), or where certain bettors might have inside knowledge. When you see +3000 odds that the aliens take Jennifer Aniston first, that betting market is almost certainly hosted by an unofficial gambling outfit outside the U.S. “That’s not Vegas,” Logan said. “That’s a strip mall in Costa Rica with a backroom where guys are just kind of throwing odds against a wall.”
Those backroom operators and their wacky propositions really took off about a decade ago, says Adam Burns, a sports-book manager who has designed thousands of novelty bets for BetOnline. Companies like his realized they had no reason to limit the silliness to Super Bowl Sunday, or to any other single day or subject. Why not make novelty bets for anything, at any time? The zaniest ones—wagers over OnlyFans accounts and alien invasions and onion nuggets—would be all about publicity, Burns told me. These markets are not big moneymakers, but they could help a semi-obscure Panamanian company like BetOnline get attention.
To this end, sports books have been quick to capitalize on cultural moments, Logan told me. Of late, the rumored romance between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce has made them the subject of more than a few novelty bets. Will the couple make it to Valentine’s Day? What portmanteau will the Daily Mail assign them? What style of facial hair will Kelce sport this Halloween? Oddsmakers typically put limits on the size of these markets, in part because of the inside-knowledge problem. (What if Kelce confided to his inner circle that he planned to wear a goatee?) Still, if enough people come over to a betting website just to gawk at its novelty bets, some may end up placing their money into larger, more legitimate markets.
Novelty bets can be more than just PR stunts, though. Oscars-betting markets, for example, could draw in a different clientele than those for traditional sports outcomes. (Indeed, they are now sanctioned by gambling regulators in a handful of states.) Political betting might also get mainstreamed. The 2020 U.S. presidential election was one of BetOnline’s biggest events ever—roughly on the scale of a Super Bowl, Burns said. And if Trump is the nominee, 2024 could be even bigger. Burns estimates that Trump’s involvement in a campaign increases the volume of political betting by a factor of five or even 10. It’s the same phenomenon you see in sports betting: When there’s drama in a matchup, more people put their money down.
A couple of companies have tried to introduce a limited version of legal political betting to American audiences. PredictIt, an academic venture launched by economists at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, and run by the software company Aristotle Industries, handles tens of millions of dollars in annual trades but is now locked in a legal battle with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which last year revoked the no-action letter that had allowed PredictIt to operate. Meanwhile, the CFTC rejected a bid by another company, Kalshi, to include elections in its wider-ranging prediction market that allows users to bet on politics, culture, the economy, the climate, and just about anything else. Despite these obstacles, Logan thinks legal political betting in the U.S. will likely become a reality before long. There’s simply too much money on the table for it not to. “It would be bigger than the Super Bowl,” he told me. “It would blow the World Cup out of the water.”
Whatever happens, novelty bets are not going anywhere. Sports books will keep metabolizing cultural moments into betting opportunities. People will keep laying money down on them. And legislators and regulators will decide whether this behavior is legal or illegal, for whatever that’s worth.