Odds of the 1979 Skylab Fall to Earth

This image of Jackie Gaughan at the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas was taken in 1979. It’s a popular photo of the legendary casino owner and is featured numerous places online and can be found hanging near the present day sports book at the El Cortez.

Jackie Gaughan is pointing to the odds of when the Skylab space station will fall to earth. Skylab was a United States space station launched and operated by NASA. In 1979 it fell back to Earth amid huge worldwide media attention.

The first thing I notice from this photo is the odds are expressed as fractions. Today, most odds found in Las Vegas sports books are posted using “American” “Moneyline” format.  I wonder when American odds became widely used, and before that time what other odds formats were used in Las Vegas?

Using this image, we are able to calculate the spread the sports book was charging for this prop bet.  I notice there is no bet for “Any Other Day”, so the odds might tell of us if this outcome meant a push or not. We might be able to tell if this was the case based on the sum of all other outcomes.

Date Odds
07-Jul 1000.00
08-Jul 50.00
09-Jul 10.00
10-Jul 2.00
11-Jul 1.00
12-Jul 1.40
13-Jul 2.00
14-Jul 15.00
15-Jul 50.00
16-Jul 300.00

I’m pretty confused after looking at these odds. If Skylab falls on July 11th (which it did), does that mean the book pays nothing out? The odds of 1/1 dissuades anyone from betting on this outcome, thereby making July 11th, the outcome where the sports book keeps all the bets? It could be that the Skylab was very likely to fall on July 11th, and the odds of Skylab falling on any other day other than July 11th were remote. A quick Youtube search of Skylab reveals several contemporary broadcast news stories covering the re-entry, and it seems pretty clear that the location and time of re-entry was fairly certain.

I also notice beside the betting on which day Skylab will fall, there is also a market on which US state it will fall on.  It turned out that Skylab actually fell on Western Australia, so does that mean all bets where returned?  There is not an “Any Other Location” bet listed.

This historical bet should be instructive to current betting operators. Jackie Gaughan was known as someone willing to post fun bets and bets with good value. Posting a market on the day Skylab will fall would have been a fun way for the casino to get some publicity. Today however, barely any sports book in Vegas posts bets like these. Even the El Cortez itself no longer runs its own sports book, they have outsourced their odds to Stations. It seems the sports book operators of today are willing to sacrifice some of their margin in the hope of generating more stable rates of return by only posting odds on well known liquid bets. This might help keep volatility under certain bandwidths, but at the expense of profits. Volatility is a bookmaker’s friend, and a bookmaker willing to step out of the mainstream is better able to take advantage of their ability to spread risk over a large number of bets, compared to gamblers who are taking the risk.

By the way, if this image was taken sometime between January and July 1979, we know the AFC Championship was won by the Pittsburgh Steelers when they defeated the Houston Oilers, which would have paid off at 8/5 = 1.60