In working on a separate story, I was compelled to Google “Who invented the point spread?” and I stumbled upon what amounts to a time capsule.
It is the March 10, 1986, issue of Sports Illustrated, and the cover featured the headline “GAMBLING: America’s National Pastime?”
Once I dug into the issue, my mind reeled. There were eight different stories that made up this special report, and I highly recommend diving in to check them out. You can read all about Jerry the Hat, a stuffed animal aficionado who basically set the Vegas lines. You can peruse the story — up until that point — of Art Schlichter, the Ohio State quarterback who had spent a lifetime in and out of jail due to problem gaming. And then there’s the tale of Dr. Ivan Mindlin, who, along with Billy Walters(!), set up the nation’s first computer-assisted sports betting operation.
But it was the main story — “The Biggest Game In Town,” by John Underwood — that really walloped me. It reads like the sports betting version of Reefer Madness.
Listen, I’m not going to sit here and say sports betting is akin to needlepoint or scrapbooking when it comes to “hobbies that are safe and fun for everyone,” but Underwood’s — and by extension, Sports Illustrated’s — take on sports betting was downright laughable in its “sky is falling” style. (It’s worth noting that Sports Illustrated itself is now in the sportsbook industry, having launched its first online operation in Colorado.)
Anyway, here’s a look of some of the key takeaways and/or direct quotes from the article (with appropriate snark added, natch).
Underwood writes, “Nothing has done more to despoil the games Americans play and watch than widespread gambling on them. As fans cheer their bets rather than their favorite teams, dark clouds of cynicism and suspicion hang over games, and the possibility of fixes is always in the air.”
Well, I mean, no. Tennis seems kind of plagued with some match-fixing, and heaven knows what’s going on in Ukrainian table tennis circles, but when it comes to the major sports? Come on. At this point, the leagues, the sportsbooks, and the Sportradars of the world are on top of this like white on rice underneath chicken and broccoli. While the idea of a “big fix” is obviously there, I think “dark clouds of cynicism and suspicion” is overselling the case by a factor that’s closing in on infinity.
Clutch your pearls of wisdom
“Sports gambling in America is so big that shills for the gambling industry have come to star on network TV,” wrote Underwood.
The horror! Underwood brought up a pre-disgraced Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder and Pete Axthelm daring to discuss point spreads on national television. Fair to say things have changed a bit over the last 35 years.
Speaking of shills …
Willie, Mickey, and the Commish
Underwood: “When he was commissioner, Bowie Kuhn made a considerable show of banning Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from the game because of their jobs as casino shills.”
I had forgotten all about this. Two of baseball’s greatest all-time players were banned (and later reinstated by the next commissioner, Peter Ueberroth) for being hired by a pair of Atlantic City casinos to literally shake hands with customers. For the record, Kuhn had zero issue with the two helping sell Blue Bonnet, a vegetable oil butter substitute. You tell me which is more offensive to America’s current sensibilities.
Bigger than Honda
“Even a cautious observer like Eugene Martin Christiansen, coauthor of a 1985 book on gambling, The Business of Risk … estimates that nearly $30 billion a year is wagered illegally in the U.S. Christiansen figures the profit on such activity to be $5 billion, roughly equivalent to what the nation’s largest company, Exxon Corp., earned last year.”
Hoo boy. Let’s just forget illegal gambling for a moment and concentrate on legal gambling. According to our own top numbers guy, Chris Altruda, the “minimum handle for this year should be just north of $50 billion.” With an Altruda-approved conservative hold estimate of 7.65%, we’re talking $3.8 billion in profit. (Apparently bettors sucked back in 1986, based on Christiansen’s hold estimates.) But $3.8 billion in profit ain’t nothin’. In fact, it just about matches Honda’s profit from last year.
Add in the illegal market, which takes in who knows how much — Forbes puts it at $150 billion — that would put the total profit out there at, say, $15 billion, which would put the industry on par with Goldman Sachs. Wowza.
Underwood noted the Bears-Patriots Super Bowl in 1985 allowed bettors to wager on such elaborate props as single-team point totals and the number of field goals.
Today, the betting menu has expanded a bit. We can now wager on which color of Gatorade gets dumped on the winning coach. This is definite #Progress.
BTW: Fridge Perry had to be no better than +250 to find the end zone, right?
Five star mortal lock of the year
Underwood: “Sports gambling is so big that there are at least 700 tout services dispensing gambling information freely across state lines — the largest through toll-free long-distance phone numbers.”
Replace “toll-free” with “online” and I’m guessing the number of tout services has expanded to about 7,000,000. One great fact from this portion of the story, however: There was an actual, honest-to-goodness trade association for these folks, the since-shuttered American Association of Documented Sports Services. Someone call Vegas Dave.
The hip bone’s connected to the bet-now bone
“The NFL’s seemingly tolerant attitude toward gambling appears to be shared by the TV networks. This shouldn’t be surprising because televised pro football is as connected to the gambling experience as a man’s leg is to his hip.” — Underwood
Well, this one has changed a lot. Televised pro football today is not connected to the gambling experience as a man’s leg is to his hip. You know why? Because a man can live without his leg. The NFL’s dependence on gambling for its popularity is more connected than a man’s brain is to his spinal cord. And let’s not forget: This was written in a time when fantasy football was in its infancy. And, apparently, when only men watched football.
Pass the clicker
Underwood noted there were two (two!) gambling shows on cable TV, one on ESPN during the playoffs and another on USA Network.
Last week, MSG Networks announced that it would debut no less than three gambling shows. Who knows how many cable gambling shows there will eventually be? A whole sports betting channel just launched on Sept. 1, serving nine markets for the time being.
No one is sleeping with the fishes
Last but not least, my favorite one, labeled Myth #1: “The legalization of sports betting will benefit everyone except organized crime.”
Underwood argues that legalized sports betting would open the doors for illegal operators to enter the arena, much like what happened when Nevada first legalized gaming. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Sorry, Bugsy.
Oh, and by the way: It was Charles K. McNeil who invented the point spread. Now you know.