I once had the lukewarm pleasure of interviewing a crusty old football announcer named Beano Cook. Beano is long gone, but I still cringe at the memory of asking him why his TV network, ABC, didn’t run an occasional crawl during games so that we viewers could catch up with the scores of other contests. Until then, Beano and I had been getting along, but that all changed because of my impertinence.
“Aw, for God’s sake,” he muttered. “Only sick gamblers give a damn about the scores.” I felt awful. Beano had put me in my shame place — kind of like when I was ten and my dad caught me checking out a dog-eared copy of Playboy magazine.
My, how times have changed. Back in those days, commissioner Pete Rozelle swore passionately that there would never be an NFL franchise in Las Vegas. Rozelle conjured up images of star quarterbacks hanging out in casinos with latter-day versions of Bugsy Siegel or Meyer Lansky, which in turn would lead to point shaving and inside information that the mob would use to cash monster bets.
A quarterback making $20 million per annum has plenty of incentive to throw a football, but none at all to throw a game
Well, sooner than later, the Oakland Raiders are going to move to Las Vegas and nobody is going to pull off the fix. Can’t be done. A quarterback making $20 million per annum has plenty of incentive to throw a football, but none at all to throw a game. And every sports book, offshore betting site and bookmaker — if you could still find a bookmaker — would know instantly if there was any funny action on a game. The word would get around and you wouldn’t be able to get down a bet on that game for more than a few hundred bucks. Plenty enough for you and me, but not enough to pay off that star quarterback for a well-timed interception.
Oh, and Vegas will have its own NHL team starting with the 2017-2018 season. Pro basketball will be next. A baseball stadium in the midst of the desert might cost a few billion, but it’s only a matter of time. And why not? Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, like all sports commissioners, is drooling like a mad dog in the Vegas sun over the prospect of legal betting all over the country.
“When fans bet on games,” Manfred said the other day, “It can be a form of fan engagement, it can fuel the popularity of a sport.”
The logic is simple: the more people gamble, whether at a sports book or in a fantasy game or the quaint old office pool, cash registers start ringing. (I know, I know, but work with me: it’s a metaphor.) TV ratings go up, teams sell more beer, hot dogs and other crap, and fans just plain get into it when the score is 8-1 in the bottom of the ninth and the over-under is 9 1/2.
Hell, I could have told them that.
Even (especially?) Donald Trump sees the benefits of wanton wagering, which is good of him, considering how his casinos did in New Jersey. There’s a federal law against sports betting, except in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana, but our President probably figures he can make that law go away with the stroke of a pen. The Evangelicals who helped elect him might not see it that way, but I’d say to them what several ex-girlfriends have said to me: you should have thought about that before you closed the curtains.
Maybe Trump saw a Fox News or Breitbart story on the Vegas handle produced by Super Bowl LI — $138.5 million bet, for a profit of nearly $11 million. Not bad: a profit of almost 8 percent and, best of all — at least for Trump’s party — minimal labor costs. These days, a lot of the Vegas money is bet via apps, and if the money is actually plunked down at a casino, the wagering dough is just the beginning of a cash cascade that just keeps trickling up.
Heads they win; tails they win.
For more perspective on gambling mania, I turned to Doug Fitz, a Vegas resident who happens to have a pretty damned good opinion. (You might want to check out his website, systemplays.com.) Plus even when he has a losing season, he generally loses less than most of us. Another plus: he doesn’t charge for his picks. He just likes the challenge of picking winners and helping out the next guy. For the last year, I’ve been checking out his plays and analyses in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Competing against other sharpies in the newspaper’s annual NFL Challenge, Fitz has finished first or second in five of the most recent eight contests.
Fitz says that legalizing sports betting nationwide wouldn’t hurt Vegas a whole lot, but adds: “I’m glad a couple of these commissioners are finally removing their heads from their asses.” He predicts, however, “the NFL and NCAA will oppose it to the bitter end because they’re stuck in the mentality that games could be fixed and all that nonsense.”
Beyond that, Fitz sees legalized sports betting as a good thing for just about everyone, and I can’t disagree. Outside of Nevada, most sports bettors get down through offshore-based Internet sites, meaning that the feds don’t get a cut from profitable years. And for those who take moral objection to gambling, I get it…but that ship sailed long ago, before the likes of lotteries, Indian casinos, card rooms, racetracks and perhaps the odd cock fight. The only remaining states that ban every possible form of gambling are Hawaii and Utah. Hawaii’s blue laws probably are a vestige of the days when the state was crawling with missionaries. As for Utah, it’s the Lord’s will that 63 percent of the population eschew any form of gambling, alcohol and, more recently, polygamy. And this in a state where it can be difficult to purchase even beer, except for what we in Minnesota used to call 3.2 beer, or, less formally, dog water.
The point here is not to discourage any Minnesotan from moving to North Las Vegas, but to point out that Fitz is a guy who knows what anxiety is
Back to Fitz: now retired and enjoying a pension and Social Security, he spent nine years in the Cleveland area, working as a railroad cop and then as a suburban cop before the cold weather got to him. Then he split for Vegas, where he caught on as a police officer in the rather scary suburb of North Las Vegas. The website areavibes.com notes cheerfully that North Las Vegas has a crime rate that is lower than that of six percent of all U.S. cities. On a note of abject hopelessness, the website gives North Las Vegas a grade of F for education, employment and (duh) crime, and a D+ for housing.
The point here is not to discourage any Minnesotan from moving to North Las Vegas, but to point out that Fitz is a guy who knows what anxiety is, and, for him at least, it’s not about gambling. He’ll acknowledge that he might be a bit down overall in his more than 30 years as a Nevadan, but the main thing, at least for those of us who rarely go 24 hours without making a wager, is that he’s still in action and he hasn’t had to sell any vital organs or even a pint of plasma. It should also be noted that he hasn’t been tasered by any casino thugs or firebombed by the Mob (unlike one of my cousins, but that’s another story for another time).
Fitz can tell you some seriously grizzly stories about the gore he witnessed as a cop, but what really haunts him are the bad beats — those last-second, otherwise meaningless missed extra points or the unsportsmanlike three-pointers at the buzzer that padded the score and made the under go over.For a guy who is in constant action, he seems freakishly calm about such matters. Unlike your author, he doesn’t throw objects at his TV or shred the sheets of past performances from a favorite racetrack.
But the point is that compulsive gamblers who wind up embezzling money from the Little League refreshment stand are going to find a way. I can give you some names, and mostly what gets them are slot machines — “video crack,” as they’re known among we scoffers.
And yet…Fitz speaks for a lot of us when he asks what going cold turkey would be like. “Tough,” he says. “What would I do? Now that I’m retired, I’d be miserable.”
Me, too. And if our President can give all of us the wagering ease and comforts enjoyed by the citizens of Nevada, I’m all for it. Plus, I’d love to see our Commander in Chief take up sports betting, because I’d rather see him dropping a little money than dropping the Big One.
Mike Gelfand appears on the Monday and Friday editions of Bob Sansevere’s popular podcast which can be found at thebsblog.com.