Until the last few years, the Robber Barons of professional sports didn’t want us to wager on their games. Gambling was evil, they insisted. The purity of their games would be corrupted. One thing was for sure: the cesspool that is Las Vegas would never be home to a big league football, baseball or hockey franchise.
But one day the owners looked up and everyone was betting — even the owners themselves. The two proprietors who, arguably, are the most influential — Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft — turned out to have invested in daily fantasy sports sites. Kraft didn’t exactly brag about it, but then we learned that, through another company, he had a big stake in Caesars Entertainment, as in Caesars Palace.
What got into these incorruptible gentlemen? Maybe they noticed that since 2006, sports wagering in Nevada has doubled, to about $4.8 billion. No wonder that the Las Vegas Golden Knights literally broke the ice with an NHL franchise. Las Vegas will get an NFL franchise in 2019, and then a palace for the NFL gods at a cost of maybe $2 billion. The NBA and major league baseball won’t be far behind.
And the thunderbolt came last month, when the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s OK for states to legalize sports betting. Now the Robber Barons want us to bet on their games.
They just don’t want us to win.
It was just last month that the gambling dam burst open like the bankroll of rubes making their first visit to Vegas. The court ruled in favor of the state of New Jersey, which argued that the feds had no right to tell states they can’t legalize sports wagering. Now New Jersey is setting up the rules and regulations needed to start taking bets, and there’s talk in nearly every other state about getting some action for themselves.
One might think that more TV money alone — the result of more betting, which in turn would boost ratings — would be enough to make the leagues welcome state-sponsored gambling. But too much has never been enough for the sports monopoly. No surprise, then, that one of the first pious big-shots to hit Trenton was Dan Spillane, an NBA vice president. Spillane was in New Jersey to suggest that in order to keep professional sports from being tainted by reprobate gamblers and their ilk, it would be only fair for sports leagues to receive an “integrity fee” of one percent of the money wagered on their sport.
As I gaze at the fruited plain — and the day’s headlines — it strikes me as significant that integrity is now something that can be bought. And the price tag could be high.
Ironically, of course, it’s the presence of gambling itself that keeps games from being fixed. Nobody needs a clean game more than Las Vegas. And, if the history of that sinful city is an indication, nobody does a better job of enforcing the rules than the casinos. (We won’t even go into the absurd notion of getting a star quarterback or 20-game winner making $20 million a year to throw a game. The Black Sox Scandal itself might have been avoided if Charles Comiskey had paid his boys a living wage.)
The Dime Line
At this point, a tutorial is in order.
The dime line has been married to the point spread since the mob invented Las Vegas in the 1940s. And it has endured because it’s the ideal compromise between shameless greed and customers who can win. Many years ago, I met my friend Silverman — the smartest and most honest bookie whoever took my action. “I never wanted to break a guy,” Silverman told me the other day. “I didn’t like to see it, and it did me no good anyway. You want a customer to stay in action, and you definitely don’t want him to get desperate. They start betting too high and eventually they tap out and can’t pay you, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.”
The dime line is pure and simple: The gambler risks $11 to make $10. He pays no juice if he wins, but pays the 10 percent vigorish if he loses. The dime line allows the bookmaker to pay expenses — say, gasoline, legal advice and the co-pay for anxiety medication — while making, in theory, five bucks for every $100 his customers bet.
Customers, whose need to gamble is generally more urgent than their need to make money, have always accepted the 10 percent juice on losing bets. As for the bookie, well, he’s a fading piece of Americana, replaced decades ago by off-shore sites everywhere but Vegas.
So the bookmaker comes in several forms, but the math has never changed for the customers. Crunch the numbers and you’ll see that if the gambler can win about 52.5 percent of his wagers, he’ll have all kinds of fun and break even. Almost an impossibility in the long-run, but certainly achievable in any given season.
Which takes us back to our friend Spillane, the NBA guy who thinks (foolishly) that the sports leagues are going to get one percent of the action. The problem is that because the house is making something like a five percent profit on total revenue — and that’s before expenses — a one percent cut means you’ve just gobbled up 20 percent of the earnings.
It’s hard to see the owners getting a piece of the action, but who knows? They can sling an awful lot of cash at state politicians in the form of campaign contributions, lavish dinners and perhaps an all-expenses-paid junket…to Las Vegas.
The hospitality industry is no stranger to the shady art of lobbying. They’ll want sports gambling in their joints. No problem. They can just hook up to a central computer, but shouldn’t they get a little taste of all that action?
Which, in turn, means that local politicians may say the hell with the dime line and shoot for, say, juice of 12 percent. Which would mean that breaking even will go from improbable to impossible.
Crazy, huh? Next thing you know, the sports leagues will be expecting taxpayers to build them $2 billion stadiums.
Not surprisingly, politicians all over the country are just plain delusional. In New Jersey, governor Phil Murphy has been projecting that sports bettors will spend $10 billion a year wagering on sports — or about twice as much as Vegas takes in. (I don’t recall any of my pals holding a bachelor party in Newark, but maybe soon. And who wouldn’t enjoy a fifth-generation staging of Jersey Boys?)
Here in the heartland, anything could happen, but probably not soon. For one thing, the folks at the Indian casinos — meaning mostly Mystic Lake — are going to throw a lot of money at legislators in an effort to kill sports betting in Minnesota. It just makes sense. The casinos have a monopoly on slot machines, so legalizing any more forms of gambling can only hurt the casinos. And here’s where the irony gets tasty: Canterbury Park, which might be the most logical place for a sports-betting mecca, is absolutely forbidden from even asking for the right to take bets on sports. The racetrack and Mystic Lake are in the midst of a 10-year deal that funnels purse money from the casino to Canterbury in exchange for Canterbury’s obeisance.
(The comparatively tiny harness track in the comparatively tiny Columbus is under no such restraint, which might be why you keep hearing the sound of giggles every time you enter Anoka County.)
It’s impossible to even estimate how much Minnesotans might bet on sports, but, like most states, we know how to kill a good thing. Remember when medical marijuana was legalized in Minnesota? Cool, huh? I slathered my arthritic neck with lidocaine and headed out to the Electric Fetus for a case of rolling papers. And then we realized that even if you could cut through all the red tape — which few of us could — it would cost you $1,000 before you could score enough of the stuff to manage your pain for a few weeks.
How about the state lottery? A total of just 31.7 percent of the money “gambled” goes back to the suckers who purchase tickets. It would be one thing if the lottery were sold as a confiscatory tax on those who can least afford it. But when were politicians ever that honest?
I hate to kill your buzz, but we need to face the facts: the political process is a trough from which vultures in all forms come to feed. And there are few vultures as voracious and entitled as team owners and the lobbyists who seem to ooze like maggots through the cracks in the Capitol.
How this all will end is a lot harder to predict than any Super Bowl. The only thing that seems certain is that it’s going to be a long, grimy, expensive and, I fear, corrupt process.
“The only way for this to work would be for the state to run this thing just like the bookmakers do,” says my bookie pal Silverman, referencing the dime line. “And that’s not going to happen.”
Here they come. Lobbyists holding badly weathered checkbooks. Church groups, fueled by Indian casinos, making a last desperate plea for legally enforced temperance. Billionaire sports magnates demanding a state tithe.
By the time it’s done, I suspect that the only winners will be the same off-shore betting sites that the states would like to put out of business. Because when the states get to hosing gamblers by inflating the juice, those new to sports betting will learn that the only way to stay in action is by betting the more merciful dime line emanating from, say, Costa Rica or Curacao.
In the meantime, my life as a gambler and political observer qualifies me to offer some insider tips, namely: Bet the underdog; and if you find yourself anywhere near the Capitol next year, staple your money roll to your pants pocket. Or directly to your thighs. It’ll hurt a lot less than a 12-cent line.