By Jerry Martin
Ever since there have been sports in America, there have been people compelled to bet on the results. The founders of the United States were risk-takers by nature, hence the obvious attraction to gambling in all forms. Back then, people bet on makeshift horse races, cockfights and bare-knuckle brawls. Colonists from England had gambling in their blood since their fathers and grandfathers had been doing it for generations - not only in hopes of a profit but also as a form on leisure and entertainment. If there was a sport to be played, there was somebody somewhere who was willing to bet on it. Sports betting, it seems, was a natural part of the culture of the early Americans.
Today, betting on sports is more popular then ever before. Last year, Nevada took in almost $2 billion in betting handle via more than 150 sports books in the state. That is just a small percentage, however, of the money bet worldwide. An ESPN The Magazine article published in 2003 estimated that the online sports betting industry takes in $63 billion a year. It has also been estimated that one in every four Americans bets on a sporting event at least once a year and that 15 percent of the U.S. population bets on sports regularly.
There are many factors that have played a part in this growth and there have been many colorful characters that have made their contributions to the sports betting industry over the years. One thing is for certain: sports betting is here to stay. And it will likely continue to expand exponentially in the future, despite the federal government's attempts to limit its growth. The possibilities, most agree, are endless.
"Sports bettors used to be a real small segment of the betting public," says Bob Scucci, race and sports book director for the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. "Theindustry has elevated above that now. It goes through the entire middle class family to the professional [bettor] to the guy off the street. It just permeates through every facet of society."
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In regards to sports betting, horse racing saw the most wide spread popularity throughout the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century. In its initial stages racing was a sport that was enjoyed and wagered on by mostly the upper class. But after the Civil War horse tracks began to dot the eastern landscape and bettors from all economic sectors flocked to the tracks in droves.
Many enterprising bookmakers would start 'auction pools' in the early days of horse racing which involved auctioning off bets for each horse in a race. But this format was short lived because bettors were out of luck if the horse that they wanted to wager on was already taken. The bookies - always considered an innovative bunch when contrasted with professionals from any other industry -- soon realized that setting odds on individual horses would increase betting handle and, in turn, the bookie's hold. When there was overwhelming money on one horse, the bookmaker would simply lower the odds to increase the attractiveness of other horses in the race. This format is still in use today although horse betting has steadily decreased in popularity since the 1930s.
By the 1920s racing had reached its peak and there were more than 300 racetracks in the U.S. in addition to thousand of 'poolhalls,' or off-track betting facilities, which were connected to the tracks by telegraph wires. Here locals could place their bets on horses at a multitude of racing venues around the country. Horse racing remained the most popular form of betting until professional sports leagues began forming and capturing the attention of the nation's gamblers.
In the late 1800s, professional baseball began to gain popularity and, consequently, so did betting on the sport. Baseball 'poolcards' became a standard in urban areas in the East. These cards, similar to present-day parlay cards, offered bettors a plethora of baseball betting options that they could wager on for amountsas little as 10 cents. But there was a catch with these poolcards: the odds were badly skewed in the houses' favor. There was no way for a bettor, no matter how sharp they might have been, to make a profit over an extended period of time. No one seemed to care, however, as the cards continued to increase in popularity while the bookies' pockets continued to get fatter.
A fixing ignominy in the 1919 World Series - dubbed the 'BlackSox Scandal' by the media -- exposed the risk of professional baseball to be compromised by gamblers. Some players from the favored Chicago White Sox were found to have fixed games at the request of gamblers (Chicago lost the series to Cincinnati, 5-3). The scandal rocked the nation and the general public was given a negative impression of sports bettors, who were made out to look like criminals who were trying to ruin the sanctity of the game for their own monetary advancement. While gambling was illegal, most considered sports betting to be a victimless crime before the scandal broke.
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Baseball, however, pushed ahead despite the black eye and the bettors didn't waver in their zeal to have action on the games. If baseball lost anything because of the moral consequences of the Black Sox Scandal and other cases involving fixed baseball games, it wasn't reflected in the nationwide betting handle, which continued to grow progressively.
Even more people became interested in sports betting during the 'Golden Era' of sports in the 1920s. College football and college basketball were gaining huge popularity with bettors, as was boxing, and baseball was as well liked as ever. Pool cards were the favorite option of many bettors because of their promise of riches during the tough economic times of the Great Depression. Football pool cards proved to be as popular as the baseball cards even though bettors faced the challenge of picking a winning combination of usually five or more games in hopes of a big payday. Just like the baseball cards, the odds for football cards were heavily in the bookie's favor.
"It was a stickup -- an absolute robbery, but you didn't know any better," says former Mirage Race & SportsBook Director Jimmy Vaccaro of the pool cards, which were referred to as 'spot sheets' in his native Pittsburgh. "The odds for a ten-team [parlay] were 100-1 and ties lost on every card. Now you can get 800-1 or 1000-1 [for a ten-team parlay]. You played for the danger of it. You played for a huge payoff if you would ever get lucky."