"When we went behind the book, we expected to see something maybe shadier, but it was just a bunch of guys at computers dressed business casual. It's a bit like "A Beautiful Mind," being able to see a game, injuries and weather, and historic matchups—all those factors come together in a way that it simply doesn't for your average person. Yet there still is this magic luck. The play [in Super Bowl XLIX, where Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson in the end zone] was a perfect representation of: you may be an expert, but it just comes down to the fact that you're never going to be able to predict how things are going to go. If they punched it through, then billions and billions of dollars would have swung in the other direction. You can do all the calculations you want, but you can't predict that."
- Evan Rosenfeld, VICE World of Sports Showrunner
Sports Betting by the Numbers
Estimated money bet in 2015 on NFL and College Football alone: $95 billion
Estimated money bet in 2015 on NFL and CFB illegally: $93 billion
Estimated percentage of sports bettors ages 14 - 22: 44 percent
Estimated number of U.S. sports bettors per year: 118 million
Percentage of estimated bettors in the U.S. population: 37 percent
Sports Betting and Society
Betting on sports is as old as sport itself. There's evidence that Roman emperors would bet on chariot races, and their intentions were no different from what your casual better goes for today: money and the thrill of feeling like a prophet.
Of course, over the years, betting on sports has advanced to include the minutiae, calculated by an advanced series of equations that determine the possible outcomes—based on statistics and a certain degree of intangibles. Sports betting also came to embrace prop bets, which introduce the possibility of an event occurring or not occurring. This results in ridiculous bets, such as those in the NBA Finals this year: the 7/2 over/under of Draymond Green getting suspended (he did) and the 25/1 chances of a streaker making it on to the court (he did).
But sports betting differentiates itself from, say, blackjack in one crucial factor: the human element. Sports betting invariably involves a game and the people playing that game. The danger therein lies you can pay athletes to swing things your way—if you've got some connections and a greasy pair of palms.
In our episode The Line, we mostly cover what's allowed within bounds of legalized betting, but here are some examples of the dark alleys between the casinos. These are three of the bigger sports scandals in U.S. history:
1. The Black Sox
Eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Although they were later acquired in court, the eight players—including Shoeless Joe Jackson—were banned from baseball for life by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The incident served as the basis for the movie Eight Men Out.
2. Pete Rose
Pete Rose was a record-holding player and then later manager for the Cincinnati Reds. And for a two year period, Rose was even a player-manager for the team. But three years after his retirement as a player, in 1989, Rose was accused of betting on baseball. Multiple bookies, bet runners, and gamblers claimed that they either saw Rose putting money down on games, or did deals with him directly—sometimes on Reds games. Rose was banned from baseball for life. Year after year, Rose has asked for reinstatement—thereby making him eligible for the Hall of Fame— to no avail. In his memoir "My Prison Without Bars," Rose admitted to betting on baseball. Seems like a little bit of a conflict of interest, no?
3. Tulane and Cocaine
It was the 80's, cocaine was flowing, and Tulane basketball players were willing to shave points off of their games for blow and cash. How much? John "Hot Rod" Williams was accused of taking $8,500 for throwing three games. Williams was indicted on five criminal counts but got off because of a mistrial. Williams went on to play with the Cavs for nine years after that.
Catching Up With…
We chatted with The Line's producer Isaac Feder, and talked about exactly how much boundaries are blurred between legal and illegal sports betting in the U.S. Prior to working with VICE on The Line, Feder made a documentary about sports betting called Life on the Line, which details the lives of the world's top sports bettors on the Super Bowl of sports betting: the Super Bowl. Initially, Feder became interested in making The Line after Adam Silver announced that he wanted to allow sports betting to be legal—the first commissioner of a major sports league to openly welcome it. Soon after they started filming, however, Daily Fantasy Sports (Draft Kings and Fan Duel) began to blur the line between what was legal and what was illegal, and the investigation into sports betting became a year-long project.
What's your experience with gambling?
I have always loved sports. I read the sports page since I learned how to read—when I was four or five years old—and have been a big sports fan, and an athlete. Separately, I always liked reading Damon Runyon and gambling movies and gambling stories—and characters who are gamblers from a fiction point of view. I was working in tourism development and was charged with creating ideas for male-oriented networks and I started to talk with another creative exec who was a big NBA nut, and we started talking about it. He was betting on sports, but I didn't really know the line, or betting on sports, but I decided to just follow it as a part of my reading regimen. Then I got interested in it, but didn't start betting on sports until I met professional bettors. Having made The Line, I will never watch a sports contest the same. I'll always know the line on every game. Whether I'm betting or not, it's just something I'd like to know about.
What's your take on Sports Betting on the whole?
If I'm somewhere where they'll take the bet, I like putting a bet on the game. I also like it if I feel like I may have some kind of edge to it. I don't like to just throw money away, or bet willy-nilly. And most of these guys are pretty sharp guys—not to say they don't lose. But I'd much rather have a little bit of an edge. I love it. I love betting on sports. I think sports betting should be legal. I think that it's a huge, huge industry that is untaxed and unregulated right now, and it's happening anyway, and it's kind of American. I think the NFL was set up for sports betters. There's a lot of history about that. People liked to bet on horses on Saturdays, and then you had these horse owners who wanted to give people things to bet on after church on Sundays—and I'm paraphrasing, and there's a better story in there, but I think that America is a betting nation. People moved here because they're betting on themselves. It's just what Americans do.
Professional bettors will tell you that—well, every now and then they'll get a lucky bounce—but they don't believe in luck, and they don't really believe in randomness or happenstance. I mean, most of these people are number crunchers. And of course that's one of the magical things about sports betting. You can do all of this due diligence, and you can crunch these numbers and really handicap a game effectively. But it still has to be played, and life still has to happen, and you can't control everything. It's not two computers playing each other. There's this human element. It can be very frustrating for someone who takes this rigorous, disciplined approach.
These guys who are professional bettors—they won't even sit down at a Blackjack table because they know that the odds are 49 percent in their favor, and they won't do anything unless they have more than a 50 percent edge because they know that eventually, over time, that they're going to lose. And that includes sports betting. So there isn't this "I really love my hometeam Seahawks, and I'm going to bet the Seahawks." All of these guys who move to Vegas to be professional bettors were definitely betting on their own in their hometown. And they probably started by losing because everyone loses at this. There's a reason that bookies are the ones who built it and not the bettors. But after time, and learning how to get better at this—and many of them I bet became bookmakers in their small towns—they moved to Vegas because they do think they have a little bit of an edge. They're not going to let any of that edge rely on luck or chance or happenstance, or any of the magical terms that you or I might go to Vegas with. It's just not in their vocabulary. They would sooner sit out a game they don't have an edge on. For me, I'm from Chicago, and if the Bulls are in the Finals, and I'm in Las Vegas, I probably want to have a bit of money on the game whether or not I know one thing is smarter than the other.
It's a good thing I didn't put money on my hometown Warriors last night [they lost Game 5, 112-97 after entering the game 3-1 up in the series as favorites]…
Your Warriors last night… And here's the great example, dude. Every professional was on the Warriors last night. Even with Draymond Green leaving, they felt that six was enough, and that the Warriors were going to close this out, but most professionals were wrong.
I felt like [VICE World of Sports host] Sal Masekela's reaction to the interception that changed Super Bowl XLIX [Malcolm Butler picking off Russell Wilson on 3rd and Goal] was so different from the bettors. Sal was freaking out, but they came away with it talking about steak dinner. Just another day at the office.
There's no love lost; there's no pain—they're used to it. And at the same time, Sal and those professionals, they made all the right play. If it's first and one from the one, and you're the Seattle Seahawks, what are the odds of that? Probably 90 percent likely that that's going to go through. And they got a bet down that reflected a better number than that percentage and there is that 10 percent or less that can happen. And that's what it is to be a sports bettor. And that's why it's not the faint of heart.
How many people are doing illegal betting?
This is conjecture—this is not fact-based at the moment—but there aren't a bunch of whales. There aren't a bunch of Saudi Princes who are betting billions of dollars on football games and soccer matches. I think it really is about guys who are blue collar guys all throughout the country who go to their local bar after a night of work and they're going to put 10, 20, 50 bucks on a game and have a little bit of enjoyment from it. I do think that the financial numbers are small, but in every town in America, you can go to a sports bar and talk to somebody, and there's a local bookie, and you can put a bet down. I just think that it's part of American culture and how men in this country like to unwind and get a little bit of action. I do think that goes for sports towns, especially Pittsburgh or Cleveland, or even Kansas City. And college football, man… it's gambled on. I don't have hard numbers for you here. All I can tell you is that I read a lot of blogs because this is a sub culture that I'm extremely interested in, and I see where people contribute from. I didn't grow up in this way at all. My family's not a gambling family. My father's not a sports fan. But, like, it appears to me that other people—this is their experience and their way of life. Just like fathers take their sons hunting. I do think that it's a part of American culture to love these sporting events, and to bet a little bit on them. I don't think a lot of people are putting their houses on certain games, but some friendly action happens everywhere.
To me, it's like going to an AA meeting vs. going to a bar. I think that some people have a lot of trouble with addiction. Seeing people lose livelihood, and their homes, is really painful. And I don't want that for anyone. At the same time, I don't think it being legal or illegal has anything to do with the number of gambling addicts or alcoholics or drug addicts—or any of these things that there are. You don't want people losing their homes or livelihoods. It's really hard to see, and I'm really glad that we pushed to connect with some gambling addicts for The Line, and it would be naive to not acknowledge and this industry and that game, and playing that game has some sorts of risks attached to it. Personally, I think that all of these vices need to be legalized and taxed and out from the underground and regulated. And that's how people can best take the best care of themselves. Exactly like that guys said [in the episode], you can't go to Charlse Schwab and put 10 grand on the stock market, but you can walk up to an illegal bookie and put 10 grand on the Bears, and then lose all your shit. But I think that it is a product of it being illegal and unregulated, like these people who lose everything. I think if gambling were legal, you'd have less gambling addicts. I do. Because I think that it'd be less shameful and less private, and all those things are really important.
It seems like legalizing marijuana, right?
You're getting a cleaner, better product, a safer product, you're having tax revenue, and it's not something to be ashamed about when everybody's doing it fucking anywhere. Or something you get in trouble for, or go to jail for—are you fucking kidding me? I think marijuana's a good comparison.
If sports betting becomes legal, what's going to be put in place to prevent match fixing? It seems like the more money that's flowing around, the more illegal avenues will be sought to channel that legal money, right?
People in Las Vegas—professional bookmakers—they are the ones who want it to be a fair and square game more than anything. The last cheating scandal, which was a college football scandal, was actually reported by Las Vegas. Not by the NCAA commission; not by anyone else. Because they don't want bettors to feel like they're not getting a fair shake. So they're watching more than anyone. You can talk to any bookmaker, any bettor—they don't want to see fixes happen.
I will also say that the real danger in fixing doesn't come at the professional level, where players are making millions and millions of dollars—not only in their contracts, but shoe endorsements and that stuff. The real danger in fixing is happening in the NCAA level, where college kids, they're playing for fucking free, and they could get bought for a couple of grand.
But if sports betting is legal, I think that there's a lower propensity. You can't have these mob bosses, or whatever you want to imagine—these people who force people into shady hands to 'throw this game or else, or else we'll cause harm, or else we'll do damage, or else we'll buy you out'—if it's legal. It's less likely. It's like drug lords wouldn't exist if fucking drugs were legal. IT wouldn't exist in the same way. It would exist a lot less. There's always a black market for everything. I think you have more problems with fixing and inside dealing and shady stuff when it's illegal, unregulated, and under the table vs. when it's seeing the light of day. I think drugs are a good comparison.
When things get addictive, is the money itself the objective? Or is it the experience of winning?
I haven't seen a big difference between putting $20 in versus putting $50 on a game. But I do see the difference in winning any of that money versus losing that money. I think it's about the win or the loss more than it's about the amount. And that's just from experience.
What is the disconnect between being the athlete in that game versus being that gambler betting on that?
Personally, I would love to be a professional athlete—I think that would be a wonderful profession and a wonderful pursuit. I would never—as much as I admire the guys who do it, and think it's a great thing to talk about at parties, etc.—I don't want to be a professional gambler. And I don't think even if you have this small edge—and many of these guys have become my friends, and I really love being with them, and I support them in what they're doing, I really do, and I think it's great what they do, and I think it's a really interesting and exciting profession—but it's not anything that I'd aspire to be or want to do because there are so many elements. You can be so well prepared and study so hard and do all this stuff, and it's still just a little too out of your control. And I think that it's a dangerous, dangerous game—especially when it's your livelihood.