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Sports Betting: Past, Present and Future - Part 4 by Jeremy Martin
In the 1980s Roxborough emerged as a major force in the sports gambling world and he helped usher in the technological revolution. Roxborough brought legitimacy to the industry as he portrayed an image of the businessman, as opposed to the street corner bookmaker type that had dominated sports betting for so long. While most other oddsmakers before him bet into their own lines, Roxy believed that practice was a conflict of interest and he stopped wagering completely when he started making the lines.
Roxborough, who learned the trade during his formative years in Vancouver, B.C., got his start at the Club Cal-Neva casino in Reno where he was hired because of his penchant for setting solid numbers on baseball 'totals' (the late Bill Dark from the Del Mar turf club was credited with inventing the totals concept in sports wagering). Roxborough soon gained a strong reputation throughout the industry and he eventually signed a lucrative contract with the Stardust in the early 1980s to set their opening line.
Las Vegas Sports Consultants, Inc., which is what he called his odds and information service, eventually acquired 90 percent of the sportsbooks in Nevada as its clients. Roxborough took advantage of new technology that was available and used it to provide his customers with - not only lines - but also updated injury and weather information.
According to Roxy, before LVSC was founded, if a bookmaker wanted to know what the weather was like in Cleveland they would have to call up a contact there and get the information via the telephone. "We became a clearinghouse for information by checking on injury rumors and getting weather reports," he says. "[Sports book] managers could call one place and get it all."
Before LVSC was founded, most oddsmakers kept their information in loose-leaf notebooks. They would copy thousands of box scores into these notebooks for future reference. Roxborough was the first one in the industry to use a computer and electronics for the storage and transmission of data. As a result of these technological advances, the sports books were able to increase their offerings to the public. Due in large part to Roxborough's new computer-generated power ratings, the betting rotation expanded significantly.
"When I first came to Las Vegas in the early 1970s, there weren't that many college football games that you could bet on each week - there were like 15-20," he remembers. "People didn't even book college basketball until after Jan. 2 [when the college bowl games were completed] and there were only 60 or 70 teams that appeared regularly [in the rotation]. The demand for the business to get bigger and the computerization allowed us to follow more teams and offer more reliable odds."
When Roxborough started LVSC in the early 1980s, it was a one-man show. By the time he sold the business in 1996, the company had grown to be worth millions of dollars and it employed a full staff of employees. LVSC is still around today and is still the source of the numbers for most of the sportsbooks in Nevada.
The proliferation of the sports schedule and the resulting increase in handle created the need for bigger and better sportsbooks. The Las Vegas Hilton 'SuperBook' opened in 1986 and the book at Caesars Palace was reinvented around the same time. The Mirage, designed by casino mogul Steve Wynn, opened in 1989 and was then considered the most extravagant hotel - and sports book - in Las Vegas. Vaccaro, who had previously helped open books at the Royal Inn and the Barbary Coast, was sought out by Wynn to help him develop and run the books at the Golden Nugget, located in downtown Las Vegas, and at the Mirage. Vaccaro is often considered the last of the old-school bookmakers in Nevada as he took huge action and didn't turn away the professional bettors.
"We had the highest limits," Vaccaro says about his days at the Mirage before he left bookmaking in 1996 to pursue other interests. "I was never questioned about big wins or losses. [Wynn] knew that if the place was to be run properly, that you [couldn't] squirm when you lose. We never refused a bet." During his peak at the Mirage, Vaccaro says he was taking in 25 percent of the betting handle for the entire state.
Present and Future
Nevada sports books have been in a steady decline over the past decade. According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, revenues have dropped six out of the last seven years across the state. It is no secret that this can be attributed in part to the massive growth of the offshore industry.
But critics of Nevada sports betting - and Las Vegas in particular -- point to other factors as well. The consolidation of the casinos by corporations has created an atmosphere where there are only a handful of sports books releasing their own numbers while the rest are just satellite offices of their main book. This reduces the opportunity to shop around for numbers and increases the attractiveness of offshore books where a wide variety of point spreads are available on a wide array of sports.
Some say that the government has over regulated the industry and that cash transaction reports requiring big players to identify themselves have scared off many of the larger bettors. Others say that sports book managers are in constant fear of their jobs and that, as a result, they are not willing to take any risk - as opposed to the old-style bookmakers in Las Vegas who took any bet and relied on the strength of their numbers.
While the Stardust had the distinction of setting the 'opening line' for several decades, many offshore books release their numbers even earlier on the Internet. The rest of the offshore industry - and even some Las Vegas bookmakers - often follow the lead of these offshore books when setting their initial numbers after they have been flattened out by the professional bettors.
"At that time we catered to our players and we didn't fear players," says Rosenthal of his time as a bookmaker in Las Vegas. "We welcomed them. We were very conscious of customer service. Today, it is the reverse. It's not only a shame, it borders on being counterproductive to the state and the individual properties. I think the offshore industry, in 2004, is closing in on any industry in the world. The demand, the interest - speaking of the public - from a global standpoint is skyrocketing and will only get bigger."
Scucci is one who disagrees with the assessment that Las Vegas will continue to decline. In fact, he says that his profit margin has increased at the Stardust since the offshore books have become popular. He points to the record $81.2 million that was bet statewide on the 2004 Super Bowl as proof that Las Vegas is still a force in the industry (Nevada books won a record $12.4 million on the big game).
"There's no doubt that [the offshore industry] took a big portion of our business," he says. "However, a lot of that business was the very shrewd, very sharp action. So, in terms of handle, yes. It took a lot of our handle away. But did it take a lot of our [profit] away? Probably not. We have had more people in the book than ever and we are writing more tickets than ever.
"The people who say Vegas won't take a bet are the ones that want to cherry pick a particular game where they have some advantage over a soft line. Go ask the guys at the Mirage how many $100,000 bets they take or at Caesars where they take $300,000."
"The reason Las Vegas is still doing great is that gambling is social and people would rather do it with other people," adds Roxborough. "When you walk into a sports book you know that if there are 25 people in there that you have something in common with all 25 of those people, even though they are strangers."
The sports book is one of the only gambling venues in a hotel where the casino actually has a chance to lose money over the course of a year, although the 11/10 vig usually ensures a small profit margin. But the casinos have lost big in the past. Rosenthal points to Super Bowl XIII, which had Pittsburgh was favored over Dallas, the defending champions of the NFL. Due to heavy action on both sides, the line on the game went as low as -3 ½ and as high as -4 ½. Pittsburgh won the game by four points and the Stardust lost $1 million by getting 'middled' on the game. A big loss in the Super Bowl can have disastrous effects on a book's football season and, thus, its overall profits for the year.
Although it is possible for sports bettors to win over an extended period of time, only a small portion of the population can actually achieve this feat. Banker, who some say has regularly earned a six-figure annual income in Las Vegas at the expense of the sports books, issues some words of warning for anybody interested in attempting to bet sports professionally: "You have a better shot at becoming a rock star or a movie star than being a successful sports bettor."
Despite the government's attempts to stifle sports betting, all signs point to its continued growth. Gambling is legal in almost every state in some form; whether it's casinos, horse racing, OTBs or government-run lotteries. As gambling interest and growth in general increase everywhere most feel that sports betting will follow suit. As a recreational activity that has been around since long before our country was founded, it doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. "The people have spoken," concludes Scucci. "They like it. They want sports betting. That's not going to change."