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Mega Sports

An exciting new type of parimutuel Sports Betting Is fast Becoming The World's Biggest Office Pool
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Every night during football season, millions of devoted fans stay up well past their bedtimes to catch the final edition of ESPN's "Sports Center." Though some of these viewers are marginally interested in watching taped highlights of the day's best throws, catches and runs for the 29th time, what most of them really want to see are the numbers. People with money on the games want to find out who won, and by how much. People who play in fantasy football leagues want to find out who scored the most points and made the most yards. In other words, people with a financial interest in the performance of Brett Favre's arm, Emmitt Smith's legs and Morten Andersen's left foot need to know. They can't wait for the morning papers.

Any leap in the ratings that ESPN's "Sports Center" experiences this fall may well be attributed to a new betting program called MegaSports. If all goes as planned with this revolutionary way of wagering on athletics, it may become the most important--and exciting--development in sports betting since the advent of number-crunching computers.

MegaSports, introduced recently at more than 50 Las Vegas casinos, is a parimutuel wagering system that offers gamblers an enormously entertaining menu of exotic bets, including exactas, quinellas and trifectas, while simultaneously providing a chance to win millions of dollars from a single $5 bet. Developed by longtime Las Vegas bookmaker Vic Salerno, the man behind the Leroy's chain of 41 Nevada sports-betting parlors, MegaSports combines elements of horse racing, fantasy football "rotisserie" leagues, progressive slot machine jackpots and old-fashioned proposition bets. The result, "The World's Largest Office Pool," is a new way of betting that is undeniably fun, mildly controversial and potentially profitable for wiseguys and bookies alike.

According to Salerno, 53, a former California dentist who's been a Vegas bookmaker for 20 years, "MegaSports has one very simple, very attractive selling point: Bet a little, win a lot."

Some in the sports betting community call Salerno a visionary. The idea of making Vegas sports betting into one huge office pool seems so simple, so obvious. But nobody had ever bothered to do it. Four years ago, Salerno, whose bouncer-at-a-swanky-nightclub looks belie his business acumen, figured he could market betting on America's most popular sports--and even the marginally popular ones--at least as well as the horse- and dog-racing tracks. Today, millions of dollars in research and development later, he's making his gamble pay off.

Perhaps the most attractive component of the MegaSports program, the feature that attracts thousands of amateurs, is its progressive jackpot. Similar to horse racing's Pick Six, every week bettors must pick the winners in 22 different propositions, a mix of National Football League "sides" (pick the winner against the point spread in each game) and NFL totals (pick the over or the under). The gambler with the most winners each week takes down a guaranteed $50,000 prize. Should someone select all 22 games correctly--mathematically speaking a 4,200,000-to-1 shot--the lucky player earns more than $1 million, paid in a lump sum. (In the opening weeks of the season, several players got 20 out of 22.) If nobody gets all 22 propositions, the jackpot, plus a percentage of the previous week's money, gets rolled over to the next week. Given the difficulty of hitting 22 out of 22, multimillion dollar jackpots are not uncommon.

For sports betting, this kind of return borders on the inconceivable. Traditionally, winning sports gamblers grind out their profits; they don't reap life-altering windfalls--unless they've decided to risk something like $1,100,000 to win $1 million. The peculiar Vegas myth of "put in a few bucks, walk away with a million" has primarily applied only to slot machine players. With the advent of MegaSports, those who wouldn't dream of tossing a coin down the gullet of a voracious slot can now get rich quick by betting on football.

MegaSports' other major innovation is MegaSports Daily Picks, a series of highly specialized proposition bets, the kind normally seen only on Super Bowl Sunday: Which quarterback will throw for the most yards? Who will have the most sacks? What team will rack up the most penalty yards? With MegaSports, though, gamblers aren't merely considering two teams; they've got the entire league to choose from. Thus, with the quarterback bet as an example, every passer in the NFL has odds attached to him. For example, on any given week, favorites like aerial bombers Dan Marino and Drew Bledsoe might go off at 4 to 1, whereas long shots like Neil O'Donnell might fetch 12-to-1 odds.

And it's not just football. Every driver in the starting field of a NASCAR Winston Cup Race has odds attached to him--and they're almost always better than what you'll typically find at traditional sports books. So does every name golfer in PGA Tour events. Every ranked player in ATP tennis tournaments. Even every country in the Winter Olympics. If you've got a strong opinion about somebody in the wide world of sports, chances are MegaSports will afford you an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is.

When MegaSports debuted earlier this summer, during the heart of the baseball season, gamblers could bet on which major league team would score the most runs that day. The favorites, like the Yankees and Rockies, went off at 8 to 1; underdogs were as high as 80 to 1. If you wanted to bet on the margin of victory between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, odds ranged from 4 to 1 on Atlanta triumphing by a single run to 20 to 1 on the Mets winning by four runs. Like bookmaking shops in Great Britain, virtually any proposition, no matter how obscure or specific, can attract some action. Take the Albert Belle bet, for instance. At the MegaSports debut, White Sox fans could wager on Belle's total number of bases for the day. Zero and one bases went off at 7 to 2; nine or more bases returned 50 to 1.

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