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.
Inspired by horse racing, MegaSports allows gamblers to make win, place and show bets, as well as the entire array of exotic combination bets you'll find at the track. Thus, an Indy car follower could wager that Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy will finish 1-2 in the U.S. 500, or place a show bet that Al Unser Jr. will finish no worse than third. That same gambler might also fancy tennis; with MegaSports he could make a quinella bet (predicting the top two finishers regardless of order) that Martina Hingis and Monica Seles will meet each other in the Wimbledon finals. MegaSports offers almost every type of wager on almost every form of sports.
Salerno says that future pools will include Formula One auto racing, soccer and perhaps even professional bowling. "Our wet dream is to develop a worldwide soccer pool, where you've got bettors in South America supporting Argentina, the Europeans backing Germany and the Asians betting South Korea. With a pool potentially that large, the house commission would be small and the fluctuation in odds very minimal." At present, MegaSports is opening betting outlets around the world, ranging from Chile to Italy to South Africa. "By the year 2001," Salerno predicts, "we'll be installed on every continent, linking up international bettors with our players back home."
As at the horse track, the odds of each MegaSports bet are calculated by the ratio between the money wagered on a particular team or contestant and the total amount wagered in the pool. So, similar to what happens at the racetrack, the odds constantly fluctuate based on the betting action. If every sharpie in Vegas is betting that Michael Jordan will score the most points in the NBA on a given night, you can be sure his odds will be very low; conversely, the odds on a lightly bet "horse," like, say, Gary Payton, will be huge.
And as with horse racing, MegaSports sets an early "morning line," suggesting preliminary odds for every contest. (These odds are provided by Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the line-making company run by Roxy Roxborough, a partner in MegaSports and himself an inveterate horse player.) What makes MegaSports parimutuel is that gamblers, not the casinos, determine the final odds of any proposition. In Vegas sports books, Tiger Woods opened at 5 to 1 to win the PGA Championship. Since every hacker in Vegas backed young Eldrick, his odds plummeted to 3 to 1--and nobody else's went up. On the other hand, at MegaSports outlets he went off at 7 to 1. Meanwhile, as money comes in on Woods, the price on Nick Faldo, which opened at 12 to 1, rose to 20 to 1. At the British Open, in fact, Justin Leonard, the eventual champion, went off at most Vegas sports books at around 40 to 1. MegaSports paid 121 to 1.
The casinos love this system because, like a race track, they are guaranteed a profit. The house takes its cut--ranging from 3 to 20 percent, depending on the size of the field--and then pays the winners from the remaining money. With MegaSports, sports betting is now like a typical Vegas poker game: gamblers are betting against each other; winners are paid with the losers' money, minus the house's commission. Proponents of the MegaSports concept say that sharp sports bettors will always be able to outwit the average gambler, including the action junkies, weekend tourists and recreational bettors that make up most of the current market. Critics say MegaSports is a lousy bet. "How can you beat a game with a 15 or 20 percent takeout?" complains one Las Vegas-based professional sports bettor. "I don't think anybody who knows anything about this business wants to have anything to do with that kind of percentage. It's criminal."
Other seasoned gamblers disagree. They say, yes, the house commission is high. But so is the one at the horse track--yet expert gamblers beat the ponies year in and year out. "I think you'll find professional sports bettors picking their spots carefully," one well-known Vegas gambler says. "Since MegaSports is going to attract a lot of novices, a lot of people who are going to make bets solely because they're fun and different, guys like me will occasionally discover some ridiculously profitable opportunities."
Vic Salerno says, "This is a virtual paradise for the wiseguy. Every day there are bets with such huge overlays, the smart guys are going to do very well. Plus, with our fluctuating odds played against some of the set odds at traditional sports books, you'll find numerous arbitrage opportunities."
Thus far, MegaSports outlets can be found at most sports books around Nevada. But plans are to expand the network internationally in 1998. The potential for astronomically large betting pools has both bookmakers and wiseguys drooling on their stat sheets. Imagine an event like the Ryder Cup, where golf fans from America and Europe are fixated on the exploits of their countrymen. MegaSports could conceivably offer matchup propositions--Phil Mickelson vs. Colin Montgomerie; Tom Lehman vs. Jose Maria Olazabal; Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods vs. Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo--as well as odds on the final outcome. Anyone who could correctly choose the winners in all 24 matches would win a pot that surely would be in the million-plus range.
"The possibilities are truly endless," Salerno gushes.
What's particularly intriguing about MegaSports is the system's potential to become certified in the 43 American states that prohibit sports betting but allow parimutuel betting. The lawyers will have a terrific time deciding that one--just as gamblers, no doubt, will have an even better time trying to make their fantasy football team into a profitable investment.
"Sitting here today, with all our pools up and running, parimutuel sports betting seems like such an obvious idea," says Salerno. "And I don't really know why nobody did it before. Why did some guy come up with the paper clip?"
Probably because he saw a need to bind two pieces of paper together. Just as Vic Salerno has seen a need to keep sports gamblers up past their bedtimes on Sunday night. *
Contributing Editor Michael Konik writes Cigar Aficionado's gambling column.