On a Saturday in late August, in a corner of the newly renovated (and visually stunning) Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, a story of American capitalism plays out in real time.
It is Westgate SuperContest Weekend and people have flown in from around the country to register for what has become America's best known football handicapping contest. Loitering on the periphery of the walkway to the registration desk are men and women with shirts sporting a combination of words that always include "PROXY" splashed across their chests. These are contest proxies, members of the fastest-growing and potentially shortest-lived industry in Sin City.
The SuperContest is a season-long handicapping contest in which, for a one-time $1,500 fee, entrants pick five NFL games against the spread each week. The top 50 point scorers over the course of the season win a prize, with last year's winner taking home more than $900,000.
In a decade, the SuperContest has gone from being primarily populated by Vegas locals to a contest whose results are obsessed over nationwide nearly as much as the results of the NFL games on which the competitors pick. That growth in a lot of ways is directly attributable to proxies, who enable out-of-staters to compete by manually entering their selections each week. Without proxies, the SuperContest wouldn't be a national contest or discussion topic.
But while proxies have helped drive the rise of the contest, they could also be the first casualty of the very success they have fueled.
The growth of the SuperContest provides a market
The Westgate SuperContest started out as the Hilton SuperContest in 1988. In the early years, its growth was driven by locals and professional gamblers. By 2004, when Jay Kornegay moved to the then-Hilton, the total participant pool was only around 400. While the casino had gained approval for the use of proxies by remote contestants, the proxy world at the time was an informal process of locals providing the service to out-of-state friends with no one person proxying for more than a handful of contestants.
Proxies have grown in parallel with the SuperContest, as the primary source of new entrants is casual football fans from around the country. Every year since 2011 (when 517 people signed up) has been a new record entry pool, and Kornegay sees one obvious driver of that growth.
"The main reason for the growth of the SuperContest is social media. [It] is the avenue that out-of-staters used to find out they could enter a Las Vegas handicapping contest. We don't advertise in Chicago or anything," he says.
Kornegay estimates that roughly 30 percent of entries used a proxy when he first joined the LVH in 2004. In 2015, on a total entry pool of 1,727, more than 50 percent used proxy services.
Matty Simo and Toni Law proxied for a significant number of those. Working together at a local gambling information company, they were both indoctrinated into proxying for a few friends of co-workers between 2005 and 2007. At the time they were proxying for 10-20 people of the nearly 500 total participants in the contest. By joining forces and leveraging social media and connections in the broader gambling world, Simo and Law have grown relentlessly.
Last year their service, Football Contest Proxy, proxied for 570 entrants, nearly 40 percent of the total entrant pool. In a lot of ways, they have helped defined the proxy industry that newer competitors either mimic or rebel against -- from fee structures to even naming conventions.
It is actually fee structures where competition may have had the greatest impact on Simo and Law's operation. Until recently Simo and Law had included in their agreements that they would receive a small percentage of any winnings accrued by their clients on top of the standard flat fee charged to everyone. With increased competition not including this stipulation, Simo and Law had to eliminate it from their fee structure this year, one of their few concessions to a field increasingly crowded with smaller competitors.
Tom Carroll of Vegas Football Proxy is one such competitor. A lawyer formerly of Washington D.C., he had been a part-time Las Vegas resident and contest participant for 15 years.
Four years ago, he read an article by Simo about the growth of the proxy business and decided to turn the service he was doing for a few friends into a full-time proxy business through the football season, returning to the legal life in the offseason. With a client list in the range of 60-70, he wants to ensure he can be available as necessary, seeing his value as having a smaller client list and the ability it affords him to pay closer attention to each client's needs; whether that means flexibility in meeting to register, brainstorming handicapping ideas or personal text exchanges if picks are slow in arriving during the season.
Growth of full-time proxies
Full-time proxies is a growing trend. Where proxying for a handful of friends and acquaintances can be done in the spare time, as client lists grow, so does the time commitment.
Guy left her job this past January and Simo writes freelance with the flexibility to dial back during the season when hours are spent emailing clients, collecting, entering and verifying picks.
Another of the proxies lining that walkway to registration is Nathan Walls of ProxyVegas.com. In addition to entering his fourth year as a proxy he continues to drive a cab, one profession that allows him the flexibility of schedule to work around the demands of proxying. Walls is also capping his total client list at 50 clients, a more manageable number to maintain personal service with other job commitments intruding. He says roughly two-thirds of his clients repeat each year but Walls has drawn the attention of the other proxies by aggressively seeking to recruit possible clients by approaching anyone standing in the area.
Walls is also an example of the most divisive issue within the small proxying world -- the debate over the conflict of interest inherent in proxies not only submitting picks for others but also entering the contest themselves. In the event a client and the proxy are battling for money position as the season winds down, the conflict arises due to the proxy's ability to see the client's picks and tailor their picks accordingly to increase their odds of winning.
Walls has played previously, even placing in the money in a few years ago but has since stopped. "It is more fun to root for others," he says. Carroll has also stopped playing, though in part because one of his brothers, who he partnered with on an entry, abandoned him to go solo. While Walls sees the contradiction in proxying and participating, Carroll is less concerned about it.
The "odds are astronomical" he says of having both a client and the proxy in prime position when it matters. He also notes there are other ways around it -- including the proxy submitting their picks prior to receiving the client's picks or, if it is coming down to Week 17, have the client come out to Las Vegas and submit their picks themselves -- the cost of a trip should easily be covered by their pending winnings.
The dilemma from Kelly In Vegas Proxy
The issue of proxies participating really came to a head last year with the emergence of a new proxy service: Kelly In Vegas Proxy.
The service is run by partners -- Kelly in Vegas herself (Kelly Stewart) and her partner Brett Siedlecki. After years of each providing informal proxy services to friends back in the Midwest, the two joined up and launched the service prior to last season, in part to take advantage of Stewart's growing profile. In the 2014 contest, she won the "mini-contest" (a contest within the SuperContest for the best three-week score covering weeks 15, 16 and 17) taking home $15,000. In a world dominated by older men, a young female beating the men at their own game was a good story and gained her considerable attention. It also enabled them to help launch the new service in addition to their other jobs as professional gamblers selling picks.
In their first year they had 65 clients, and this year they are targeting 10-20 percent growth. While Kelly's profile helped launch the service, she is also going to continue to enter the contest, and becomes the largest target for those concerned about conflicts of interest.
Siedlecki says they do their best to reduce any perceived conflict by segregating duties (with him primarily handling client pick submissions), but as long as Stewart actively participates on a weekly basis the potential for conflict exists.
Carroll, despite no longer participating may have the best view on the entire conflict of interest argument. He notes that "proxying is a trust-based business." In other words, if you can't trust someone to not steal your picks in the unlikely event you are both in the money, should you trust them to make timely, accurate submissions 17 times?
Despite being a lightning rod for continuing to participate, it is another aspect of Stewart and Siedlecki's operation that is a harbinger of what will ultimately have the bigger impact on the world of proxies. Unlike their competitors, Kelly in Vegas clients submit weekly picks via a website rather than via email or text. But they aren't the only ones looking at online SuperContest submissions.
One of the few things universally agreed among the proxies I spoke with is that their profession is not long for this world.
In a June article with the Las Vegas Review-Journal about a newly implemented 8 percent takeout from the prize pool to pay expenses, Kornegay sent a warning shot across the proxies' bows when he said he hopes "to implement a procedure, pending approval of Nevada gaming regulators, that would allow out-of-state contestants to sign up in person and enter selections online."
While the proxies whisper concerns that the takeout is in part intended to fund their demise, Kornegay takes a longer-term view: the Westgate, he says, has always dedicated capital and funds to making the contest more automated and secure.
Last year's introduction of kiosks for submission in place of the old filling in of bubbles on a parlay card being one example. When asked how long the proxy industry will survive, the consensus among the proxies is that within two years, the Westgate will gain approval and shift to an online submission process.
Kornegay agrees with this view, with a caveat, "My guess would be within two years. If it even happens. That is a lot of responsibility on our part to have a system that would allow people to enter online."
With Gaming Commission approval still pending and the as yet unknown technical challenges, there are still many variables standing in the way but clearly everyone involved sees an end to the SuperContest proxy business in the not-too distant future.
There are other contests in Las Vegas -- William Hill has a college picks contest and the Golden Nugget has an NFL contest -- but without the SuperContest the proxy industry will probably dry up.
As a recovering lawyer, Carroll isn't in a hurry to return to his former profession full-time, "I want to ride it as long as I can, because it makes me happy."
With the largest current book of business and the most to lose, Simo is also in no rush to leave proxying but knows the clock is ticking. "I treat every year like it's the last," he says.