LAS VEGAS - Sports bettors take a lot of things for granted these days.
Talk to an old-timer who was betting sports back in the 1960s or 1970s (and even into the '80s and '90s) and they'll regale you with stories about how they had to call their bookie to get a rundown of the betting lines. In Las Vegas, tickets were handwritten, and you had to go around town into a brick-and mortar casino to compare lines and place your bets.
Since the turn of the century, dozens of websites have cropped up to show updated odds from every book in Vegas (as well as the offshore books), and bets can now be made in seconds on websites or -- as is the case in Nevada -- (legally) on smartphones.
There's one man who bridged that gap: Michael "Roxy" Roxborough, who founded the world's top oddsmaking firm, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, in 1982 and ran it through 1999. He soon found out that while he thought his main job was as an oddsmaker, he had to spend half his time getting the information to his sportsbook customers and dragging them into the technology age.
Roxborough had a great run and was pretty much the spokesman of the industry during the 1980's and 1990's, helping to put a professional, corporate-type face on the business to replace people's stereotyped ideas of bookies as cigar-chomping mafia types. He appeared on all three major network nightly news shows (as well as "Nightline," "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group"), and in 1999 he was No. 2 on the Las Vegas Review-Journal's list of the most influential sports figures of the 20th century, as well as one of GQ magazine's "50 Most Important People in Sports."
I caught up with Roxborough over the summer to discuss his roots, his career and whether he sees sports betting being legalized on a national level anytime soon.
Roxborough's love of gambling started from an early age.
A redheaded kid from British Columbia, Canada, Roxborough's education took place partly at Exhibition Park in Vancouver, as he had an early love of horse racing. (Nowadays he's spending his retirement in Bangkok, Thailand, but he usually returns to the U.S. for the Triple Crown races in the spring and the Breeders' Cup in the fall).
In the late 1960s and early 70's, the long-haired hippie attended American University in Washington, D.C., as a political science major, though he also studied at Bowie Race Track in nearby Bowie, Maryland. Roxborough dabbled in bookmaking on campus and learned a valuable early lesson in risk management. In 1969, he didn't think the expansion New York Mets would win the World Series, so he took a bunch of futures bets from New York homers on the team that would become known as the "Miracle Mets." Roxborough ended up having to borrow money to pay off the winners.
He returned to Vancouver and was booking there, but like so many bookmakers and bettors, he was drawn to Las Vegas -- a place where he could legally ply his trade. He visited Vegas off and on and finally moved there in 1975. He worked at some sportsbooks but mostly made his living as a bettor, especially betting baseball over/unders.
At that time, Bob Martin was the pre-eminent oddsmaker in Las Vegas and the country. He put up his openers at the Union Plaza in downtown Vegas and other books would use them before they spread all over the country. In 1982, Martin was convicted of violating the Wire Act by transmitting betting information across state lines (a story for another day), which left a hole in the market.
"Chris Andrews of the Club Cal Neva [in Reno] was the first to approach me to help him with his baseball lines," Roxy said. "I didn't think it was a viable business, but decided to give it a shot for a year. I didn't know every casino was going to add a sportsbook and allow my business to grow the way it did."
It also helped that the excise tax the IRS levied on every legal sports bet was lowered from 10 percent to 2 percent during the '70s, and again to 0.25 percent in 1983. Prior to that, it wasn't feasible for casinos to have sportsbooks on their property, but the lowering of the excise tax opened the floodgates, and Roxborough rode the wave.
One critical date in his career was Dec. 26, 1983: the day he began consulting for the Stardust.
"The Stardust became known for setting the opening line and taking the largest limits, so signing on with Scotty Schettler was key," Roxborough said.
"When I got into the business, it was 95 percent making odds and 5 percent distribution, but distribution quickly became just as important. I remember buying my first fax machine in 1983. The problem was, very few sportsbooks had fax machines, so I had to send to the corporate offices. They either had to have someone constantly running back and forth to the administrative offices, or they'd get it the next day in the interoffice mail. That doesn't work [well] in a sports betting environment.
"We would have to have everyone in our office -- we had a staff of about six people at that time -- calling the books to give them injury updates or our adjusted lines. And of course every book wanted to know where they were on the calling list because time is money."
Roxborough said Las Vegas Sports Consultants merged with DBC Sports, a data broadcasting company, in 1995, and linked all the sportsbooks by computer so they could see real-time line moves at other properties. LVSC also bought Computer Sports World in 1997, he said. At first, computers were used to store all the data that in the old days was compiled in loose-leaf notebooks, but then oddsmakers began to incorporate them into their handicapping by using them to search for trends and run programmable power ratings. LVSC provided odds for 90 percent of Nevada's sportsbooks and, Roxborough said, its competitors didn't have the resources to keep up.
"And then the internet came along and we were all starting over again on a level playing field," he said with a laugh.
However, many said he got the last laugh by selling LVSC in 1999 as it became less relevant.
The move toward legalization
Even though he's technically been out of the business for 16 years (though he's done some consulting work and maintained most of his contacts), he follows the developments of the industry and the moves towards legalization, especially the efforts in New Jersey. He has a unique perspective on that, as he was firmly entrenched as the nation's top oddsmaker when New Jersey had the chance to replace Nevada as the country's sports betting capital. Roxborough didn't go as far as to rename the company New Jersey Sports Consultants, but he scouted out office space at Atlantic City Race Track and the Boardwalk, and he started hunting for a house.
"We had been in business for 10 years when the federal government gave New Jersey the chance to get grandfathered in with legal sports betting in 1992," he recalls. "I loved Las Vegas, but it was a no-brainer that New Jersey was going to be a golden opportunity. We would have had to get licensed, but since we were licensed in Nevada we would've had a leg up on any competition and locked up most of the casinos. With the three-hour time difference, you know the Jersey books wouldn't have waited for Vegas books to open, so the opening lines would have come from New Jersey, just like ended up happening later with the offshore books in the Caribbean. In the unknown world of sports and sports betting, this was as close to a lock as you were ever going to see."
However, in a major upset, New Jersey dropped the ball as the bill, opposed heavily by the NFL, stalled in the New Jersey Assembly and died in committee. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act -- the law the state has spent the last few years trying to overturn to get back in the game -- passed in 1992 without an exemption for New Jersey.
But though it's easy to be critical of what New Jersey did (or didn't do), Roxborough said Nevada wasn't perfect in its handling of sports betting, especially when the offshore sportsbook industry popped up in the late 1990s. State regulators were leery about the legality of Internet wagering and prohibited land-based casino companies from getting involved, even though the feeling has always been that customers would much rather send their money to a well-known, brand-name Vegas casino than an offshore outfit whose owners mostly lurked in the shadows.
As for whether he thinks New Jersey will get sports betting or if it will be legalized nationally, Roxborough is skeptical on both counts. "Let me put it this way," he said. "I got my first job in a legal sports book in 1973 ... at the time, Nevada was the only state with legal sports betting. Fast forward 42 years, and Nevada is still the only state -- or province for that matter -- that accepts legal sports betting on single games."
But Roxy adds that even if sports betting is legalized, it will be hard to make it economically feasible for sportsbooks to operate effectively and offer fair or even attractive odds.
"In a perfect world, Nevada would be the hub for the rest of the country, but that isn't the way laws get made," he said. "Taxation trumps all. Nevada pays the lowest tax of any sports betting jurisdiction worldwide. On sports bets, 0.25 percent [goes] to the federal government on total handle and then the state takes about 7 percent of the gross win. There is no way that will be a model for the rest of the country if Congress or even other states pass legal sports betting. Taxes will be [higher].
"There will be more money for the federal government, more for the state that is 'the origin of the wager,' and something for the leagues. Like Voltaire loosely said, 'You don't want to see how the law is made.' Now if there is too much taxation and operators cannot make money charging 11-10, then it defeats the whole purpose of legal betting. The illegal bookies will be more competitive."
Roxy says a better system would be to have something more like a betting exchange such as Betfair, but that system won't work either if the government or the leagues are asking for a big piece of that pie.
So, all things considered, what does Roxborough think the odds are for national legalization?
"In 2015, 50-1," he said. "In 2016, 10-1 and, in 2017, I'll make it 4-1."