The evolution of American sports betting prior to the Internet can be traced back to a garage office in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
At its peak, in the early 1980s, Mickey Charles' garage was receiving 20 million phone calls a month and generating millions of dollars in revenue. The calls, costing as much as 50 cents apiece, came from across the nation. Many were placed from the pay phones outside of Madison Square Garden, some came from Las Vegas and almost all were from gamblers. But Charles wasn't running a backroom bookmaking operation.
A charismatic and ambitious kid from the Bronx, Charles was one of the public voices of sports betting in the 1970s and '80s. He wrote a gambling column for the Philadelphia Inquirer and featured Las Vegas sportsbook executives and handicappers on his radio broadcasts. In a 1978 appearance on "The Today Show," he nailed the score of Super Bowl XII, telling then-host Tom Brokaw the Dallas Cowboys would beat the Denver Broncos 27-10.
"I told Tom Brokaw that I'd come back on, but he couldn't ask me for another score ever," Charles joked during a spring phone interview about his successful and lucrative career in sports media and gambling.
Financially, things took off for Charles after he transformed the two-car garage adjacent to his home in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, into the headquarters of Dial Sports, one of the earliest pay-per-call services that provided frequent score updates on games.
At a time when technological options were limited, gamblers didn't hesitate to part with two quarters to hear updates on their invested interests. They constantly called Charles' 900-976-1313 pay number. After all, how else would they know how much to bet on the next games? (The 976 prefix was the regional predecessor to the national 1-900 numbers that became the story of the early 1990s. Multiple services had 976 numbers to serve regional audiences, including the Sports Phone out of New York, which was recently profiled by Newsday).
Dial Sports was extremely popular. How many of the calls were from separate individuals, and how many came from the same desperate gamblers remains top secret.
"It could have easily been 17 degenerates, coming out of Madison Square Garden, looking for what the scores were," Charles, the founder of Dial Sports and one of the pioneers of pay-per-call score phones, said with a laugh. "When someone asked that question, that's when we'd [try to change the subject and] say, 'Would you like to go to lunch?'"
The garage office had flooring, a drop ceiling and neon lighting. Tables with partitions divided the office into individual booths for the five announcers who would work on a busy shift. Each booth had a phone and a list of approximately 200 contacts with professional and college sports leagues and arenas.
The property was elevated, allowing the team to pick up games on the radio from across the nation and up into Canada. But a lot of the score updates came directly from the stadiums and arenas. Announcers would call sports information directors, media relations personnel and even directly to press row for updates.
"Dial Sports, can we have an update on your score?" they'd tell whoever answered the phone.
"No one cared," recalled Steve Lichtenstadter, a Dial Sports alum, who worked in the garage office. "Even some of the colleges never had a problem with it."
Dial Sports, much like a lot of pay-per-call services in the mid-1980s, grew rapidly. It expanded to regional offices and was thriving, before the industry began to change and the touts got into the game.
The tout takeover
Just before the Internet took hold in the early 1990s, there was a rise in touts -- sports betting pick-sellers who often were much more expert salesmen than prognosticators. Currently, pick-sellers rely more on social media and online advertising, but at the time, the free score phones were a boon for their ilk.
By the early 1990s, score updates by phone were free. But before you got the scores, you had to listen to iterations of nonsense like this from one pick-seller: "If I don't win this game, I will blow my brains out." Another tout from Atlanta told callers, "In honor of my idol Martin Luther King, TL Steele is having his DEAD-MORTAL lock ... if this does not win, TL Steele will donate $1 million to his favorite charity, the United Negro College Fund."
Sources say the real dead-mortal lock was that the donation was never making it to the UNCF, win or lose.
Sometimes during their boisterous, rambling sales pitches, they would offer a free selection on a game, before encouraging customers to contact a sales rep at another number for the "big play."
Joe Duffy, another Dial Sports alum, witnessed the full spectrum of score phone's rise and fall. He was both an announcer and a pick-seller, who admits to not being "completely proud" of some of the things that were said on the phone those days. But he also believes that era helped grow the sports betting industry.
"The free score phones definitely changed how Americans bet," said Duffy. "We got some very heavy call volume on our 1-900 numbers back in the day. I distinctly remember, the first six months that I did my 1-900 line, it got right around $500,000 in revenue. Not quite enough of it trickled down to me. If I knew then what I know now, I probably could have negotiated a little bit higher salary."
Duffy swears there was some advanced handicapping taking place. They once acquired computer software written by Dr. Mike Orkin, a prominent statistician and college professor.
"We found this one NBA system. It was to go with a more than 5-point road favorite off either a road loss or a loss as an underdog," Duffy recalled. "The system, at the time, was incredible. I'd release it on my 1-900 number, and the [betting] line would almost inevitably go up." And occasionally, they'd even stumble upon information that hadn't been made public and wasn't represented in the betting market. It once happened right before a 1993 UMass-St. Bonaventure basketball game.
"We called pregame at St. Bonaventure and were given information that their star Harry Moore Jr. was a last-second scratch," Duffy recalled. The line hadn't moved to reflect Moore's scratch until they put it on the score phone prior to the game.
"From that point on, we always called courtside and asked for last-second scratches, injury information, etc.," Duffy said. Asked if they did it for their own purposes or to enhance the value of the score phone, Duffy replied, "Both."
The offices that housed the free score phones of the 1990s were a step up from Charles' garage ... barely. One office was located in a seedy area of metro Atlanta. Locals know it as Cheshire Bridge. Surrounded by gentlemen's clubs, massage parlors and liquor stores, the work environment ranged from very casual to vulgar.
"We had multiple televisions, hooked up to the old-style big satellites," recalled Lichtenstadter, one of the early Dial Sports announcers, who went on to work for several free phone services in Atlanta. "You could pick up anything. We'd have games on most of the TVs, and we'd have a few TVs reserved for Playboy Channel or something less restricting, X-rated."
But the score phone industry was much more than just porn, picks and scores. It produced an array of characters who went on to a wide variety of professions. Former Georgia Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers worked in the score phone industry and even made picks as "Will The Winner." Another score phone alum is now a pastor in metro Atlanta. Lichtenstadter spent the last decade in banking, and Duffy remains in the handicapping business as the owner of OffshoreInsiders.com.
Charles, who turns 80 in November, is working on a digitally enhanced book accompanied by 31 songs that he wrote that will go on sale on Amazon.com this fall. He's also a regular speaker at gaming industry conventions. Dial Sports eventually evolved into the content provider The Sports Network, and Charles got away from the phones, but not before making millions.
"We didn't have a dollar to our name when I sat down with my wife, before the garage," Charles said, thinking back to how it all started. "Not bad for a kid from the Bronx."