'eBay meets Facebook in Las Vegas': The fascinating story of Betcha.com


Betcha.com was born June 8, 2007. The website went dark a month later, but its legacy lives on.

"Betcha.com was eBay meets Facebook in Las Vegas," said Nick Jenkins, Betcha's founder.

"It was a person-to-person betting platform where bettors could bet on anything and everything for any amount and with any odds," Jenkins told ESPN Chalk in a recent interview. "So long as a bettor could find an opponent to take his action, the only limit was one of imagination."

And it all came about because Jenkins was unable to agree on the terms of a friendly wager.

"The idea came from real life," Jenkins said. "I like to bet casually on just about anything. My buddies aren't always willing to give me the terms I want. One day I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if there was a platform where I could post my bet offer for anyone in world to accept?'

"So I made one."

A 2007 screen shot (see above) of the website shows how his idea came to fruition after years of software development and $540,000 of investment funding, according to Jenkins.

"The Betcha platform allowed 'sellers' to post bet offers on anything and everything, from sports to politics to pop culture," he said. "All they needed was a 'buyer' who was willing to bet on mutually agreeable terms."

Don't look for the website now, though. While Jenkins still owns the domain name, the portal has been shuttered for more than eight years.

"The site was only up for a few weeks and the betting amounts were mostly between $5 and $25," he said. "Betting on sports was dominant."

Advertising material for Betcha.com, most of which was never activated given the site's short life, highlighted the platform's unique characteristics.

According to court documents obtained by ESPN Chalk, regulators from the Washington State Gambling Commission issued Jenkins a cease-and-desist letter within weeks of the platform's launch. A three-year legal battle ensued, with back-and-forth rulings from different appellate judges in the Evergreen State. As part of the enforcement action, two officers went undercover and made no fewer than four bet offers on the site.

From a police legal filing in the case, a July 7, 2007, proposition involving baseball is illustrative of how trades were matched on Betcha.com.

On Sept. 2, 2010, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against Betcha.com. The crux of the case turned on the court's finding that the Betcha platform operated as a bookmaker in violation of state law. Washington statutes define "bookmaker" as follows:

" 'Bookmaking,' as used in this chapter, means accepting bets, upon the outcome of future contingent events, as a business or in which the bettor is charged a fee or 'vigorish' for the opportunity to place a bet."

Lawyers for Betcha.com wrote in a legal filing: "Like eBay, Betcha charges fees for others to offer and accept bets. Betcha no more 'accepts' bets than eBay accepts offers to purchase every item offered for sale on eBay.com."

According to Jenkins, a straightforward reading of the definition of "bookmaker" requires one to accept bets.

"A showing of 'accepting bets' is clearly required," said Jenkins, a graduate of Georgetown's law school. "There are two dependent clauses after it [in the statute]."

The Washington State Supreme Court disagreed.

"The bookmaker may, but need not take a position on the bet for it to be engaged in bookmaking under the statute," Justice Tom Chambers wrote on behalf of the entire court. "Because bookmaking alone may constitute professional gambling under the statute, we need not address whether Betcha or its users were also engaged in 'gambling' as that term is defined."

Simply stated, gambling comprises three elements: prize, chance and consideration (entry fee, wager, or anything of value). All three are required and each element has been analyzed by politicians, judges, law enforcement, professors and bettors for decades. Betcha's unique twist, beyond its exchange-like structure, was that users were expressly permitted to opt out of their bets within 72 hours. According to a 2009 intermediate appellate decision in the case, the Betcha.com website and terms of service included no fewer than four references to the nonbinding nature of the transactions.

The Washington State Supreme Court never ruled on the issue of whether Betcha's opt-out clause removed the site (and its customers) from the definition of gambling. The issue remains ripe for another legal case.

Person-to-person platforms like Betcha.com operate far differently than a traditional sports book with a stake in the action. There is no betting against the house. It is all customer-driven, involving trades with others like the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ.

In essence, Betcha and its exchange-based cousins strive for betting without bookmaking, but such structures don't always pass regulatory muster. Regulators in Washington State took swift action in 2007 and remain consistent today.

"Our position now is the same as it was during the Betcha.com enforcement action and legal case," said Susan Newer, rules coordinator and public information officer for the Washington State Gambling Commission in Olympia. "If Betfair, Tradesports, or any other betting-related 'exchange' operates in Washington state or provides services to Washington residents, it would be illegal under state law."

The Betcha.com enforcement action has lessons for how rapidly changing fantasy and wagering options are regulated on a state-by-state basis. With no uniform federal standard, some states are lax while others aggressively regulate the space. Washington, a jurisdiction with one of the strictest online gambling laws in the country, is illustrative of the latter.

"Any DFS company operating in Washington or providing services to Washington residents would be illegal under state law," Newer said. "DFS has received some complaints and we follow up on all complaints.

"We do have investigations pertaining to DFS."

Jenkins was forward-looking in 2007 and remains so today.

"I suspect betting will develop like retail," Jenkins told ESPN Chalk. "In retail, there are traditional retailers who sell widgets to customers on their terms and person-to-person platforms like eBay, where people bypass traditional retailers and sell directly to each other.

"In betting, sports books will be the retailers and person-to-person betting platforms will be the eBays."

If Jenkins and industry insiders like Michael "Roxy" Roxborough are right, then betting without bookmaking could represent where at least some portion of "inevitable" legalized sports wagering in the U.S. may soon reside. Peer-to-peer exchanges are massive in Europe, with Betfair being a prime example. Related platforms like Tradesports, Waygr and Augur are emerging stateside now. They aren't without their challenges, however.

"Lack of liquidity was a potential problem for Betcha.com, as it would be for any similar platform," Jenkins said.

What he means is that without a critical mass of activity and users, sports trading exchanges cease to exist. Frequency and volume are key. Users will look for other options if too many of their trade offers are never consummated.

Betcha.com remains an important historical footnote in this somewhat nascent space. Five years have passed since Jenkins' legal tussle with Washington regulators, but bitter optimism -- an oxymoron if there ever was one -- nevertheless persists.

"My belief in the American legal system died a quick and certain death," Jenkins said in a moment of reflection. "My dream for Betcha.com has not."