You may not know much about Labrandon Toefield. Maybe you've never even heard of the bruising running back from LSU whom the Jacksonville Jaguars picked in the fourth round of April's NFL draft. But three groups will be watching intensely to see how his rookie year goes: his family, his friends and the people betting that he blows up the NFL this season.
That's right. Training camps are just opening, and oddsmakers have already made Toefield a 50-1 shot for NFL offensive rookie of the Year.
Add up the passion, knowledge and nuttiness of people who make that kind of wager, then multiply the total by a growing number of betting opportunities, and you'll begin to fathom the scope of betting nation. It's a cash-churning world of odds and spreads that stretches from playing fields to living rooms across these gambling United States. And we've just conducted its first census, surveying 1,148 U.S. residents to find out how many fans bet on sports, how much they bet and why.
The raw numbers are big. Really big. Half of Americans aged 16 and older have placed a bet on sports in the past 12 months, according to our poll, conducted by the Norwalk, Conn., research firm Markitecture, which has a margin of error of plus- or minus-3 points. That's 118 million people a year betting on sports, whether it's participating in an office pool, gambling with friends, putting money on a horse at a racetrack or otb parlor or wagering at a casino, online or with a bookie.
And there's no sign that our passion is waning. Despite the weak economy, 78% of sports gamblers say they've increased their betting or kept it at the same level compared with last year. The federally funded national gambling impact Study reported in 1999-just as internet sports wagering started to take off-that estimates for the overall amount bet on sports were as high as $380 billion a year, nearly as high as the U.S. Defense budget. The study called sports betting "the most widespread and popular form of gambling in America."
Gambling on sports, you could say, is andro for the rest of us.
And in the stories that follow, we'll explore the ways in which various members of betting nation feel the juice: how one man has turned sports gambling into a lucrative way of life (page 86); how offshore bookmakers are making it easy for you to pump your cash into sports bets (page 92); and how pro athletes extend their on-court rivalries into off-field wagering (page 96). They-and we-are all surfing the same high, where waves of competition, risk and reward crash together.
Face it: sports and gambling make an alluring power couple. You can bet on who will be the next pope (Italian cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Italy is a 5-4 favorite), or on which team will win Survivor 7: Pearl Islands (the men are favored). With sports, though, you get definite winners and losers and recurring action, a tough package to match. "Betting lets people stay involved in sports, especially when they're done playing," says Peter Roby, Northeastern University's director of the center for the Study of Sports in Society. "It gives them a rush of adrenaline."
Sports betting also allows hard-core fans to put to use their hard-earned knowledge. After all, if you've been following Hee Seop Choi since he played for the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, you undoubtedly feel as though you have insider info on how many rbis the big Cubs rookie will be good for this year. "With the internet, everyone thinks they can get inside information," says Ann Vollano, an assistant athletic director at the University of Michigan, who co-authored a 1999 study on student-athletes and gambling. "They use chat boards to get a leg up on who's injured."
Small wonder, then, that our data show that most gamblers are sports fans, and most sports fans bet on sports.
They're typical fans, too: passionate, blindly loyal and positive they know everything there is to know about sports. Here's how positive: 59% of bettors trust their opinions and "gut feelings" most when laying down dollars, and only 27% routinely research bets before parting with their money. Meanwhile, just 10% or less of betting nation's citizens wager based on point spreads, statistics or tips (which explains why only 15% "look at betting as a way to make money"). In fact, faced with the choice of their favorite team being crowned champs or winning big money themselves by betting against a beloved franchise, 66% of bettors would choose that title season.
It's worth noting that there's more than a little queasiness in betting nation about the cumulative impact of gambling on sports. Nearly 40% of the U.S. population believe that "betting is a big problem in our society." About 3.5 million Americans believe they have a sports-gambling addiction. And research shows that these people inflict huge costs on everyone else, from missed work days to insurance claims to divorces. Says Roby: "What betting does to people, how it affects their lives and their decisions, is a serious issue."
Our survey respondents rated using a bookie on the high side of the immorality scale, but saw lotteries and nonsports casino gambling as fairly harmless. One reason for sports betting's bad rep is its illegitimacy when compared to other forms of gambling. Nearly 8 in 10 people live in states with government- run lotteries, but above-board sports betting options are harder to find. Prohibited in 47 states, betting on sports is legal only in Nevada and through lotteries in Delaware and Oregon.
But this is a bigger problem for sports betting: a majority of U.S. residents believe that at least some sports are fixed, and gambling feeds into that perception. As Roby puts it, "With so much action out there, who's to say it doesn't affect the outcome of games?" People have reason to worry: 4% of the bettors we polled say they've known about a sporting event that was fixed, and 3% say they've actually participated in the rigging of a final outcome. These results mirror the findings of the Michigan study, where 5.2% of male athletes admitted they provided inside information about, bet on or fixed a game they played in.
The people who run big-time sports understand and share these concerns. But they also know that sports bettors are passionate couch potatoes-53% like to watch their bets unfold from home-and leagues and TV networks want their attention and their dollars. As a result, execs send a lot of mixed messages about gambling.
The NFL, the favored league of 48% of bettors (tops by far among all sports), stridently opposes any kind of sports betting. But the league still makes injury updates public, even though they're of little use to anyone except NFL coaches and gamblers deciding how to place their wagers. Along with the NFL, the NCAA is a partner in Sportsline.com, where you can find point spreads. And the NBA advertises on lottery tickets in California, Indiana, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and allowed the Mohegan Sun Casino to take over Connecticut's WNBA franchise this year. It's taboo to appeal to bettors overtly-though you may hear Al Michaels drop hints about over/ unders at the end of Monday Night Football blowouts-but it's bad business to ignore them.
That's especially true of the much-coveted 18-34 demographic, because the research shows that, at the very least, people's moral qualms with sports betting will probably fade as this group gets older. It's part of a broader phenomenon: new technology is constantly making private pursuits of pleasure more convenient and acceptable. And make no mistake, those taking most advantage of these pursuits are young: 5% of people aged 21 to 29 have bet online, compared with only 1% of the 60-plus age group. These experiences translate into a greater belief among the youngsters that sports betting is just another leisure activity. Nearly two-thirds of people in their 20s believe betting on sports is "no different" than buying a lottery ticket, while 41% see internet sports betting as "perfectly harmless." And support for legalizing sports betting nationwide peaks, at 46%, among teenagers. "Younger people are more internet savvy, and it's easier for them to gamble now," says Vollano. "They're also more apt to take risks."
So, for better or worse, in 10 or 15 years, most people will find it incredible that anyone ever left their bedroom to gamble on sports.
Or that anyone else thought it was wrong.
56% of Americans say there's nothing wrong with betting on sports (as long as you do it in a casino; they don't like backroom bookies and the like).
20% think betting of any kind is a sin.
52% of Americans believe some sports are fixed. More amaz-ingly, 60% of regular bettors smell a rat somewhere: 32% think the NBA is fixed; 26% feel the same about the NFL; 24% think college hoops is rigged; 23% think baseball is not on the level; 19% don't trust college football; and 13% think the NHL is as crooked as a stick.
Someone is lying.
41% of Americans say they've won a bet that's gone unpaid. But only 5% fess up to welshing. And while just 2% of people aged 50-59 admitted to being deadbeats, 9% of twenty somethings and 16% of teenagers copped to it. At least they're honest.
THE FACE OF BETTING NATION
The typical sports bettor is a 42-year-old married guy living in the suburbs, with a household income of $74,000 a year. Among heavy bettors, 6% have an annual income of $150,000 or more, twice the number of nonbettors in the general population who make that kind of coin.
Only 37% of Americans want to legalize sports betting nationwide. But 42% say they'd support the idea if it provided money for education of health care.
52% of regular bettors say they lay money only on their favorite team. Half of them say they lose more of those bets than they win. Here's an idea: why not bet against your guys? Then, either way you win.