Art & Commerce: Sorry To Say, It’s So

Say it ain’t so, Joe,” has, 88 years later, given way to, “Say it ain’t so, Tim.” That’s the time that’s passed between Joe Jackson’s Black Sox scandal and Tim Donaghy’s zebra shirt scandal. In between, there have been many other “Say it ain’t so’s,” including “Say it ain’t so, Sherman White,” “Say it ain’t so, Jack Molinas” and “Say it ain’t so, Tony Jackson” in college basketball. In Jackson’s case, it really wasn’t so, but he got nailed for failing to report that someone tried to make it so by offering him money to shave points.

The NFL also had “Say it ain’t so, Alex Karras” and “Say it ain’t so, Paul Hornung.” And Major League Baseball, having recovered after Arnold Rothstein’s fixed 1919 World Series, went on to hear, “Say it ain’t so, Pete Rose,” “Say it ain’t so, Rich Garcia” and “Say it ain’t so, Frank Pulli.”

I caught up recently with a serious sports bettor I know, hoping he might have something to say that would interest sports marketers. Pete bets legally in Las Vegas and on-line, and makes his living solely from assessing gambling lines and picking the right sides.

Pete: I’m glad to know that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is on the case, protecting the integrity and solvency of the gambling industry.

Me: Is that what they’re doing?

Pete: Sure. Look, if there’s secret information about a game and the money rolls in on that information, there is a real possibility that the bets can’t be laid off. That’s when the bookmaker becomes a gambler, not a balancer who lives on the vig, the tax that he puts on bets. Bookmakers don’t care who wins or loses; they just want an equal amount of money bet on both sides of the proposition. So the FBI makes sure that bookies are protected against the mishegoss of putting their own hard-earned money at risk.

Me: You ever get secret information?

Pete: No. I collect data and look for tendencies. I’m just better than other people who do the same thing. [For instance], ESPN online had a report about a guy named Bell—I forget his first name—who is president of a sports betting service. The article said the biggest “eye-opener” came when Bell compared the number of points scored in the games Donaghy officiated versus the number of points the Las Vegas sports books had expected. Eye-opener? Where was this guy? You could, though, see Donaghy’s tendencies and not suspect they were the result of ulterior motives. That’s where the late horseplayer J. Edgar Hoover’s troops came in to find the higher inducements.

Me: You bet basketball?

Pete: I bet football and baseball, but all three sports have officiating tendencies. … The NBA commissioner is the best and most effective commissioner in sports today and he’s taking a lot of heat he doesn’t deserve.

Me: You ever bet tennis or golf?

Pete: That’s real gambling. You think someone’s going to tank a U.S. Open tennis match? Now they’ve got cameras and computers on the lines to correct human error. Even the net is wired. Golf? There’s a sport where if someone cheats, he actually reports himself.

Me: Do you follow sports marketing?

Pete: Well, to my knowledge, there’s no line on who Reebok and Nike are going to add or drop next. As a group, I like CBS Sports. CBS paid a lot of dimes to get the NCAA tournament. It’s got to be the greatest sports buy imaginable: you’ve got youth, age, males, females, the formally educated and, as an extra, you’ve got sports degenerates like me who watch every game with no bet on the outcome. CBS also has the tennis Open which is, for me, the whole U.S. tennis season. And the Masters CBS production, which showed everybody how to cover golf, the most difficult sport to do on TV. Good Night and Good Luck was reverential to CBS News, but CBS Sports was really the genius division of that network. It just about created the National Football League. CBS even owned the Yankees for a while.

Me: What about ESPN?

Pete: Greatest contribution has been poker. Made it a sport with Miller and Cialis sponsorships.

Me: Do you play poker online?

Pete: Enough to have joined the Poker Players’ Alliance. We’re lobbying to make electronic cash transactions easier after the terrible law passed in the last Congress by a group who’d probably back repeal of the 21st Amendment. Former Senator Alphonse D’Amato is heading our lobbying effort. But TV brought respectability to poker. On the other hand, maybe the 2004 World Series of Poker Champion, Greg Raymer, brought respectability to ESPN. Latest was a rumor he was running for the vice presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party.

Me: One final sports marketing issue: Michael Vick.

Pete: The “I’m no role model” defense. I’ve already forgotten what he endorsed.

Postscript: Yikes! A week after this conversation, an online betting company, Betfair, voided all wagers on a second-round Prokom Open tennis match in Sopot, Poland between No. 4- ranked Nikolay Davydenko and No. 87 Martin Arguello. Seems that Betfair took in $7 million on the match (10 times the usual), most of it on the big underdog, Arguello. Davydenko, claiming injury, quit shortly after the start of the third set. Say it ain’t so, Nikolay.

Actually, say it ain’t so, Betfair. The story here isn’t whether Nikki took a dive. The big revelation is that Betfair has been sharing information and monitoring irregularities with the Association of Tennis Professionals, the folks who run the tennis tour, since 2003. So the effort to make sure bookmakers are able to balance their books extends beyond the FBI, beyond our borders. Proof that there’s no more piercing whine than that of a stung bookmaker.