“Ivan is gonna reach base. I’ll bet you five bucks at three to two odds he reaches.” – from the 1979 play “Bleacher Bums.”
Baseball fans were micro-betting long before they knew it was called micro-betting.
Originally produced in 1979 and set in the right-field bleachers of Wrigley Field in the summer of 1977, “Bleacher Bums” starred Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, among others, as diehard Cubbie fans who loved their perennially losing team nearly as much as they loved in-game wagering with one another.
Within the first 10 minutes of the play, bets are placed on the paid attendance; the margin of victory; and whether the likes of Ivan DeJesus will reach base.
“Bleacher Bums” was fiction—but it was an accurate reflection of reality.
As I wrote in my book Bet the House, America’s favorite sport isn’t football or basketball or baseball or hockey.
It’s betting on the games.
Nobody knows the exact amount of money Americans illegally wager on sports every year. We hear figures ranging from a few billion to $150 billion.
This we know for sure: it’s a LOT.
On Monday, the United States Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law and essentially opened the gates for individual states to legalize sports betting.
There’s still much to be hashed out, but sooner rather than later, sports fans in a number of states (with New Jersey leading the charge) will be able to legally place a bet on (or against) the home team just before the game that night; make another wager or two on the game while it’s in progress; make a futures wager on the next World Series winner or Super Bowl champion; and maybe even make a prop bet on who’s going to hit the first home run of a game or score the first touchdown.
If you want to bet the Over/Under on how many states will be offering sports betting by 2023, I’d take “over” 25.
Someday in the not too distant future, you might even be able to call up an app on your smart device and make a “reach base” bet in real time, just like those Bleacher Bums were doing back in the 1970s.
The NBA has been gearing up for legalized gambling for years. League commissioner Adam Silver reacted to the Supreme Court ruling by acknowledging it “opens the door for states to pass legalized sports betting” and reiterating the league’s support for federal guidelines that would allow for uniform regulations for sports wagering.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon shrugged his shoulders when asked about the ruling and correctly noted sports gambling has “been part of our culture” for a long time.
These are smart, accomplished men who love their sport—and realize a good percentage of the fans in attendance or watching the games are literally invested in the action and might not even bother to show up or tune in if they couldn’t risk a few bucks.
The integrity of the game is the most important thing for professional sports leagues and the NCAA. We all know that.
And of course, there’s always the possibility of a gambling scandal. We’ve had ‘em before and we’ll have ‘em again. That was true before Monday’s ruling and it will be true for all time.
But legalized sports wagering, with local government oversight, and the leagues and teams eventually receiving a cut of the proceeds, in all likelihood LESSENS the probability of a scandal.
It’s always more difficult to get away with something under the spotlight as opposed to in the shadows.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told CNBC the ruling could double the value of franchises in the major sports. “Everybody’s gambled for a long time,” said Cuban. “There are 118 countries that already allow gambling, so it’s really our chance to learn from them and catch up.”
As for legalized wagering somehow detracting away from the purity of being a sports fan—in my experience, most of the guys and gals that like to bet on games are extremely knowledgeable and deeply passionate about sports.
Knowledge is everything when it comes to successful sports wagering. The more you know, you more of an edge you have.
There’s a character in “Bleacher Bums” who takes advantage of some of the Cubs fans who are blinded by their loyalties to the home team. Fast forward some 40 years, and it’s only a matter of time before someone sitting in those right field bleachers will be dashing out to a kiosk between innings or keying in a bet on his iPhone—and the more he knows, the better his odds of seeing his bankroll pointing north at the end of the day.
And it’ll all be as legal as an adult Cubs fan enjoying a frosty beer and toasting the ghost of Harry Caray during the seventh-inning stretch.
Movie critic and author Richard Roeper is a regular contributor to VSiN morning show "Follow The Money" with Mitch Moss and Pauly Howard.