In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth.
But it wasn't until an innovative oddsmaker came along that the genesis of sports betting, a biblical event in the history of human existence for those who spend their autumn Sundays praying not for salvation but for a cover, became the mega-industry that it is today.
Nevada Comes Onboard In 1931
Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931 but it took until the 1940s that the point spread came into being. Charles McNeil, a Connecticut bettor and bookmaker, generally is credited with the invention of the point spread though, like so much in the history of wagering, the facts are murky at best and open to interpretation. At any rate, sports betting still was in its infancy, barely able to take its first baby steps before the federal government applied its heavy handed child rearing tactics.
In 1951, Congress imposed a 10 percent tax on sports wagering, all but stuffing the sports betting baby back in the womb. Then, in 1974, largely through the efforts of Senator Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), the tax was dropped to two percent. Nine years later it was cut again, to .025 percent, effectively launching the now burgeoning era of sports betting.
Indeed, in 1973, the year before the federal tax was dropped from 10 percent to two percent, there were 10 sportsbooks in Nevada and the handle was a paltry $2.8 million.
“There was one black-and-white TV set at the old Churchill Downs book, and if the picture fluttered, a guy would whack it with a broom,” remembered oddsmaker Roxy Roxborough, the seminal figure in the rapid growth of the sports betting industry.
Nevada Sports Betting Blossoms
Twenty years later, Nevada boasted over 100 sportsbook outlets with a handle of over $2 billion. The numbers in the Silver State have tailed off a bit since the mid-nineties, Nevada's loss the result of the proliferation of off-shore and Internet wagering outlets. The overall growth of sports betting remains staggering, with ESPN the Magazine estimating in a 2003 article that $63 billion is wagered annually on sports over the Internet. Other estimates run as high as $200 billion annually.
The explosion of sports betting in the mid-eighties largely was the result of a daily double of good fortune; the lowering of the federal tax and the emergence of Roxborough, who everyone calls “Roxy,” as the face of sports betting.
Who Is Roxy Roxborough?
Roxy got his wagering feet wet betting baseball totals. In fact, he may have been the first player to regularly check local weather reports, chronicling the velocity and direction of the wind, a factor which influenced how many balls left the ballpark and, by extension, game totals.
Lured to the other side of the counter by management at the Club Cal-Neva in Reno, it wasn't long before Roxy, armed with little more than a few hundred dollars and an idea, founded his then fledgling company, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, on his kitchen table. In time, LVSC's client list grew to include 90 percent of Nevada's licensed casino as well as the best sportsbooks.
With a boost from Vic Salerno, the owner of dozens of wagering outlets under the Leroy's banner and the man who developed the computer system now de rigueur in the industry, LVSC effectively helped transport sportsbooks from the hand-written betting slip Stone Age into the technologically savvy modern sports betting era.
Roxy's company not only supplied odds, but information on injuries and weather conditions as well. Later, the service added data that tracked line movements, including unusual wagers, alerting sportsbooks to possible betting anomalies that had the potential to devastate their bottom lines.
Well-dressed and well-spoken, Roxy was equally influential in helping to obliterate the pejorative image of the oddsmaker/bookmaker as some sleazy, poorly educated garish figure in a hound's tooth jacket with a diamond pinky ring and a cigar. Appearing on television shout-fests such as “Crossfire,” Roxy would vanquish the opposition, which included now NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, with a series of well-argued points.
The Legacy Continues
Roxborough has retired from the business of pluses and minuses and no one knows for sure what the coming years will bring, but if the future of sports betting is only half as imaginative and innovative as its glorious past, neither bet makers nor bet takers have reason for concern.