Sportsbetting, the tradition of placing a wager on what one predicts will be the result of a sporting event, is now a billion-dollar market. In 2003, ESPN Magazine reported that the industry’s estimated worth is $63 billion.
Various studies also show that approximately 25% of the US population places sports bet at least once a year. About 15% wagers on a regular basis.
This amazing growth of the sportsbetting industry is born from a combination of different events in history and colorful characters – some great, some scandalous.
Sportsbetting all started at the horse tracks of 18th century. In the beginning, horse racing was a sport for pleasure of the upper class. It all changed after the Civil War when horse tracks started to fill the eastern landscape. Bettors from all walks of life came in droves to the tracks to watch and wager. The spectator’s bet was born.
The popularity of horse betting started to decline in the early 20th century as professional sports leagues started to form. They inspired the nation’s gamblers to venture into a new betting territory: sports. In the 1920s (considered the “Golden Era” of sports), people placed bets on college basketball and football.
Baseball was also one of the first sports that captured the gamblers’ attention. Pool cards, which look like the parlay cards of today, were used for betting. Bettors could place a bet as small as 10 cents. However, there was a catch. Jimmy Vaccaro, former director of Mirage Race & SportsBook described the pool cards as “a stickup.”
“You played for the danger of it. You played for a huge payoff if you would ever get lucky,” Vacarro said.
In 1919, the first major scandal in the history of modern sports broke out. The Chicago White Sox intentionally lost the game to Cincinnati as influenced by gamblers. Dubbed the “BlackSox Scandal,” it showed America how sportsbetting can compromise the integrity of sports.
In 1989, another sport scandal broke out. It involved Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds, the team he managed – and wagered on. In 1994, the basketball team of the Arizona State was accused of shaving points during their games with Sun Devils.
The scandals did paint a negative image of sports bettors, but they didn’t put a brake on sportsbetting’s growing popularity.
Yet it wasn’t the scandals that gave sportsbetting’s popularity its biggest boost. It was when sport events started to get television timeslots in the 1970s that sportsbetting began to gain mainstream popularity.
In the early days of sports betting, people booked bets in places called “turf clubs.” They were not as sophisticated as the ones dotting towns nowadays; they were not as easily accessible as online sportsbooks. Nevertheless, they were as filled with enthusiasm and hope as the sportsbooks of today.