On-line Bettors Take Their Chances, Reap the Rewards
By Mark Asher
It is also the most widely bet one-day sports event in the world. Although exact figures are incalculable, gaming industry experts say that about $4 billion will be wagered legally and illegally by Sunday's kickoff in San Diego between the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers at 6:24 p.m. The state-licensed, legal Nevada sports books anticipate a record $75 million to $80 million in action alone. But they have competition from a new, burgeoning source: offshore, on-line bookmakers licensed by the country in which they operate.
"If you know how to click a mouse, you can place a bet," the Antigua-based World Sports Exchange advertises on its home page on the Internet.
The Super Bowl provides an opportunity for Americans to wager, either legally in Nevada, illegally through a neighborhood bookmaker or -- just as illegally -- through office pools or merely betting with a friend or neighbor.
Now offshore betting -- which has proliferated from three to 170 sports books in three years -- is expecting more action than Nevada -- more than $100 million, according to offshore bookmaking executives. Located from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean, about 100 offshore bookmakers have Web sites, with 30 of them capable of accepting bets with the click of a mouse, many this season for the first time.
On-line betting's explosion -- and acceptance by customers who must post money in an overseas account before they place their bets -- is causing frenzied activity both by operators and a new class of bettors attracted by convenience, discreetness and betting minimums as low as $1. One bookmaker, Costa Rica-based Global Sports Connection, says it has grown from 30 to 5,000 clients in slightly less than a year of operation; one-fifth of them bet "$1, $5 or $10 at the most," said company president Scott Barrett.
Earlier this week, Intertops, cyberspace's largest on-line sports bookmaker, closed its Web site for 30 hours for "a quick overhaul . . . just upgrading everything" in anticipation of Sunday's game, said Simon Noble, executive director of its Internet division.
Intertops, which Noble says has built a 330,000-person international client base in 16 years, moved its Internet operation from Austria to Antigua in July to attract North American customers, since Austria im poses a 10 percent tax on all wagers. Nevertheless, even with that tax, Intertops handled $600,000 in Super Bowl wagers via the Internet a year ago, mainly from Germany, Noble said.
The conference championship games on Jan. 11 pushed Intertops's computers to their capacity in the half-hour between the AFC and NFC title games, on a day $2.5 million was bet on the two games (Intertops's minimum bet is $6). "Now, we expect [the betting] to jump through the roof," Noble said. "We expect 2 to 3 million U.S. dollars just on the game, and that doesn't include the proposition bets." Most of those wagers, also called "teasers," provide longer odds to the bettor and can be made on just about any aspect of the game that can be verified by the game summary in the next day's newspaper.
Noble said his offshore operation takes all its bets through the Internet even though it has a toll-free number for customer service, as do his competitors. "The majority [of my customers] are young professionals or college students," said Noble, a 27-year-old Englishman. "It's a whole new class of people who are betting because it's convenient."
"It's a chance to put down a few dollars without any serious betting risk," said a 33-year-old marketing executive from Toronto who asked that his name not be used. He discovered Intertops while seeking the score of a World Series game on ESPN's Web site. "We're the ones who are on-line all the time. You come across [the offshore advertisements] all the time.
"I wouldn't feel comfortable betting with a bookie because it's illegal. I don't feel this is illegal, and it's not betting away the family check. I have a friend I've been betting with for a long time. It's not fun to take money from your friends. For a small-stakes bettor, [on-line betting] is more fun."
This marketing executive made his Super Bowl bets last week -- all $26 worth. He is betting a $20 parlay -- that Denver will lose by less than 13 points and that the Broncos and Green Bay Packers will score at least a combined 50 points in the game -- and $6 on a proposition bet that Broncos running back Terrell Davis will score the game's first touchdown. Winning the parlay would give him a $53 profit on his $20 bet and, if Davis scores the game's first touchdown, he would win $36 plus his original $6 wager. Thus, by winning both bets, he would turn his $26 stake into $115 -- a profit of $89.
A 24-year-old Dallas real estate investor, who requested his name be omitted, said he always has liked to gamble -- with friends, not bookmakers. He recently found out about on-line betting from a former classmate at the University of Arkansas. He had been procrastinating about opening an offshore betting account, but late last week he did so. He said he plans to bet "probably a couple hundred" on the Super Bowl.
"I've been wanting to do it for a long time and get set up on-line," he said. "I've always liked to gamble. It gives me a sense of excitement. Like people who skydive, it gives me a high. It makes [watching a game] a lot more exciting."
His friend, Kelly Honeysuckle, a 37-year-old sales representative from Fayetteville, Ark., said he knows that feeling.
"I do it just to make the game exciting," Honeysuckle said. "I stopped for a few months and I rarely watched a game. That made me examine myself because I love football, and it just wasn't interesting. I grew up all my life in sports and loved sports, and gambling made it exciting, especially when you win."
Honeysuckle said he is "a small bettor" but the amount of his bets vary. "It actually depends on how much I've been drinking," he said. "You just get braver."
He said Thursday night he is betting $25 on Denver, getting 12 1/2 points. Last week, before deciding how to bet, he warned people to bet the opposite of whichever way he chose because he has been "unlucky" this season, picking the point-spread winner only 34 percent of the time. "I found out a monkey can do better flipping a coin," he said.
Few recreational bettors win over the course of a season, said Jeff Brown, 32, a New Haven-based communications worker better known on-line as Oddswiz, a partner in BettorsWorld, a Connecticut-based Web site that tracks and reviews offshore bookmakers and serves as an unofficial watchdog of this unregulated industry.
"People are coming out of the woodwork [to bet the Super Bowl], especially with the Internet," said Brown, whose Web site is supported by advertising from what he terms "reputable" offshore bookmakers. "These [on-line] bookmakers want the square audience. It's not about picking winners, but being able to manage your money, simply knowing how to manage a bankroll and knowing how to wager. Your average guy is going to go broke for that simple reason."
A bet being as convenient as the click of a mouse worries bettors as well anti-gambling activists, who fear a proliferation of compulsive gamblers and support a Senate bill that would make wagering via the Internet illegal.
"It becomes dangerous when you bet on a game because you want to be interested in it," said Mike, a 26-year-old student from Alexandria who posted $500 in an on-line betting account last March, withdrew $1,000 of his profit for a Las Vegas vacation and still has not had to make another deposit.
"That's ridiculous," he said. "They spend a lot of money to entertain themselves. That's how gambling problems get started. . . . No matter what you make, no matter what you're worth, you have to wager responsibly, just like drinking responsibly."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company