Reprinted by permission from womenSports Magazine, November, 1977. Copyright (c) by womenSports Publishing Co.
"Gamblers are very sick people," a bookie I met said recently. "They'll bet on anything."
"Even women?" I asked, not knowing it was a long shot.
"I wouldn't go that far, honey," he replied, chewing on a cheap cigar. "And you can quote me on that."
If making book was legal, bookies would be facing the biggest sex discrimination suit since feminists rang Ma Bell's chimes. Bookies not only haven't heard of the boom in women's sports, they haven't heard of most of the athletes. Billie Jean King is a familiar name only because of her 1973 match with Bobby Riggs, whose reputation as the consummate hustler has convinced his ardent supporters in bookie points that he threw the match of King - after betting heavily on her.
The King-Riggs match was, as they say in Vegas, a bettable episode because it was nationally televised. For the most part, however, bookies do not consider women's sports bettable events. "You know the old saying around the track," one guy told me. "You're not supposed to bet on fillies, because women aren't consistent."
I had to admit I didn't know that saying, or, for that matter, anybody who would actually believe it. To my dismay, I fould that most of the bookies I met put as much faith in old wives' tales as they do in The Racing Form. Sure, they'll put money on Ruffian, a real thoroughbred. But female athletes who happen to have only two legs and play softball, tennis or golf are considered a horse of another color. They're broads. They don't make big money. And they are not to be taken seriously. Neither, I learned, are the bookies.
Gamblers always talk in dollars and cents. And as far as that goes, women's sports just don't pay off. "I belive in everthing being equal for women," one bookie said, "but gambling's a big business and it has to do with success ad women in sports just aren't successful." As a guy form Vegas said succinctly, "When there's money to be made, we'll get it." Then, he added, with some relish, that he wasn't at all sure he'd live that long.
Formal betting on women's sports is actually only as far away as formal coverage in the media. As Larry Merchant, the author of The National Football Lottery, explained, most betting is on major-league sports that people can follow, that get some kind of regular newspaper and television coverage, that people think they can be expert about. As any Sunday afternoon TV watcher knows, those sports are male, and so are the people who think they know enough to bet on them. Betting is so much a part of pro football, for example, that it is hard to say which came first, the point spread or the game.
"What if I wanted to place a bet on Joan Joyce and the Connecticut Falcons?" I asked a bookie, reputed to do $200,000 worth of business each year.
"I'd tell you to take a walk," he replied. Realizing I meant business, he said, "Go on, nobody knows'em, nobody cares."
John, whom I could only reach by calling a particular phone booth at particular times of the day, didn't laugh when I asked to place a bet on women's college basketball. I told him that some people, including Larry Merchant, thought there was big betting potential there, 10 years down the road.
"Yeah," he agreed, " there was even some excitment last year when Immaculata played in the Garden. One guy called me and asked if I would take a bet, and I said I would if I could get a line. I went through the normal procedures but they said, "No line."
It was time, I realized, to speak to the people who make the lines.
"Nobody books the action," said a voice over the phone from the Reno Turf Book, a betting establishment reputed to quote odds on anything other than cockroach races and student council elections. "Women's sports are rising, but they're not here yet."
The only women's sport they post odds for in Reno is tennis. This year, however, the man said, "Evert was too much of a favorite."
"How about Virginia Slims - could I get odds on that?"
"No," he said, "we never handle golf."
I reached Jimmy the Greek. "When will we see betting on women's sports?" I asked. "Not until I start making odds on them," he replied. So far there have been no requests for betting lines on any women's sports other than tennis.
In England, where betting on tennis is much bigger than it is here, the Greek estimates that betting on the women at Wimbledon is "probably 20 per cent of what the men's would be. "This year," he said, "what with that English girl in contention - what's her name - I would say it was, maybe, 30 per cent."
Apart from tennis, the only action you can find on women's sports is at the track. When women jockeys first began appearing in the starting gates, they were greeted with disinterest by bettors who felt their mounts wouldn't be getting a good ride. Some of the shrewder trainers began to take notice and advantage of the old prejudice against betting on fillies. As one bookie explained it, "If I had a horse that was going to win with my grandmother on it, I'm not going to put Angel Cordero on him because odds always go down with a top jockey, meaning your payoff will be less. So I put a women aboard, the odds go up, and you get a really big price. "It's brilliant."
And as the smart money knows, you shouldn't form any prejudices because somewhere, sometime, it's going to cost you.