When Alabama plays Arkansas in the Super Bowl today, more than the national championship will be at stake.
This is a game the nation's bettors have awaited with special interest all season. Score, the Boston-based football-touting service, has proclaimed Alabama the "Lock of the Year."
Bettors are ordinarily skeptical of tipsters, and bookmakers contemptous of them. But Score's "Lock" has won in each of the last seven years, and when the service picked Stanford over California last season, it triggered such an avalanche of wagering that the point spread was driven up from 5 1/2 to 14 or more. It didn't matter. When Stanford won by 20, bookmakers suffered one of the most devastating single-game shellackings in the history of their profession.
The performance of the "Locks" has made Score the most successful sports service in the country. Three real-estate men -- Bob Dunbar, Bill Hilton and Willie O'Brien -- started the business in 1972 with a handful of local customers. By 1976, they found themselves in the midst of a booming industry. Pages of football magazines were crammed with ads for touting services, all citing their brilliant records of the past and promising riches in the future.
This was not exactly a stable industry. It attracted a lot of fly-by-night operators, whose resources consisted of nothing but two or three telephones.And even the more reputable services were at the mercy of fate. Their customers could desert them quickly.
In the middle of this season, Score promoted a "Crush Weekend," featuring four sure-fire games. All of its selections lost badly.
"The phone didn't stop ringing on Monday," Hilton recalled with chagrin. "People were telling us, 'You set us up,' 'You sold out to the Mafia and the bookies,' 'I lost my house,' and all that baloney."
Despite the inevitable vicissitudes of the game, a few services have developed a fairly stable business and a reputation for reliability: Jim Feist, the Gold Sheet, Richard Bomze's Sports Reporter and a few others. But Score is the most successful, largely because of the publicity it has received from "Lock of the Year."
Score's operation is fairly typical of the industry. It publishes a weekly newsletter, but the heart of its business is its "late telephone service," which gives its selections for the weekend's games starting on Friday afternoon. The service costs Score's customers about $200 a month.
Hilton, Dunbar and O'Brien make their selections at a series of midweek brainstorming sessions, but they rely heavily on the observations of about 15 sources around the country.
"A lot of them are former customers of ours, doctors, lawyers, insurance men," Hilton said. "We want people who see the teams play and aren't deceived by the final score. Two years ago we started using videotapes, having people record games for us off their television sets. These tapes helped us get onto the Alabama-Arkansas game.
"We watched Alabama early in the year and thought they had one of the finest defenses to come along in years. Then they had a lot of injuries, but we hoped to get them late in the season when everybody was healthy. When they were matched up with Arkansas, it was perfect."
Dunbar thinks the Sugar Bowl offers the most promising sort of football matchup: a team that runs well against a team that cannot stop the run.
"We think Alabama can control the ball," he said. "They have an excellent running game, and Steadman Shealy is a great wishbone quarterback. And Arkansas is weak against the run. Colorado State rushed 50 times against them for 324 yards. Late in the season, SMU rushed 51 times for 282 yards. t
"The other key matchup is on the right side of the Arkansas offensive line -- that's where they like to run. But they're going to be going against two superquick, supertough defensive linemen, and nobody's been able to move the ball on that side against Alabama.
"Arkansas isn't going to move it by passing, either. Their quarterback, Kevin Scanlon, is overrated. He's got a high pass-completion percentage but they're mostly short swing passes. When Arkansas really has to start throwing, Alabama's secondary is going to be fielding them like Willie Mays. t
"The two teams have one common opponent," Dunbar continued."That was Baylor. Alabama beat them, 45-0. Arkansas was losing, 17-0, then came back to win, 29-20, thanks to three turnovers."
Alabama was favored by 6 1/2 points until Score released its selection on Friday. Las Vegas quickly moved the line to 9 1/2.
Because of this inflated spread, many of the Vegas wise guys are now playing Arkansas, figuring they have a bargain. But Score and its loyalists aren't deterred.
"We know there's no such thing as a sure thing," Dunbar said, "but this is as close as we can come."