I happened to attend a United States Football League cocktail party at the start of the season and mentioned to the commissioner and a couple of league officials that I loved my bet on the Chicago Blitz minus 6 1/2 points the next day. Significantly, none of them emulated Pete Rozelle and delivered a tirade on the evils of gambling.
The founders of the new league seemed realistic enough to recognize that one measure of the USFL's legitimacy would be the reception it got from bettors and bookmakers. Now that its inaugural season is almost concluded, it is safe to say that the USFL passed this test.
It stimulated enough interest that most bookies have taken action on its games all season. The World Football League never got this kind of acceptance. Neither, for that matter, have professional hockey, soccer or tennis. The volume of betting was not enormous, compared with the National Football League, but it was respectable.
"About half of my regular NFL customers bet on the USFL," said Sneaky Pete, a Washington bookmaker. "Guys who might bet $500 on the NFL would be betting $100 or $200 this summer. I put a $500 limit on the games but you didn't need it; people limited themselves. I have no complaints; after what the Redskins did to me last season, I would have been happy to break even, but I made my expenses.
"The action on the league was good in the beginning, tapered off in the middle of the season, but it really picked up in the last five weeks. I think when the weather gets too hot people stay inside and bet."
In Las Vegas, where people stay inside and bet all the time, the USFL generated consistent interest and action throughout the season--especially on televised games. Plenty of the sharp handicappers there did the same kind of homework on the new league that they apply to more established sports. "They'll try to take your head off any time you put a number up," said Jeff Garrett of the Santa Anita Sports Book.
The major Nevada bookmaking establishments set a limit of $3,000 or $5,000 on the USFL games. In the first week of the season, the bettors did their homework so diligently that they inflicted a loss on the bookies. By the end of the season, of course, the bookmakers had made a healthy profit. But, Garrett said, the USFL was not quite such a consistent source of income as the NFL.
Bettors would sometimes spot a weakness in the point spread and jump on a bandwagon that the bookies could not stop by adjusting their numbers. Last week, for example, when Michigan opened as a one-touchdown favorite over Oakland in their playoff game, customers kept hammering the favorite until the number went up to 10 or 10 1/2. And the customers were right.
Some bettors were undoubtedly attracted to the new league by this very prospect--that they could occasionally uncover a weakness in the line. In NFL games, everybody knows everything about every team, but the USFL was virgin territory.
"The Vegas lines were sometimes very bad," said a sharp local handicapper named Jerry. "You could beat them." Nevertheless, Jerry admitted that he hadn't beaten them. Why? "The bad teams were so bad that they couldn't execute. Try betting on the Federals sometime. And a lot of the coaches were even worse than the players.
"The good teams, though, were pretty dependable from the betting standpoint, and you can tap out on Michigan to beat Philadelphia for the championship on Sunday," Jerry assured me. "They'll be able to stop Kelvin Bryant and, if you stop him, you beat Philadelphia." If Jerry is wrong, however, he won't have to wait long for salvation. Betting on the NFL exhibition season is only three weeks away.