On Track Betting
Competitively, the U.S. remains the most powerful track and field nation in the world. Yet when it comes to the interest of the American public, the sport is limping like a sprinter with two torn hamstrings. Attendance at meets is down, long-standing events have been canceled, and media coverage is dwindling. In an effort to turn things around, USA Track & Field (USATF), the sport's national governing body, secured sponsorship from Mobil, Nike and Visa for a series of five indoor meets to be held on consecutive weekends this winter and televised by NBC. Having thus taken a stride toward increasing the sport's exposure, USATF promptly long-jumped into the absurd, announcing just before the second event in the series, last Friday's Reno Air Games, that it had persuaded the Eldorado Race and Sports Book in Reno to take action on the meet.
"We had to introduce new elements to make track more entertaining to the casual fan," said meet director John Mansoor. After consulting with sports-gambling experts in Las Vegas, the folks at the Eldorado set a line on eight of the meet's 16 events. "To protect the meet's integrity," said Mansoor, the USATF required all athletes to sign a statement saying they would not place any bets, even on themselves.
Despite all the hoopla, gambling on the meet was light, though spectators got a couple of payoffs nonetheless. Michael Johnson, a 1-to-5 favorite, set a world indoor record of 44.97 seconds in the 400 meters, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who went off at even money, ran 6.67 to break the U.S. indoor mark for the 50-meter hurdles. Those are the sorts of numbers American track should be betting on.
How bad are things going for the Philadelphia 76ers this season? Well, as of Monday the Sixers had lost 18 of their last 22 games—scoring an average of just under 97 points during that stretch—and appeared headed for their worst offensive season since 1955-56. Given such anemic numbers, perhaps it's fitting that after a recent Philly loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the headline in The New York Times read HAWKS 107, 75ERS 92.
Far be it from us to second-guess Bora Milutinovic, the coach who last summer guided the U.S. out of the first round of the World Cup. Even farther be it from us to suggest that anyone could have tended goal for the U.S. team better than Tony Meola, whose sangfroid was essential to the team's advancing. But it's curious how the careers of Meola and Brad Friedel, his understudy, have stalled—while those of two goalkeepers that Milutinovic overlooked, Kasey Keller and Juergen Sommer, have prospered.
Friedel signed with Newcastle United of England's Premier League but was denied a work permit in the U.K. and is now back home in Ohio, waiting for his agent to sort things out. Meola spent much of his first post-Cup winter with the Buffalo Blizzard of the indoor National Professional Soccer League—which is like going from Carnegie Hall to a grade-school recital—and had mixed success in 11 games. He has since signed to play this summer with the Long Island Rough Riders of the outdoor, but no less small-time, United States Independent Soccer League. Earlier this month he left the Blizzard to begin a five-week run in the off-Broadway show Tony N' Tina's Wedding, where, in a stretch, he's playing Tony, a role pioneered by another Italian-American has-been athlete, Lee Mazzilli.
Meanwhile, even as Keller and Sommer remain two names that fans in the U.S. have probably never heard of, each is an established player in England's First Division. Keller recently had three straight clean sheets, or shutouts, for Millwall, which is now in the round of 16 of the FA Cup, the English equivalent of the NFL playoffs. As for Sommer, he led Luton Town into last season's FA Cup semis. Given their success, one has to wonder if Meola shouldn't be climbing onto a different stage.