Meet Jack Price. He's here to bury your bookmaker. HE ONCE promised to blow his brains out if the football predictions he gave out to customers of his gambling-advice phone line were wrong. They were, but he and his brains are still with us. Meet Ron Bash, a.k.a. the Coach. He is here to pound your bookie. His ads say he took his team to the Final Four. Did he mention that the Final Four he took them to was in Division III? Meet Kevin Duffy. He once bragged in a New York Daily News ad, "I'm coming off a great weekend & as usual, all my customers crushed [their] bookmakers." Too bad the ad was delivered to the News's offices before any of the games were played.
In a world of cheats, cons, grifters, swindlers, carnival barkers and people you would not want to change your fifty, the brotherhood of so-called sports advisers is a gutter unto itself. Consider the service that told its clients that because of a late change in the weather, they should bet the Kansas City Chiefs that day. Only problem—as Phil Mushnick pointed out in his New York Post column—was that the Chiefs were playing in Seattle, indoors. Or consider Final Score Sports, a nationally advertised service that once picked the Cleveland Browns to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on a Monday night. Unfortunately, the game was the Denver Broncos at the Buffalo Bills. Then there was the guy whose ad listed his brilliant 10-year record for Monday Night Football. Oddly, he had been in business for only five.
This is an industry in which duplicity is the leading economic indicator. It is also a business in which profits can be enormous—some services are believed by at least one close observer of the industry to make as much as $1 million annually. Last year the people at the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs looked into the advertising practices of the sports-adviser business and came away with their hair on end. "These have been among the most egregious, outrageous claims we've ever encountered," says a department attorney, Fred Cantor.
The idea of sports advisers seems square enough. For a fee of about $300 a month, you call a guy who's really in the know about sports—particularly football—on his 800 number, and he tells you whom to bet on and how much to wager. Or you ring his 900 line, and for about $10 to $50 per call, he'll give you—most often in a recorded announcement—the one or two games that weekend on which he thinks you can make a score. The average gambler could use a leg up, right?
Not this kind. SI took a two-month test drive through the world of sports-advisory services and found misleading ads, bait-and-switches, repeated claims of fixes coming down, misrepresentation of records, unforgivably high-pressured sales techniques, phone harassment, phone threats, phony guarantees, mail fraud, wire fraud and some perfectly dreadful manners. Even the pictures lied. One man was shown in ads to be both Mountain Man Obie ("the legend who broke the bank at Tiajuana [sic]") and Mike Zimbo ("the most feared name in Vegas"). Two years ago the Lombardi Sports Wire, a handicapping service based in Oceanside, N.Y., sent out different letters to two groups of its customers. One group was urged to take Pitt over Notre Dame in a "blowout," and the other was urged to take Notre Dame over Pitt in a "blow out." Apparently Lombardi felt strongly both ways.
Splitting games 50-50 like that—known in the biz as "double-siding"—is the oldest trick in the handicapper's very thick book. That way he knows he has at least some happy customers coming back. The second-oldest trick is to have one of your services try to sign up customers who haven't been doing well with another of your services. Why not, when the same guy owns both?
Then there was the salesman trying to hawk the Professor's Picks who told us, "We'll have a Play of the Year for you every three or four weeks." Oops!
These touts, who are largely unregulated, try to come off as near clairvoyants who routinely hit 75% to 90% of the games on their lists. But the honest handicappers who allow themselves to be monitored independently are lucky to break 52.38%, which, with a bookie's 10% commission on losses, is the break-even point for the gamblers. The touts call themselves Bobby Cash, Edmund Slick, the Swami, Dr. Bob, Action Man, Bill (Get) Wells and Bob Winsmore. Very few names, as you may have gathered, are real. The services claim to have the latest in computer and satellite technology, as well as inside info from a sprawling network of scouts, trainers (Jeff Allen Sports claimed to have "200 trainers on our payroll"), reporters, traveling secretaries, coaches and even athletes. In reality, what they usually have are six salesmen in a 10 x 12 office working banks of phones while the boss sits with the Gold Sheet on his lap, a hole in his shoe and a wild guess on his mind. Most advisers have no computer, no satellite, no sources and no more of a clue about whom to pick in tonight's game than your uncle Wolfgang.
"I remember once a guy needed a bailout game real bad," says a former salesman for a major tout operating out of New York City. "He was buried, so he wanted to put two or three dimes [$2,000 or $3,000] down on something good. I said I had a lock for him. I put him on hold, and I went into my boss's office and I said, 'Who do you want to pick, the Jets or Minnesota?' And he said, 'Take Minnesota. My mom likes purple.' So I gave this poor sucker Minnesota based on some lady's favorite color. He lost."
Ripoffs Rule the Roost, Exhibit A: the Professor's seven-days-a-week 900 Econ-O-Phone. For only $2 for the first minute and $1 for every minute after that, the Professor (Ed Horowitz, a 49-year-old former cocaine addict who claims he taught a course in taxation one year, part-time, at the New York City campus of Pace University) promises to give his "essential" selections. We tried it. For the first seven minutes, we heard a tape of the Professor—who babbled like, a man at a podium looking for his notes—plugging his other phone lines and dispersing bits of gambling theory that never quite went anywhere. Finally, he came to the pick we'd paid for.