Campus Gambling Rings
By Marty Toohey
All it takes is a dollar and a dream. For years, those words were the slogan for the New York state lottery. Today, a dollar and a dream are all it really takes to start a sports gambling ring, according to FBI Special Agent Randy Sealby, whose FBI unit deals with numerous organized gambling cases each year.
His statements are backed up by a Sports Illustrated investigation of college sports gambling in the mid-1990s. The investigation that found it was "nearly impossible to visit a campus in search of organized gambling and not find either 1) sophisticated on-or-off campus bookmaking operations with a large student clientele or 2) legal casinos within a short distance of the schools, easily accessible to undergraduate students -- or both."
In talking with members of on-campus sports gambling rings of at least a dozen college campuses around the country, the magazine found that betting organizations usually start with someone who wagers on a game or multiple games and loses. The person then decides to start taking advantage of bettors instead of being taken advantage of. The person becomes a "bookie" or "bookkeeper," and usually starts by subscribing to a Las Vegas oddsmaking service and taking small bets with a few clientele, usually friends. The oddsmaking service provides the bookie with "lines" or "point spreads," which are predictions of how many more points a team will score than its opponent.
In many cases the gambling operation expands, because bookkeeping can be a nearly foolproof way to make money, and most bookies have two factors in their favor which virtually guarantee that they will make money.
First, if a bookie subscribes to an oddsmaking service (as most do), they receive updated information from professional handicappers with years of experience and the resources to analyze even the most minute details of a game. Although most newspapers include "lines" in the sports section which come from a Las Vegas oddsmaking company (a "bookmaker"), these lines are usually only accurate as of the night before or the time of publishing. Therefore, the newspaper's lines can quickly become outdated, especially in the case of injuries, which do not become public until shortly before game time.
The second factor which makes bookkeeping a profitable endeavor is the "vigorish," or 10 percent commission a bookie charges on losing bets. Even if a bettor manages to win 50 percent of his or her bets with a bookie, the bookie will still come out ahead because of the 10 percent extra from losing bets.
To break even, a bettor must win slightly more than 52 percent straight bets to overcome the vigorish. Given the amount of information at the fingertips of a smart bookie, this would probably require a very astute gambler. If the gambler chooses to engage in more elaborate bets, such as parlay cards, which are sheets listing an entire week's worth of games and require at least three picks, the odds get steadily worse for the gambler.
Sports Illustrated also found that the majority of college bettors are relatively inexperienced and often bet on teams they root for without much regard for the point spread.
Bookmaking on campus
Operating on college campuses can provide another benefit for bookkeepers. In most organized gambling operations, collection of debts requires significant time and energy, and often at least the threat of violence. For the campus bookie, this is not usually much of a consideration, Sealby said.
"There isn't a whole lot of violence," Sealby said. "There usually is not a problem with collecting (for bookies on college campuses), unlike what you find a lot of times with older gamblers who've been around. I think they're naive enough that they just pay."
Also, with the athletes involved in gambling, there is usually no need to use violence because if an athlete is found guilty of any form of gambling, he or she will almost certainly lose athletic eligibility or worse.
"To an athlete, that's essentially a death threat," Sealby said.
The most significant factor that seems to work against bookkeepers is the fact that their operations are, after all, illegal, and usually fairly easy to find for law enforcement agencies, Sealby said.
"They're not that hard to track down, quite frankly," Sealby said. "I think in most cases we just had someone go to a campus, pretend to be a student and ask around where to place a bet."
When trying to pin down a profile for a college sports bettor, Sports Illustrated found that there really is no "typical" bettor. The magazine did find, however, that college sports bettors do tend to have the following things in common: a strong interest in sports, which often comes from an athletic past cut short in college by a lack of talent; a community in which to share betting stories, such as fraternity houses; and resourcefulness.
The typical profile of a student athlete becoming involved in a betting ring is nearly as diverse. According to Sealby, star players are always at risk because of their visibility, but in some cases, the athletes were not stars on their teams, making their gambling easier to conceal.
Sealby said that often those athletes who did not receive as much playing time became disgruntled with their role on the team and were more likely to become involved in gambling activities.
Another example Sealby mentioned is the athlete who has either gotten injured or is otherwise no longer competing, and has "a lot more free time on his hands."
Northwestern's Brian Ballarini fits this profile. The starting quarterback for Northwestern's football team, Ballarini was injured during the season and started betting as means to stay involved with the game and make it exciting, Sealby said. Ballarini was soon running an entire campus bookkeeping operation.
"When Brian got hurt, he suddenly had a lot more free time and started hanging out at the fraternity houses," Sealby said. "Pretty soon, he was taking bets, and it wasn't long before he became the campus bookie.
"If a player has a lot of time on his hands to think about things like (gambling), that's how it starts, a lot of times," Sealby said.
A profile on a student bookkeeper at the University of Florida at Gainesville, done as part of the Sports Illustrated investigation, said that the bookkeeper made $42,000 in four years at the university. He got involved in high school when he bet $20 on a Washington, D.C., professional football team, giving 16 points to the Indianapolis Colts (meaning the Washington, D.C., team had to win by more than 16 points to "cover the spread"). The team did not cover the spread, and he then decided to be a bookkeeper rather than a bettor.
Although the bookkeeper above was not a member of the greek system at the University of Florida, the majority of on-campus bookkeeping operations are run through a sorority or fraternity, Sealby said.
"(Most on-campus bookkeeping operations are) pretty informal, really," Sealby said. "Typically, nowadays most fraternities or sororities have the bookmaker, and they get the word out around campus."
In 1994, police in Tempe, Ariz., broke up a sports gambling ring at Arizona State University. Fifteen of Arizona State's 22 fraternities appeared in betting records seized by police, and 140 of the 245 betting accounts seized belonged to members of the school's fraternities.
At a Midwest university, Sealby recently spoke with a group of students that consisted of a member of each of the school's intercollegiate athletics programs, and a member of each sorority and fraternity on campus. Sealby asked the group if any of them had gambled in some way since entering college. Every member of the group raised his or her hand.
"Sports gambling rings rampant on college campuses", Oregon Daily Emerald, March 09, 2001
Compiled by: Todd Sermersheim, Intern for the Athletic Department
NCAA policy prohibits student-athlete's from participating in sports gambling. If you believe that you, a teammate, or a friend may be involved in sports gambling, please seek assistance. Do not put yourself, your team, or your school at risk.
Places for Assistance:
- Gamblers Anonymous:
- Write to: Gamblers Anonymous I.S.O., P.O. Box 17173, Los Angeles, CA 90017
Call: National Headquarters: (213) 386-8789
Indianapolis Hotline: (317) 382-4950
- IU Athletic Department, Compliance Office:
- Assembly Hall (Ian Rickerby, 856-6074)
- IU Health Center:
- Call: 855-4011
Counseling Services: 855-5711
- Arnie Wexler:
Mr. Wexler is a recovering compulsive gambler. He encourages calls from any students or athletes who believe that gambling is controlling their lives.