WRITING - The Vegas Guy

Have you noticed this new commercial where college jocks say "If you bet on me, you're a fool!" "Fool!" "Fool!" They all use the word "fool," and they wrap their lips around it like they're full of disgust for anybody who would place a wager on the outcome of a game they're playing in.

So last week I stop in at the Stardust sports book--probably the most famous of them all, mostly because they usually set the opening line on the Super Bowl--and I asked a few of the old geezers what they thought of the new commercial. I couldn't find any basketball bettors, but one of the horse racing guys says, "Well, if he doesn't want us to bet on him, he must be taking the short money himself."

The Stardust, always a low-roller haunt, was once famous for having the gaudiest and ugliest sign on the Strip--and certainly the one with the most lights--but today it's an affectionate symbol of the old Vegas. It's a strange message that the NCAA is putting out. After all, all a sports bettor wants is lots of information and a fair game. Are these guys saying it's not a fair game? That they cheat? Or that they're such lousy athletes that the outcome is not very predictable when they're playing? I mean, they could have chosen a different message, a message to the effect of, "Please don't bet on college sports, it makes us nervous," but instead they went with this campaign to somehow imply that the betting public doesn't really know what's going on. It actually makes em sound like they're fixing the games. "If you bet on us, we're gonna mess you up. Fool!"

Anyhow, this campaign to get rid of betting on college sports has been gaining momentum for about a year now, almost like a religious crusade, and it doesn't make sense because there's only one state in the the country where you can bet on college sports, and that's Nevada.

"And Nevada is an easy target," says Frank Fahrenkopf, chief lobbyist for the American Gaming Association. I called up Fahrenkopf at his Washington office because he's on the front lines of this issue. He's the same Frank Fahrenkopf who headed the Republican National Committee under Reagan, but he started his career as a gaming lawyer in Reno. He got the bill killed in the last session, but it's coming up again this year, and he's got famous coaches like Joe Paterno, Dean Smith and Lou Holtz actually phoning their Congressmen to get it passed. "Even the Congressmen who agree with me," says Fahrenkopf, "say, 'How can I vote against the football coach? He's the most popular guy in the state.'"

The Stardust sports book is run by Joe Lupo, who is normally tight-lipped about just about everything, but I cornered him and asked him why this is going on. "I don't know," he said, " these things tend to come in cycles. But it's very important because the Super Bowl is not even our biggest week anymore. The NCAA basketball tournament has the biggest handle, especially that first weekend when there are 64 teams. The first two days are an absolute madhouse around here."

Still, the numbers don't add up. The anti-gambling people cite law enforcement statistics saying that $380 billion a year is bet on sports. But we happen to know exactly how much of that $380 billion is spent on sports in Nevada, the only legal place, because casinos are required to report it. And that number is $2.3 billion. And of that $2.3 billion, about a third is bet on college sports, or around $750 million. So the amount of legal betting on college sports amounts to--wait a minute while I calculate this sucker--less than two-tenths of one per cent!

So who's really doing the betting? It's not the guys down at the Stardust. It's the people using the campus bookie, and that guy is probably hooked into other bookies in other states because he needs some place to lay off the hometown bets.

"For a while I got the NCAA to agree with me," says Fahrenkopf. "They admitted that Vegas is not the problem. But the head of the NCAA, Cedric Dempsey, came to see me and told me that he'd changed his mind and he was going to support a bill that would end betting on college sports. I asked him why? When he knows that the problem is not casino betting but the illegal betting--the other 99 per cent. And his answer was: We believe if we get rid of college betting in Nevada, the betting line will no longer be given. There will be no legal betting line. And so the newspapers won't print the line."

Two problems there, though. The most influential college betting line is not produced in Nevada but in Mobile, Alabama, by a guy named Danny Sheridan, who writes for USA Today. And even if that line didn't exist, there are 600 offshore Internet casinos that have a betting line. Getting the line is one mouse click away.

The bigger problem is that newspapers like the betting line. The NCAA went to the Newspaper Publishers Association and asked them whether, if Nevada stopped accepting sports bets, they would drop the betting line. They said--as newspapers say to all attempts to tell them what to publish--not only no, but hell no, they would continue to publish the point spreads.

"Apparently it was a matter of free speech to them," says Fahrenkopf.

How did this whole thing get started anyway, since there has been betting on college sports in Nevada since at least the early seventies?

"It all started," says Fahrenkopf, "a couple of years ago when the government released the results of a two-year federal study. A commission to study the impact of gambling had three members appointed by Clinton, three appointed by Newt Gingrich, and three appointed by Trent Lott. Members of the panel included Terry Lanni, head of MGM/Mirage; Bill Bible, the former heard of the Nevada Gaming Control Board; and many anti-gaming people, including Dr. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family. So they worked two years and spent $4 million studying gambling, and the conclusions of the commission were basically favorable to casinos. However, one of their recommendations, which passed 5 to 3 with one abstention, was to do away with sports betting on NCAA sports. This got picked up by the anti-gaming movement and became a crusade."

But there was one other finding of the commission that's not discussed at all today. The commission found that the most damaging form of gambling in America is . . . lotteries.

I don't believe you'll be seeing any Congressional bills to eliminate state-supported lotteries anytime soon. But I thought I'd ask one of the geezers at the Stardust what he thought of that one.

Oh, that's right. I can't ask that. Lotteries are illegal in the state of Nevada. It's in the state Constitution. Nevada doesn't like sucker bets that take advantage of fools.


THE STARDUST  The Las Vegas Strip
Theme: Pink-neon- and-leopard-print Korean Tour Group Jubilee
Built: 1958
Known For: The wild years when Lefty Rosenthal, calling himself the "Director of Entertainment," ran the casino for the mob, as portrayed in the movie, "Casino."
Marketing niche: Serious sports gamblers, locals, Californians
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Medium
Dealers: A little jaded
Bosses: Heavy-lidded veterans
Tables: 74
Slots: 1,630
Rooms: 1,506
Surrounding area: In the heart of the unfashionable aging north Strip, between the Frontier and the Westward Ho.
Overall rating: 80
Joe Bob's bankroll: Another $55 down after taking the
Cowboys as a dog against the Titans: total to date: -$35