Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

March 24, 2005

Gambling Man

A prominent sports columnist and his NCAA betting habits.

Carl Bialik

Like many Americans, Bill Simmons placed bets on the men's college-basketball tournament. Unlike most Americans, Simmons has a high-profile column on the leading sports website, ESPN.com.

For his column, "Sports Guy," Simmons last week wrote a running diary about watching the tournament on TV. Typical of Simmons's work, TV criticism, quotes of his buddies, and celebrity references complemented—or, depending on your taste, overwhelmed—the sports commentary. Also typical of Simmons, there were lots of references to his sports wagers.

Some samples:

I parlayed the money lines for Gonzaga (-900) and Louisville (-1200) with the money lines for Alabama, Cincy, LSU, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, plus Charlotte (+4), Creighton (+2) and New Mexico (+5.5) tomorrow. Also, I have a parlay with Wisconsin and the under, as well as the "points + rebounds over" for both Brandon Bass and Dijon Thompson, as well as Kevin Harlan (-3) over Gus Johnson for "most screams." (That last bet was a joke about the TV commentators.)

Good news: I'm losing more bets. Creighton and LSU are down by a combined 17 points. Also, Kobe hasn't scored in about an hour. Instead of gambling on March Madness every year, I should just make a $1,000 donation to charity. At least do something nice with my money over making money for some Caribbean internet gambling warlord. 11:31 - The bad news: LSU is down by 26. The good news? Um ... there is no good news. I'm getting murdered today.

Today's big wagers: the adjusted Kansas-Bucknell line (Kansas at -8.5, -250 odds); the New Mexico, Wisconsin and Charlotte money lines; the Louisville/UL-L over; a Wisconsin-money-and-the-under parlay; the overs for Hakim Warrick's points/rebounds and Francisco Garcia's points/assists; and the utterly-completely-and-improbably rejuvenated Celtics +6 in Houston. Upon further review, I didn't get killed yesterday like I thought -- not when Dijon Thompson's over for points/rebounds came through.

I'm no sports-betting absolutist. Plenty of sportswriters enter tournament office pools, with no harm done. And some may even bet on games they cover, which would be a lot worse than Simmons's couch-bound gambling. (In fact, Simmons did something similar around the NBA All-Star Game, using a comment Shaquille O'Neal made to him before the game to decide how to wager—though the comment was pretty innocuous.) If a sportswriter is going to bet on the games, I'd rather know about it than not.

But I wondered why ESPN was publishing its columnist's gambling chronicles when they could endanger the network's close partnership with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees college sports. The NCAA has long claimed to hate college-sports betting, even as gambling is booming, by most reports, and boosting interest in college-sports events. It spends $600,000 annually to fight gambling, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and is running anti-gambling commercials ("Don't bet on it") during the tournament.

Gelf asked the NCAA what it thought of Simmons's columns, and a spokeswoman responded by email, "Though ESPN is one of our rightsholders (television rights to 21 championships), we don't, contractually or otherwise, have the authority to control or dictate their editorial content. Even if we have differing opinions with ESPN's editorial content, we do not have the ability to censor that content, especially if it falls outside the 21 championship rights. The NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship is not one of those 21 championships. (CBS is the rightsholder for the men's basketball championships.)"

I'm glad to hear the NCAA says it isn't censoring its partners' content, though the "especially" is a bit disquieting. As for my contention that the NCAA benefits from gambling, the spokeswoman pointed to recent polls showing that fewer than 10% of TV tournament viewers listed pools or bets as very important motivating factors to watch the games. But if I were a hard-core gambler, I wouldn't talk about my habit to a pollster.

As for Simmons, we probably won't be learning as much about his college-hoops wagers for the rest of the tourney. "What Simmons wrote about betting in this level of detail and in regard to college sports was the rare exception and not the rule," a spokesman told Gelf. "On balance, we felt it was inappropriate."

UPDATE, 3/25: Though its noteworthy because of ESPN's NCAA ties and his prominence, Simmons's gambling habit isn't unique among sportswriters. Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Jim Moore spent last night among colorful characters in Las Vegas casino Mandalay Bay and filed a report about the scene. He also took part in the betting and ended up on in the red after Louisville upset Washington, "which serves me right for violating an edict that states: 'Thou shalt never bet on the Huskies if thou's a Coug.' " Perhaps the edict should be: "Thou shalt never bet on the Huskies if thou's a sports columnist for their local paper."

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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