Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in January 2001 and was updated for the 2002 Super Bowl.
Feb. 1, 2002 — As most fans with a few dollars riding on the Super Bowl settle into their chairs to watch Sunday’s game, thousands of bettors will be logging onto the Internet for hours of nonstop gambling action in which money will change hands after virtually every play.
Blandly known as “in-progress betting” by the Web site operators who offer it, the intense wagering on ever-shifting odds lines and “proposition bets” gives gamblers the opportunity to win - or lose - literally hundreds of times in the course of a game.
Those who can quickly and correctly evaluate the changing odds, which are adjusted in response to events as they unfold on the playing field, can maximize their return if the game goes as they originally envisioned, or change course in midcontest and limit their losses if it doesn’t. Those who aren’t quite so accurate or fast on the draw can drop a bundle on a single game.
“You have to be a little sharper and a little quicker than the normal person, but the advantages are numerous: the way you can hedge your positions and lock in your profits,” said Steve Schillinger, co-owner of World Sports Exchange in Antigua and a pioneer of in-progress betting.
Old idea, new mechanism
The idea of continual betting on a sporting contest is not new, but the Internet is proving to be an ideal mechanism for those whose adrenal glands don’t respond to a single wager. And the Super Bowl — the biggest one-day sporting event for brick-and-mortar and online bookmakers alike — is the perfect venue, generating vast amounts of news coverage that can make even the casual fan feel like an expert.
Never mind that the U.S. government says it is illegal for the Web sites to take bets from Americans on any sporting event, let alone on the nation’s biggest game. One online operator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his sports book will probably handle $2 million on the game by the time the dust settles, $500,000 of that while the game is in progress. Most of that, he said, will be wagered by Americans.
Many of the hundred-plus online sports betting operations, or “books,” around the globe limit in-progress betting to propositions - wagers that hinge on a specific occurrence within a game rather than the outcome. For the Super Bowl, they range from the reasonable - Which team will score first? - to the bizarre - which of four songs will U2 play at the halftime show. “A Beautiful Day” is currently the favorite at 1-2 in this proposition offered by Intertops.com, leading “Desire,” “Pride — In the Name of Love” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Traffic spikes during commercials
But not all sites have sufficient bandwidth to pursue bettors who want nonstop action, because traffic often spikes sharply during commercial breaks.
“You can have thousands of people placing bets during a time out and if you don’t have the bandwidth, you’re going to have problems,” said Shawn Wells, a spokesman for Covers.com, a Web site devoted to online sports betting.
Michael März, bet manager at the Antigua-based Intertops.com, said the site took 424,000 wagers on last year’s Super Bowl, and hopes to improve on that figure this year despite new restrictions by many credit card companies that make it less convenient for U.S. bettors to open accounts. Most of the action will be on the 170 to 175 proposition wagers the site expects to post before game time.
Many of the propositions are replaced after being settled - who will score the first touchdown could be followed by who will score the next touchdown, for example. Players’ accounts are credited or debited within seconds, enabling them to wager on the updated proposition if they wish.
Online bookmakers also can change the point spread - which currently shows the St. Louis Rams as either a 14 point or 14 1/2 point favorite over the New England Patriots - as the game progresses.
“We’ll be putting up an updated wagering line and updated propositions at every commercial stoppage,” said Bob Sugar, managing director of Wagerstreet.com, a sports book operating from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory in Canada’s Quebec territory.
Trading 'sports futures'
World Sports Exchange’s Schillinger, a former stockbroker, takes a unique approach to in-progress betting. Taking a cue from his former profession, he offers “sports futures” that trade much like stocks, rising and falling depending on the on-field performance of an individual or team.
Schillinger watches the games on TV and adjusts the “market” after every play. World Sports Exchange makes money from the differential between the “bid ” and the “ask” price, assuming he can reasonably balance the number of wagers on both sides of the equation.
“What I’m hoping for is a good market where someone will buy 100 contracts at $30 and someone will sell 100 at $25, so I’ll lock in a profit of $500,” he said.
Players love the market-based approach, Schillinger said.
“They get into the game and feel like they’re a part of it,” he said. “They’re hooked. They play every single game.”
The U.S. government has taken a dim view of the enterprise. While sports betting is legal in Nevada, Oregon and, to a limited degree, Wyoming, the federal government maintains that it is illegal to accept wagers over the Internet from any U.S. citizen.
Schillinger and his business partners, Jay Cohen and Hayden Ware, have been indicted by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York for allegedly violating the federal Wire Act, a 1960s law aimed at pre-Internet bookmakers. Cohen is in the United States appealing his conviction, while Schillinger and Ware continue to run the Web site on the Caribbean island of Antigua.
Competition seen heating up
Nevertheless, other sites are starting to mimic the market-based approach, and many observers expect the competition for in-progress customers to increase.
“When you see more and more households having interactive TV, it’s going to be a natural extension and I think any online bookmaker would be foolish to ignore it,” said Simon Noble, executive director of Intertops.com.
But not everybody is sad to see such business heading elsewhere, noting that the in-progress players are some of the sharpest gamblers around.
“The only business they take away from us is the professional bettors, so it’s really not business that we miss,” said Bob Scucci, assistant sports book manager of the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas. “Those are the guys who usually beat us anyway.”
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