Publicly, the NFL is among one of the staunchest opponents of legalized gambling. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and current commissioner Roger Goodell were instrumental in getting the anti gaming ‘Illegal Internet Gambling Prohibition Act’ attached to the Port Security Bill. The NFL has taken this stance despite the fact that its enormous popularity is, in no small part, due to the prevalence of betting on games.
The hypocrisy of the NFL in regards to betting is almost laughable. The facts, as you will see, clearly show that the league was founded by gamblers for gamblers. From the NFL’s first television appearance in 1939 through the current TV deal that pumps more than three billion dollars per year into the league coffers, the NFL’s popularity rests upon the shoulders of those who wager on the outcome of the games.
Here in the 21st century, the NFL is the most popular and profitable sport in the. NFL owners are among the richest men in the world; franchises are bought and sold for more than half a billion dollars. However, the league’s humble origins were anything but the extravagant bonanza that is the NFL today.
The NFL was founded in 1922 by changing its name from the ‘American Professional Football Association’, a short lived league that lasted only two years. The NFL was a Midwest oriented league, with teams in Akron, Canton, Dayton, Rochester, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and other smaller Midwest cities. Every year throughout the 1920’s – often in mid-season – franchises folded, and new clubs were added to the mix.
In 1925, Tim Mara founded the New York Giants, the first east coast team, for the paltry fee of $500, having never actually witnessed an NFL game himself. Mara’s ownership of an NFL franchise was a secondary profession for him. He was first and foremost a well connected trackside bookie, taking bets on horse racing from a coveted spot inside the clubhouse.
Mara’s bookmaking prowess was well publicized in the New York newspapers, and he earned a small fortune during the roaring twenties, setting odds and taking large wagers from upper class bettors. But he saw the writing on the wall for trackside bookies, as police crackdowns and paramutual betting threatened the industry. His attempt to diversify his holdings was, and is, a common and sensible Wall Street strategy. Mara’s first major attempt at diversification hit the jackpot, and his descendents still own the franchise today.
The league’s finances were still on shaky grounds when the depression hit. The NFL’s fee to form a franchise was only $2500 when Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Pirates, who later were re-named the Steelers. Where did Rooney get the money? From gambling, of course.
Rooney was an avid horse player, the most popular form of sports betting in the pre-pointspread era. His success at the track was legendary. In a single day at the famed Saratoga Racetrack, Rooney beat the bookies for $124,000, picking six winners on a seven race card. Back in Pittsburgh, Rooney was a bookie, running a ‘wire room’ that took bets from horse players from all over Western Pennsylvania. He parlayed that success into NFL ownership, and his descendents still own the Steelers today.
Charles Bidwell was a racetrack owner in Chicago in the 1920s. He had very close ties with Al Capone and the Chicago mafia, and was an avid bettor himself. Bidwell bought the Chicago Cardinals in 1932 for $2,000. His son still owns the franchise, currently located in Arizona. Early Detroit Lions owner George Richards was also strongly linked to both the mafia and gambling interests.
Even the commissioner of the league, Bert Bell, a former co-owner of the Steelers with Art Rooney, had significant gambling interests. Bell’s father was a prominent man in society, the attorney general of Pennsylvania. That connection certainly helped keep the heat off his own gambling interests and operations during his stint as a player and coach in the 1930s, continuing through his ascension to NFL commissioner in 1946.
The All-American Football League was founded in 1946 as a rival to the NFL. The new league’s most successful franchise was the Cleveland Browns. The Browns won all four league titles before their three most successful franchises were absorbed by the NFL in 1950. Cleveland’s first owner, Mickey McBride, was another known horse betting wire-room operator and gambler.
These early owners all had one thing in common – a strong connection to the horse racing industry. The horse racing industry skyrocketed in popularity for one reason, and one reason only—gambling. But there was one leak in the horse racing industry. The so called ‘blue laws’ prohibited race tracks (and many other businesses) from operating on Sunday.
When the NFL was founded in the early 1920s, games were scheduled haphazardly throughout the weekend, often competing with the racetracks on Friday and Saturday evenings. The owners soon realized that their core audience of bettors needed something to do after church on Sunday. Since NFL games on Sunday weren’t strictly prohibited by the blue laws, the league’s founders latched onto the idea of Sunday afternoon football games. By the 1930’s, largely due to Mara’s influence, NFL games kicked off at 1 PM on Sundays without competition from the racetrack. And that is why pro football is played on Sundays – for the gamblers, plain and simple.
As the league was growing in popularity, a new form of betting was sweeping the nation. The origins of the pointspread remain unclear, but the concept was refined and popularized by Charles McNeil, a securities analyst in Chicago.
American bookmakers had been wrestling with the problem of how to generate equal amounts of ‘action’ on games where one team was heavily favored over another. Bookies were exposed to major liability on games where bettors wagered on a winning underdog at attractive prices, and they were equally exposed when bettors wouldn’t touch the underdog at all, even if the payouts on the favorite were very low. Many bookies refused to take action on lopsided games, even though bettors wanted to wager on those contests. With the advent of the pointspread, bookies were able to attract bets on both sides of the vast majority of games. This led to numerous scandals in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, with college basketball point shaving at the forefront of the problem. Big gamblers offered huge dollars to poor kids who often succumbed to the lure of easy money.
But pro football was not immune from scandal. The 1946 NFL Championship Game was marred by a betting scandal. Self described ‘big bettor’ Alvin Paris attempted to bribe the New York Giants running backs Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock for $2,500 each to throw the game. Ironically, the Bears beat the Giants 24-14 without the need of bettor’s treachery.
That certainly wasn’t the last time that bettors had influence on a championship game. The 1958 championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants has been called the ‘Greatest Game in NFL History’. The overtime thriller was nationally televised, and drew enormous ratings with forty million Americans tuning in, spurring the league’s incredible growth over the next decade.
Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom was a notoriously big bettor. It was widely rumored, but never proven, that Rosenbloom and his associates placed more than one million dollars worth of bets on the Colts to cover the spread. The early line had the Colts favored by 3.5, but with rampant rumors of Rosenbloom’s wagers, late bettors had to lay four or five points with Baltimore.
The game itself was legendary. The Colts and Giants went into overtime with the score tied at 17-17. Any serious football fan will tell you that most overtime games are decided by a field goal. Baltimore had one of the most accurate kickers in the league, Steve Myhra. Myhra had kicked a 20-yard field goal at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. And, after Johnny Unitas drove the Colts down the field in overtime, Myhra was in position to kick the game winner with Baltimore facing a first and goal from the Giants eight yard line.
Had Myhra kicked the chip shot field goal from that short distance, the Colts would have won the game by three points, and Rosenbloom would have lost his million dollar wager. Instead, Colts head coach Weeb Ewbank called for Alan Ameche to run the ball on first and second downs, before Ameche finally punched the ball into the end zone on third down to end the game. Ewbank’s unorthodox play calling resulted in his owner winning a very large wager.
When Pete Rozelle was named as the new commissioner in 1960 following Bert Bell’s death, he made a conscious decision to bury the league’s gambling past. The political climate in the country had changed, with new attorney general Bobby Kennedy actively pursuing the mafia and other gambling interests. Owners, administrators and players were told, in no uncertain terms, that gambling or association with gamblers in any form would not be tolerated.
Rozelle went so far as to suspend the one of the NFL’s biggest stars, Packers running back Paul Hornung along with the Lions Alex Karras for placing bets and associating with known gamblers. At the time, the NFL was under investigation from the US Senate. The chairman of the Senate investigating subcommittee commended the league “for taking effective action to clean up conditions in professional football.” The league’s public marriage with bettors was over.
Behind the scenes, the NFL is acutely aware that their enormous growth and popularity are still heavily linked to gambling. League administrators know full well that the Super Bowl is the highest rated game of the year because as many as fifty million Americans have a wager on the outcome. The enormous popularity of the NFL Sunday Ticket plan, providing coverage of every game each weekend, is another testament to the league’s reliance on bettors. And, as any bookie in the country can tell you, Monday Night Football ratings are spurred largely because it’s the last chance for bettors to break even before they have to settle up with their bookie on Tuesday. So, while the NFL’s public stance is anti-gaming, they are quite dependant on the preponderance of gamblers, just as they have been since the league’s inception.
My thanks to Howard Schwartz from the Gambler’s Book Club here in Las Vegas for his help with the research for this article.
Article originally published January of 2009