Chad Millman is ESPN’s resident gambling expert. ESPN has always dipped a toe into gambling – Hank Goldberg has been picking a few NFL games on the Sunday morning Sportscenter forever, Chris Berman picks games, and a couple years ago, Streak for Cash hit ESPN.com. But Millman’s actually providing analysis, something we hadn’t noticed before on the site. The bonus of it all: He visits Vegas. Frequently. He’s also written a few books, including Invincible and the recently-released The Ones Who Hit Hardest. Q&A after the jump.
Q: Let’s start with your background – how does one get started on the path toward writing about gambling for a living? Was your dad a bookie? Did that 90210 episode where Brandon got in over his head with Duke resonate?
A: Brandon did have a huge influence on my life. But mostly it was his commitment to the Beverly Blaze that turned me onto journalism. So I have to credit him … and Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist who spent many years as a senior writer at SI. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, not too far from where he lived. And I met him playing hoops at a local gym a few times. He took on great stories and wrote—and still writes them—incredibly well. I pestered Rick into letting me spend a summer working with him on one of his books while I was in college and decided I wanted to do what he did.
I got lucky after college because SI needed people and hired me to fact check Peter King’s column. I did that and some writing at SI and some producing for the defunct CNNSI for a spell and then when ESPN The Mag started in 1998 I moved there as an editor—which is where I will finally answer your question. I wasn’t a bettor growing up. The gambling stuff came from a story I did for The Mag in 1999 about who sets the lines for the NCAA tournament. Back then off shore and Internet books didn’t have the same impact they do today. The line was set by Joe Lupo and Bob Scucci at the old Stardust Hotel and billions of dollars in wagers followed. When I was done with the story I was pretty jazzed because the language was cool—sharps, squares, wise guys, the public all that Vegas crap. I told Lupo I thought it would be a cool book to track him and some wise guys during a hoops season to see the competition and how lines move. It was an insular world that impacted the larger sportsworld in a massive way—financially and otherwise. He said sure, introduced me to Alan Boston and I wrote The Odds. Ever since then I’ve kept up with the industry and the guys in it since it is evolving so rapidly and is still a huge part of how we all watch sports.
Q: It seems like ESPN is slowly coming around to the gambling talk. Streak for Cash popped up a couple years ago and more importantly, your analysis columns have become a must-read (for us, anyway). Was a gambling column where you essentially travel to Vegas a lot and talk to “wiseguys” who go by Sal or Johnny a hard-sell to the suits at ESPN?. How’d you talk ESPN into this column?
A: It was easy. Even easier was getting them to stake me so I could experiment with a lot of the theories. Kidding. It was hard—and is still hard. I first wrote a column about line moves in November of 2008. I saw the Eagles were favored by four over the Giants, at a time when the Giants were playing great and the Eagles were struggling. I called Bob Scucci, who now runs the sports books for Boyd Gaming, and asked what was up. He explained the logic behind the line—public perception, homefield advantage for Philly‑and I thought it would be a good column. I wrote it for the espnthemag.com, which is now Insider. The first reaction from some editors was, okay, this is good, but we don’t know if we want to promote that we’re running a gambling column. I’m an editor at The Mag in my day job so if, at the time, I never did another column it would have been fine. But it was fun, and I did want to do another one. So I sent an email to one of the execs who has influence on all of ESPN’s content and was skeptical about the idea that read, “We have a lot of people making picks at ESPN. I just want to cover the industry neutrally like we do any other sport. I’d examine why lines are what they are, why they move, who moves them, what the future of the industry is, etc. Because it’s something a lot of our readers and watchers pay attention to.”
His response was, “Great, try it. I’ll help you push it.” ESPN is big and there’s a lot going on and people are busy. But everyone is open to listening to—and being convinced to try—new ideas. After that the column went weekly, and that led to some E60 pieces and breaking news about Delaware legalizing sports betting and New Jersey suing to get it and a bunch of mag features and columns. Then it went daily with the blog last football season. And this year we added the podcast. The goal at ESPN is to always be a part of the conversation, and it’s hard to ignore gambling’s influence when you are discussing sports. The trips to Vegas are a bonus.
Q: You wrote Invincible with former Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale. It was made into a movie. What was that experience like? How do you think Mark Wahlberg did in the lead role?
I had nothing to do with the movie except meeting the producers once and working with Vince. He was outstanding, still a lot like the guy who couldn’t believe something as great as making the Eagles, or having his life made into a movie, could happen to him. His is a true life Rocky story. I remember seeing the movie the first time a few weeks before it came out and loving it and calling Vince afterward and telling him I thought his life was about to get interesting. Wahlberg was really good. He’s always believable to me as the put upon underdog. One of my favorite movie scenes is early in Three Kings—which is one of my favorite movies—when he is begging an Iraqi he’s searching to not make the search difficult. Even then Wahlberg seemed sympathetic. Plus I thought the slo-mo action scenes in Invincible were great.
Q: Is there a simple way to explain the ‘contrarian’ gambling rules? A few people have explained it to us as, basically, whatever team the public (ie, Joe 6-pack) likes, you should wager on the other team, regardless of what you know about the sport. Is there a place gamblers can go to easily find out who the public loves? For instance, two weeks ago, your “Wiseguys” pointed to the Clemson game against North Texas as one to watch. The spread was 28. We couldn’t name one player on North Texas, its coach, its mascot, or location. Clemson was at home, and all signs pointed to an easy Tigers cover. We went with North Texas, which only lost by 25. That kind of strategy can’t possibly work every week, can it?
A: You’ve basically got it: Fade whoever the public likes. A buddy of mine just told me that he is going to bet against squares—and play unders—all season regardless of what he thinks of the teams. That’s how convinced he is we are all idiots. But it’s a dangerous plan. Of the 12 games played in Week 1 on Sunday afternoon, favorites covered eight of them. Wise guys joke about playing against the public, but they don’t automatically bet against it. They do their ratings by examining dozens stats and trends and then look for value in the opening numbers. When they see the biggest difference between their numbers and the books’, they buy. They mostly consider the public when determining how the line is going to move. Wise guys make their bets early in the week and then watch line moves to see where they might find more opportunities later on. But squares tend to wait until Saturday and Sunday to buy NFL games, which is idiotic. I’ve written this before, but it’s like buying Google at its highest price. Wise guys get the best of the line, that’s how they make money. But the rest of us schmucks with jobs don’t think to bet early, so we get stuck paying full freight. And there are some teams the public tends to buy no matter what: the Steelers, Cowboys, Packers, Pats and Colts. Wise guys know this, so they’ll keep an eye on those lines to see what kind of value they can get before kickoff. I talk to a lot of people during the week to get a sense of trends—wise guys, bookmakers, linemaking consultants, other information guys I respect. I also scan websites like pregame.com, which has some phenomenal tools, and vegasinsider. I check covers, too, because it’s got so many users. By the way, in that North Texas game, the wise guys won. They started betting on Clemson when it opened minus-19 offshore. They just kept hitting it so much the line kept moving. Then the public piled on, which is how it got so high. But by the time a lot of squares bet they were playing the 26, 27 or 28 and ended up losers.
Q: The media seems enamored with a few NFL teams this season – Baltimore, Green Bay, and Indianapolis immediately come to mind. How, if it all, does that impact the lines for certain games? Do any of those teams to you scream ‘fade’ this season?
A: Umm, you forgot one of your favorites, the Jets. No one is getting more hype than them and it’s showed in how their season-win total skyrocketed during the summer. Wise guys pounded that again and again. But, yeah, coverage impacts the lines because everything that can sway public perception impacts the lines. If wise guys often wait to see how the public reacts to spreads so they can find value, then a huge part of a bookmaker’s formula for making the opening line is guessing what the public will be thinking six days later. They are in our heads from the moment they post numbers. In some situations teams that are public—Packers, Colts like you mentioned above—may get a half point or sometimes a point because bookmakers know that’s the side the money is going to come in on. So they want to make bettors pay a price for the privilege of betting them. Green Bay definitely does not scream fade to me. Too early for me to say on the Colts, despite the Texans loss, or the Ravens.
Q: Your latest book highlights the Steelers and the Cowboys and football in the 70’s. Assuming the 49ers were the team of the decade in the 1980s, the Cowboys held that title in the 1990s, and the Patriots had honor in the 00s, care to venture a guess at which team or teams could dominate the 10s? One of the major keys, obviously, is a good young QB. Do you think any of the bring young QBs – Rodgers, Stafford, Sanchez – or even a kid in college – Locker, Luck Barkley – would be a safe bet?
A: What’s funny about the Steelers is that Bradshaw was not the main reason that team won its first two Super Bowls. He was the best quarterback on the Steelers roster, but it wasn’t until midway through the 1974 season—when Pittsburgh won its first title—that he won the job outright. Those first two title teams were the product of Joe Greene, Franco Harris and Chuck Noll. As for today it’s hard not to love Rodgers or think the Packers have the look of a team that could develop. But Drew Brees is only 31. If he wins another Super Bowl, or two, in the next five years, you’d have to consider the Saints. And what about Vince Young? I know he only beat up the Raiders, but go back to last season and he’s put together a run that has to make you think he’s figured out how to play in the NFL. At the college level, I love Luck. He already looks like he’s a pro player.
Q: How close are we to seeing sports gambling becoming legal in this country?
A: I think 10 years, tops. Delaware added NFL parlays last year. New Jersey has sued the department of justice to overturn the federal sports ban that was enacted in 1993. Back then the DOJ actually argued against Congress enacting the law because it was deemed a violation of state’s rights. Another piece of evidence is that the stigma surrounding gambling in general is fading away. In the past generation the number of states that have some kind of gambling—riverboats casinos, slots at racetracks, land-based casinos or casinos on Indian reservations—has increased from just a handful to more than 40. College students today do not know of a time when making a bet wasn’t widely accepted socially as a leisure activity. That attitude is partially why Internet sports betting sites thrive. People don’t see it as a dirty business anymore-for better or worse. It’s become sanitized. I can’t tell you how many people ask me if it’s illegal (it is). And states are so broke they’re asking why sports is the only form of betting they can’t capitalize on. The California state legislature recently introduced a resolution asking Congress to legalize sports betting, joining three other states that have done that as well in the past 12 months. Even David Stern can see the tide turning. Last year Ian Thomsen from SI did a great interview with the NBA commish asking him about his views on the subject. Stern said, “That leap is a possibility.” I agree.