Some of you may have seen my Tweet on this topic last week, but for those who may have missed it, here is an excellent article from Deadspin's Ryan Goldberg about the rather shady business of touts and selling of sports picks in the USA.
The main protagonist of the story is R J Bell of Pregame.com, someone I followed for a while on Twitter and whose website is still in my favourites, even if it's now years since I last visited it (until today, which was solely for research purposes). I realised long ago that while some of the content is mildly interesting, as a source of long-term winners, it is unsurprisingly not.
It's quite a long read, but if you are under any illusions that the key to your fortune lies in sending your money to these people, it'll be worth your time. The conclusion is encouraging in some ways (that sports wagering will soon be legal throughout the USA) but discouraging in that many new and inexperienced players...
...will go looking for advice, and wherever they turn, they will find men like RJ Bell eager to help.
“In a world of cheats, cons, grifters, swindlers, carnival barkers and people you would not want to change your fifty, the brotherhood of so-called sports advisers is a gutter unto itself.”
Far from being “elite experts,” as Bell has described them, most of his current and former touts have records well short of the break-even point.
“The odds are you don’t win,” the person identified as Bell says on the tapes. “I think we know that.”
If Pregame’s experts followed their own betting advice, as Bell claims they do, most would be penniless.
His touts, he claims, win 55 percent of the time. To casual bettors that may seem unexceptional, but to anyone who understands the math of sports betting—which is decidedly not Bell’s audience—this is implausible. Such a strike rate would be a license to print money.
Instead he chooses a just-this-side-of-possible boast, and rides the coattails of sports’ wider analytical boom by spouting trends and statistics about certain teams’ abilities to “cover the spread.”
Like most touts, Coach sold picks in a few places. If you weren’t turned off by his Pregame flameout, until recently you could still purchase his knowledge at his Gamblers Data Investment Group, which recently claimed 465 winning weeks and only 177 losing weeks since its start—a truly unbelievable record that somehow left him able to only afford a website that looks like a middle schooler’s Geocities page. (According to the website and an obituary in the Times West Virginian, Shimer died in February, although the service is still selling picks.)
So what makes for a successful pick-seller, if it doesn’t involve making winning picks? The answer is just that: selling.
Nobody would confuse this operation with Vanguard, or JR O’Donnell with a fund manager. Bell, though, has argued that Pregame’s “promotion approach is no different than the typical mutual fund.”
Not much has changed since then, except now the hundreds of touts out there have a wider audience for their questionable logic. In a low-budget 2013 documentary on sports betting called Life on the Line, a group of sad-looking touts known as the Tuesday Group meet to discuss their ideas before the 2011 Super Bowl. The film calls them some of the world’s sharpest professional sports bettors.
“You guys would rather a sober recitation of the facts. Fine, but that’s not what the news readers want.”Here's the Deadspin article in full, although the original contains a few more links and may be better formatted.
How America’s Favorite Sports Betting Expert Turned A Sucker’s Game Into An Industry
Various titles, some generous and others outright false—betting expert, professional handicapper, Vegas oddsmaker—are used to identify Bell when he is interviewed, but his role as head of Pregame.com is always included and rarely explained. Pregame, which Bell started in 2005, sells sports-betting picks. Bell does not sell his own selections any more–they never did very well–but instead oversees a revolving cast of two dozen men who do. Bell says they are winning pro bettors, and by paying for their advice, the implication is that you will win, too. After all, they do this for a living.
In the industry if not in the media, Bell’s army of handicappers are known, usually derisively, as touts, and Bell is chief tout of the most visible and quite possibly the most profitable pick-selling operation.
But unlike his forerunners—notable loudmouths from the ‘80s and ‘90s like Jack Price and Stu Feiner who came across like professional wrestlers—Bell is not braying on TV infomercials, promising to bury your bookmaker. He doesn’t have to. Mainstream media now brings the heads of these services on air and passes them off as analysts, affording people like Bell streams of new customers and free advertising a salesman could scarcely imagine.
Scribes and sportscasters alike present Bell as the oracle of Las Vegas. You can hear him on Stephen A. Smith’s Sirius show, KROQ in Los Angeles, ESPN radio in Las Vegas, Yahoo’s national networks, NBC Sports Radio, and Colin Cowherd’s nationally syndicated Fox Sports 1 show; see him in primetime on SportsCenter, CBS, ABC, CNBC, CNN, or at South by Southwest; and find him quoted regularly in the New York Times, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and any local rag or blog that calls him. A few years ago, he wrote a regular betting column for Grantland. On Twitter, his followers number more than 117,000. Following him, he says, is like having “a seat in the sportsbook.”
Bell, 45, a native of Shadyside, Ohio, labors to separate Pregame, which the New York Times Magazine claimed in 2012 was worth $5 million, from its industry’s crooked history—which Rick Reilly summed up in a 1991 Sports Illustrated feature on touts. “In a world of cheats, cons, grifters, swindlers, carnival barkers and people you would not want to change your fifty, the brotherhood of so-called sports advisers is a gutter unto itself.”
The perception, at least, has changed. In May 2015, Bell wrote, magnanimously, “I feel strongly that Pregame.com is contributing significantly to the acceptance of sports betting...Pregame.com is different–and it’s plain wrong to lump [us] in with the scammers of the industry’s past.”
I’ve spent my life around gamblers. From a young age I watched haggard men peddle worthless tip sheets at the racetrack. If a handicapper truly had an edge, I quickly learned, he would guard it. He would have everything to lose—quite literally—by advertising it. This axiom seems to escape journalists increasingly wading into covering sports betting, to say nothing of the desperate customers paying for picks.
I spent a year investigating the tout industry and discovered the same old racket, wrapped in sophisticated-looking, digital-era packaging. I found gross misrepresentation of records, even amid insistent claims of transparency; a host of old-school tricks like using out-of-date or non-existent betting lines; and misleading or deceptive marketing.
Nobody is shrewder than Bell at hiding the simple truth that would put him out of business: Far from being “elite experts,” as Bell has described them, most of his current and former touts have records well short of the break-even point.
In private, Bell seems to tell a different story. Audio recordings that surfaced last year appear to capture Bell telling a business partner that his touts’ picks aren’t successful enough to make them profitable for customers. “The odds are you don’t win,” the person identified as Bell says on the tapes. “I think we know that.”
But the lies about winning picks, I came to realize, are merely the short con in advance of the long game: hush-hush arrangements with sportsbooks in which pick-sellers earn a significant cut of the losses of their referred clients.
Today’s touts get you on both ends. They sell you “winners,” and then collect when you lose. It’s a sucker’s game, same as it ever was.
If you came across RJ Bell on ESPN or glanced at the cover of The New York Times Magazine a few years ago, you would find no reason to question his credibility. Go to Pregame, and you only find winning records. But running a tout service is an ongoing sleight of hand, beginning with those records.
“There are groups making real money and moving lines,” said David Frohardt-Lane, an algorithmic trader and respected bettor who traded his MLB models for greater profits in the stock market. “And then there is a completely pretend world happening, in which these touts apparently are powerful and influential and successful. The real world is getting ignored.”
Records are everything in sports betting, where the margins between winning and losing are so thin. To beat the normal vigorish, or vig, which is the bookmaker’s cut of any wager, bettors have to win at least 52.38 percent of the time. And touts, because of the fees they charge for picks, have to be even more successful than that to make their clients money in the long run. Bell demands that Pregame customers trust him on this. His touts are not required to advertise their full records, Bell has said, and they don’t.
Bell loves to say that every pick ever sold on Pregame is archived and available for review. This is ostensibly true, but to access results older than 30 days requires clicking through a calendar, day by day, and entering CAPTCHA codes for each one. Before long you find yourself in an infinite CAPTCHA loop, unable to continue, blocked from any attempts to tabulate the hard evidence.
Until now. Two real-world bettors, one of whom is a former financial analyst in his late 20s who is highly regarded by oddsmakers, developed a script to scrape Pregame.com URLs for daily selections and results going back to Jan. 1 2011, and their findings speak for themselves.
Based on Pregame’s own record-keeping—which leans kindly toward its touts—all of the picks sold from Jan. 1, 2011 through the end of May 2016 add up to a loss of nearly $310,000.