August 26, 2011

Morality over/under: Gambling on HS football

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

As Leon McQuay, Jr. made his way from Florida to Las Vegas this week to watch his son's high school football team open the season, he knew he was entering the sports gambling capital of the world - a place where he could get a line on just about any sporting event.

He never dreamed, however, that he could bet on his own son's game. And that he didn't need to leave his home outside of Tampa, Fla. to do it.

"Wish I could cash in on the point spread," McQuay joked on Twitter when he learned there not only was a point spread but that Seffner (Fla.) Armwood was more than a touchdown underdog to Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman. "Give the Wood 7.5 points."

Amazingly, this isn't a joke.

There are now betting lines for high school football games.

We're not talking about the action you might find in the corner of the stands on a Friday night, but legitimate lines (point spreads, over/unders, the works) on some off-shore gambling sites. (No U.S. based gambling outfits take high school games.)

And while some say high school point spreads have been around for more than a decade, they only recently have come to the attention of the mainstream public.

In fact, Chris Costigan, the founder and publisher of Gambling911.com, which has covered the gambling industry since 2000, had no idea they existed until getting a call from RivalsHigh.com.

"I've never seen anyone offer this," he said. "I know they have offered lines on the Little League World Series and the Spelling Bee, but I've never heard of anyone offering for high school football."

Costigan isn't surprised though. He understands the lure of football. And he's well aware of the company setting the line, saying it has a strong reputation - one that now includes the ability to bet on teenagers.

"(5Dimes.com is a) solid company that has been around for years," he said. "It's not surprising that they would offer this, they pretty much offer a line on everything. If it's televised, I can see them doing it. And if it's televised football, I can see it getting some play."

Television - more than anything else - appears to be the driving force behind all of this.

*****

Erica is a native of Costa Rica, where 5dimes.com - just one of the off-shore sites taking action - is located.

How far back does it go?
No one seems to know exactly when sports books began taking high school football games, but the earliest notable game to have a betting line came back in 2007, when 5Dimes.com released a point spread and began taking bets on the nationally televised Southlake (Texas) Carroll and Miami (Fla.) Northwestern game.

Outrage followed. The site received so much negative publicity, it took the game off the board.

Southlake Carroll athletic director Ronnie Tipps fumed at the time. "High school football is one of the purest forms of entertainment," Tipps told the Dallas Morning News. "It just irritates me that [gambling] drifts down to the high school level."

The ban by the books didn't last long. An Armwood-Plant game in 2008 had a betting line and the action has been growing ever since. This weekend - when much of the country still hasn't started playing - has 15 games available to bet on.

She didn't want to give her last name, but was willing to identify herself as a 'call operator' for the company, which allowed her to answer questions after she had a quick conversation with her manager.

Erica says she's worked at 5dimes.com for three years but says lines on high school football games go back much further than that, "for a long time, at least 10 years," she said.

According to Erica, action on the games has only recently picked up and that the rise in the number of televised games has boosted interest at the window.

"In the beginning there was not much interest," she said. "But since these games have been airing on ESPN, the action has picked up. Those are the ones that there is going to be more action on."

Of the 29 games posted on the site for this weekend and coming weeks, all but one will be aired on one of the ESPN family of networks.

And while ESPN may be the biggest sports television network, it's far from the only outlet showing games. Fox shows games both nationally and regionally. Most local cable outfits have been showing games for years. And now, with the rise in live-stream productions, literally hundreds of high school games can be seen on TV or the Internet each weekend.

While the action on these games is not altogether overwhelming, it does gain enough traction for the site to continue its offering.

"Obviously college football is much more popular," Erica said.

As is just about everything else.

"The action on a high school game would be about 10 percent of a regular-season baseball game," she said.

Erica said she couldn't estimate dollar figures for how much is bet on games. But it's clear the action is enough to move the line.

The RivalsHigh Game of the Week between top-ranked Prattville (Ala.) High and No. 9-ranked Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas opened with Aquinas as a 5-point favorite.

As business opened on Friday, the line had moved down to Aquinas as only a 3.5-point favorite.

It was not the only game to make a marked move.

Columbus (Ind.) East moved up from a 8.5-point favorite on Thursday to a 10.5-point favorite on Friday; Wheaton (Ill.) Wheaton Warrenville South went from a 17.5-point favorite to a 14-point favorite in the same time span.

"Most of our lines come from the research we do here," Erica said. "But we also depend on the movements (on the lines) in the industry."

*****

Despite the low level of awareness in the ability to bet on high school football games, it is something that makes coaches of these teams uncomfortable.

"I would prefer it didn't happen," John Hart, head coach of Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central, said. "I am pretty surprised that it does to be honest, but I guess nothing should surprise me anymore."

Hart was equally surprised to find that his team's game with Indianapolis (Ind.) Cathedral was among those offered by the website.

The No. 3-ranked Warriors are an 11.5-point favorite. The team opened as a 10.5-point favorite and has seen its line move as it approaches kickoff.

"That is stunning," he said. "I hope this isn't a growing problem. We already have to guard the kids from so much and there are so many outside people who may try to influence the games.

"That is concerning."

Problems involving gambling on high school games are increasingly finding their way into the news.

In a 2008 story from the St. Petersburg Times, former Nature Coast standout running back Rian Williams admitted to taking money from gamblers for his performances in big games.

"They talk to you before the game," Williams said. "They'll say, 'If you run well, I'll give you $20.' "

The low level, local gamblers, can have a dramatic effect on the games.

An April feature on ESPN's Outside the Lines the program focused on local bookies and their effect on youth league games.

The report has spawned Ft. Lauderdale police to establish Operation End Zone which used an armored car and video surveillance to help thwart high school bookies.

Costigan - who covers the industry but in no way is a spokesman for it - said it's easy to see how youth games could be corrupted, but he doesn't blame gambling houses.

"You've got kids who are going to be tempted," Costigan said. "It's not really the bookmakers' problem. They are not the ones who are telling people to fix the game."

In fact, Costigan said, gambling houses could actually help.

"You already have a situation where there are high school bookies. It's better to have it in a somewhat regulated industry where if you felt there was something going on you could contact authorities," he said.

*****

Bishop Gorman head coach Tony Sanchez wants no part of gambling in his game.

Top teams make for top draws
There are 12 teams from the RivalsHigh 100 that have open betting lines for games this weekend.
No. 1 Prattville (+3.5) vs. No. 9 St. Thomas Aquinas
No. 3 Warren Central (-11.5) vs. Indianapolis Cathedral
No. 5 Armwood (+7) vs. No. 7 Bishop Gorman
No. 10 South Panola (-13.5) vs. No. 73 Hoover
No. 13 Colerain (-8.5) vs. No. 18 Cocoa
No. 21 Buford (-28) vs. Gainesville
No. 22 Pleasant Grove (-18.5) vs. Monterrey Trail
No. 51 Lake Travis (-14) vs. Westlake
His team, ranked No. 7 in the latest RivalsHigh 100 ranking, has enough to worry about when it hosts No. 5 Armwood in a huge regular-season game Friday night. One that will be televised nationally by ESPN.

"I would prefer to have no comment on any kind of sportsbook," he said. "But it is a situation that is out there. I just would hope that when it came to betting on high school football it wouldn't be out there."

He thinks that despite being in a mecca for gamblers, there's no need to add high school football.

"As far as betting on high school football, I don't think we have to deal with it," he said. "You can bet on so many things here that getting a fix on something like high school football doesn't seem to make much sense."

Costigan agreed.

He thinks Las Vegas would never have interest in high school football because it wouldn't produce enough action.

That, plus that other issue: We're talking about betting on teenagers.

"I don't think Vegas would ever do it," Costigan said. "There's definitely a line in terms of the moral issue. It's one of those things."

RivalsHigh.com editor Tom Bergeron contributed to this report.

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