Thousands of people across Alabama, and as many as 1,000 people in Calhoun County alone, will gamble on the state’s biggest sporting event, the annual football game between teams from the University of Alabama and Auburn University state and local law enforcers said, in spite of laws that make it illegal to do so.
Rivalry games that are televised — like the Iron Bowl — attract people who wouldn’t normally bet to try their hand at beating the odds, according to law enforcement officials and sports analysts.
“Because it is a rivalry game, more people will bet, because they have more of a connection to the game,” said Mike Reese, a former member of the now-dissolved state task force on gambling and current lieutenant with the ABC Board. “It’s like they are playing a part in the game.”
Saturday’s historic odds for the Iron Bowl might have also encouraged more state residents to forego state law and place their bets; the spread for the game puts Alabama at a 32-point favorite, said to Danny Sheridan, a handicapper and sports analyst for USA Today. That draws in people who, playing off the public perceptions of the Alabama and Auburn football teams, will bet the line no question, and others who think the spread is too high and will bet that Alabama won’t win by 32 points or more.
“This is the highest line I can ever remember in the Alabama-Auburn game,” Sheridan said, noting the point spread wasn’t this high even in 1958, when Auburn won the national championship and Alabama was 0-10.
Illegal sports betting in the state But gambling doesn’t just begin in Alabama during the run-up to the Iron Bowl, and its illegal status hardly prevents state residents from betting all the time on college sports.
In fact, the opposite is true, according to one national sports analyst.
“Alabama per capita is the largest illegal sports betting state in the country,” Sheridan said. “If I meet an illegal bookmaker in New York, they say, ‘man, I wish people bet here like they did in Alabama.’”
Neither Sheridan nor local or state law enforcers had exact numbers to put on the amount of money bet on the Iron Bowl or college sports in Alabama. Nationwide, illegal betting on college sports is an $8 billion per week industry in the United States, Sheridan said.
Nevada is the only state in the country that allows betting on single college football games, he said.
Still, law enforcers said, people in Alabama and across the country can take advantage of the college point spreads coming out of Las Vegas, thanks in large part to the Internet, where it is easy to place bets but hard to get caught.
“Most of the gambling that goes on now is Internet-based; there’s still bookies around, but they’re not like they once were,” Reese said. “It’s not as popular to have people go to a business or go to someone’s house to gamble.”
Illegal gambling and the Internet
Before the Internet age, local police said they arrested bookies and busted small-time gambling operations relatively frequently.
Police would arrest people throwing dice on the streets, or catch bookies with their winnings still on them, Anniston Lt. Fred Forsythe said.
But investigators at the Anniston department can’t remember the last time they ran across something like that.
The Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force recently busted an illegal gambling house near the Wellborn area, but Capt. Chris Roberson said the group called Reese for guidance with the case, because the task force deals with them so rarely now.
Again, the lack of illegal gambling cases isn’t because it’s not happening, local police said. It’s just hard to enforce, either because it’s happening online or because police departments are busy focusing on other violent crimes and drug investigations.
“If you had somebody that really excelled at doing that type of work, they could go in and track a lot of it,” Reese said. “Unfortunately, departments don’t have a lot of time and manpower to devote to gambling.”
Indeed, one of Gov. Robert Bentley’s first moves as governor after he took office was to shut down the statewide gambling task force created under former Gov. Bob Riley and direct its cases to the Attorney General.
Even when the task force was operational, Reese said, the focus remained on big operations rather than small-time bookies or Internet betting on college sports.
Betting on the Iron Bowl Betting online may be easy, but it’s still technically illegal. Again, that won’t be much of an impediment to thousands of people around the state who have more than pride or bragging rights at stake in this weekend’s Iron Bowl.
And if Sheridan — who has correctly predicted the winner of the last 12 Iron Bowls — has any advice for those who do plan to bet, it’d be this:
“Right now, if I were picking the game, I would probably pick Auburn,” Sheridan said Wednesday afternoon. That’s Auburn to win the point spread, not the game, mind you.
“They’d win only one out of 1,000 times,” he said.
Assistant Metro Editor Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star