What were the odds the Utah Jazz would lose three straight games to the Golden State Warriors? 50 to 1? 100 to 1?
While most Utah fans would never consider betting against the Jazz, those who did would have made a small fortune on the home team's misfortunes. "But the only ones who made any money were the bookies," said Detective Mike Julian, Salt Lake County sheriff's office.There's no dispute the Jazz have brought community pride, economic development and world-class entertainment to Utah. But according to detectives, the Jazz have also fueled a resurgent interest in sports betting.
"Professional sports attract that. Utah now has a Class A professional team with quality players recognized around the world, and that attracts people's urge to bet on games," said Julian. "Not just Jazz games but all games."
It's not that the Jazz brought the bookies with them from New Orleans; Utah has had bookies as long as anyone can remember. Only with the Jazz, the bookies have a core of rabid fans much more willing to bet on the local favorites.
The popular image of the neighborhood bookie is one of a crusty gentleman with a bulbous nose working out of a booth at the local cafe. A scar-faced mountain named Guido stands nearby, a reminder of who will be dropping by if you don't pay your debts.
"Yeah, we've got a lot of those kind of bookies who work out of restaurants or bars," said Julian. "But just as much, they could be people in the hotel business, or the guy who runs the catering truck, or a cabbie, or a local stock broker."
Sports gambling ranks as one of the most common forms of gambling in Salt Lake County, detectives say, and the sheriff's office, as a result, has placed a high priority on the popular vice.
"We get a lot of calls from wives whose husbands are losing maybe $100 a week the family can't afford," said Julian, "and the sheriff takes that very personal. He wants it stopped, and we spend a lot of money trying to do just that."
But that hasn't been easy. Detectives say bookmaking operations are difficult to infiltrate, often taking from six months to two years to get on the inside. Some are small "mom-and-pop" operations financed by local money; others are larger shops financed with outside money and potential links with organized crime.
But even that isn't anything like the stereotype popularized in movies. Gambling debts are collected, but mayhem is rare. "People are threatened and occasionally someone might get beat up," said Julian, "but it's rare."
The most common form of sports wagering is the "betting card," a 4-inch-wide, 12-inch-long card with a list of 20 to 30 professional and college games on tap for the week. Bets can be placed on whichever games the player chooses.
According to Julian, betting on basketball is common, but even more common is betting on football games, both professional and college. And there are literally dozens of different ways to wager on the games.
"But the public isn't going to make any money at it," said Julian. "The odds are such you're just not going to win. You might win a few bucks here and there, but in the long run you're going to lose big.."
Gambling in Utah is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail. Possession of a gambling device, such as a betting card, is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.