Last week Emmitt Smith won Dancing with the Stars, and capped a fairly successful day for many bettors at various sportsbooks which offered odds on the event. While I personally never devised odds or had anything to do with bet offers for that particular show, I can partially be blamed for the start of the reality TV betting craze.
It was July of 2000 and I was working as a consultant for Intertops.com helping with odds and suggestions in various areas including any bets of interest. While I had never seen Survivor, the show was on top of the ratings and was getting an average of 20 million viewers a week. I took a glance at the show one Sunday and thought that this had the potential to be a good public relations bet. The big problem of course was that the show was pre-taped which meant that the winner was already determined. Nevertheless, I bounced the idea off Simon Noble who was the CEO of Intertops at the time, and now works elsewhere. He agreed the bet sounded interesting and decided that we could put something up with strict $55 limits to get some p.r. and then take it down if liabilities became too high. "Come up with some odds that we can run with" were his exact words to me. Oh wonderful, I thought to myself. I had never seen the show in whole and knew absolutely nothing about any of the contestants. Fortunately, when we decided to offer odds on the show, 4 of the contestants had already been eliminated and some sites had biographies and predictions on each of the remaining contestants. From my "research" I came up with the following odds: Richard Hatch was made the 5/2 favourite followed by Rudy at 3/1, Kelly at 4/1, Gretchen at 6/1, Colleen and Tom at 6/1 and the remaining contestants in a field bet at 3/1 odds. The idea was to keep the potential liability to a minimum.
The result was instant success. News about the Survivor bet spread like wildfire and people started signing up with Intertops in droves including those who normally would have had no interest in sports betting. As well, the odds were picked up in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the L.A. Times. Plus, USA Today had an article featuring Intertops' odds on the front page of their entertainment section. U.S. Weekly later ran an issue on Survivor and featured odds and quotes from Intertops management, and the name Intertops.com, it seemed, was on every newscast. Media were phoning the company for live, on air, interviews and best of all the betting was spread fairly evenly, even after 2 more evictions. Things were great, and no other sportsbook bothered running odds on the show despite the p.r. success Intertops had. It was all smooth sailing - that is until August of 2000.
One of the Survivor spoiler sites, survivorsucks.com (now just an ez board), had a section where people tried to find hints from coverage of the show, to determine the winner and spoil the results for everyone. One of the posters on survivorsucks.com, a Canadian, mentioned that he was able to hack the CBS website and noticed that there was a red "X" next to everyone's name except one participant, Gervais Peterson. At the time, the newspapers and the CBS website kept track of who was voted off by placing a red "X" next to the contestant that was eliminated and the thinking of this individual was that since Gervais didn't have an "X" next to his name that he was the winner. The poster speculated that it was just a lazy CBS employee who was getting all the "X"s in place for the coming shows to save time. Intertops started getting quite a few bets on the field bet so I looked around the web and noticed the site. As such, we decided to take Gervais out of the field bet and make him a single entry at the 3/1 odds. The bets continued to come in and we lowered him down. Then the story of the "X" became front page news on every newspaper and was featured on Entertainment Tonight. Before we knew it, thousands of people were signing up with Intertops to get their $55 bets down on Gervais. We kept lowering his odds until he became the heavy even money favourite, but it didn't dissuade the bettors. The company was at a crossroads. They could take down the odds and say that due to overwhelming interest in one contestant the bet would be taken down, but with the amount of publicity and signups the bet was generating it seemed ludicrous to do so. Simon bit the bullet and decided that the publicity was worth the liability and kept the odds going. Besides, as a group we said we couldn't see how Gervais could win. He was lazy, he was despised by his team mates - it just didn't make sense. But all of a sudden the liability was approaching the 6 figure mark on a $55, no rebetting, public relations bet.
Our convictions about Gervais not being the winner were confirmed when someone phoned one of the bet managers 3 days before the airing of the next show and was wondering if the company would consider a bet from him. He wanted $10,000 on Richard (who was up to 4/1) and $2,000 on each of Rudy and Colleen. Naturally, no one would want that kind of bet unless they knew something. It was our suspicion that he was aware that Richard won the contest and the bets on Rudy and Colleen were ploys to make us suspect that he didn't know the true winner for sure. That next episode Gervais was voted off and the party began in Antigua. The bet offer was a success. There was no way, at that point, the bet could lose money; it generated thousands of new signups and unheard of public relations for the company. Throughout the rest of the show there was speculation about the winner, which caused spikes in betting. For instance a "voice analyst" determined that Rudy was the winner because his tone was consistent with trying to hide something. Regardless, betting continued hard and heavy, and so did the publicity for the company. It seemed like the public bet everyone except Richard.
A couple of years later I stopped working for Intertops, and almost all the people who were involved with that Survivor bet moved on to other ventures. Intertops continued to be a leader in offering novelty bets, but nothing ever had the same success as that original Survivor offer. A bet which was supposed to be a small loss leader from $55 bets generated a profit over $100,000 and put Intertops on the map. Today, reality TV betting is common at many sportsbooks, both for pre-taped shows like Survivor and the Amazing Race and live voting shows like American Idol, Big Brother and Dancing with The Stars. Some people love the option of betting on those shows, while others think it's killing television. Whatever your take. I suppose I can be partially blamed, or congratulated, for the genesis of reality TV betting. Oh, by the way, Richard Hatch won Survivor 1, while Kelly and Rudy completed the top 3 - just as the original odds predicted. I guess that's what good "research" will do (LOL)!