I was lucky to enter college right around them time of the internet revolution, when most people didn't even have a computer in their homes. I was cruising cyberspace on a relatively fast university connection (granted, in a dorm computer lab) while the rest of wired society (what little of it there was) banged their heads against the walls trying to connect to Prodigy at 14.4 kbps, (28 kpbs was right around the corner, still inaccessible to most). But even at that speed, the internet was cool.
Those constant innovators of technology, gambling and porn, were the first to really re-invent their industries with the internet. And you could say they re-invented the internet in the process. Sites were simple, mostly text, and amazingly slow to load by today's standards. Luckily sportsbooks didn't have quick timeouts or rapid line changes back in those days. Forget about logging in for a bet 2 minutes before kickoff - you had to give yourself a good 20 minutes to actually dial-up and navigate through the 5 or so pages required to make a wager. And you better hope no one calls your house and kills your connection right as you're sending the bet confirmation.
Hang around with a veteran of sports gambling for long enough and you'll eventually hear a story starting: "Back in the day it was so much easier to win money..." For some, the glory days were during the transition from phone-in sportsbooks to internet-based sportsbooks. The internet really changed everything for the gambler. It gave you instant access to a "bookie" 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It gave you a selection of props and exotic bets that a local would never even think about taking. Most importantly, it gave you a variety of different sportsbooks to use, and the ability to view lines at all of them simultaneously.
This latter point is really the key to the meteoric evolution of the sportsbook industry in the past decade. For one, it turned live lines services (i.e. Don Best) from a tool of professional sportsbooks and upscale bookies into a product for the everyday gambler. With the scalps that were available in the early days of the internet, a live lines service could easily pay for itself many times over. That same information was virtually worthless when gamblers were using one or maybe two bookies who gave all their lines over the phone.
In conjunction with the proliferation of sportsbooks was a sudden surge in electronic money transfers. Previously you had to use Western Union or, more rarely, a credit card. The internet first brought us Paypal, later Neteller and similar services. Money could be transferred from your bank account to your sportsbook and back nearly instantaneously. Sportsbooks immediately saw the benefits and decided to pick up fees on virtually all deposits and withdrawals within reason.
The combination of access to multiple sets of lines and ability to easily move money around led to the evolution of a whole new beast: the offshore bonus whore. Fueled by the stiff competition of the rapidly burgeoning internet gambling industry, online sportsbooks resorted to the oldest trick in the book to bring in customers -- offering them cold hard cash. An extra 20% on your deposits with free transfers both ways was standard. But nearly daily promotions offered much more to the perceptive bonus grabber, with 50% or even 100% bonuses very common at most sportsbooks, up to a few hundred dollars limit. But a free few hundred is a free few hundred and left you way better off than you were betting into your local guy.
The bonus spree actually started a few years earlier with the second vice to colonize the internet (behind pornography, of course). Online casinos, in a quest to bring their customer base online, started offering bonuses as a matter of principal on every and any deposit. It took a while for the geniuses of online casino marketing to realize that 500% bonuses with 5-times rollover was pretty easy to get through playing blackjack. Hell, some of the casinos were generous enough to let you play a single deck with penetration almost the whole way through. Eventually the rules tightened up (considerably), but in the early days the money was there for the taking for anyone with some free time on their hands to grind out low stakes casino games on their computer. Again, not enough to make you rich, but a few hundred dollars could be had with little effort, enough to cover beer for the weekend.
With sportsbooks, though, you weren't playing into fixed odds, you were playing into dynamic lines that could be beaten, and that drove the real evolution of the bonus whore from a casual recreational gambler into a full-time, money-grabbing shark. Sportsbooks were plentiful, and there was no reason to ever send money without getting a nice amount of free cash in return. Grind through the rollover (by grabbing scalpable or reduced juice lines at other shops), withdraw your cash for free through Neteller, and an hour later you could be back in another shop letting your capital earn another bonus.
The granddaddy of all bonus offers occurred well after the peak of activity, when Mansion online casino and sportsbook pulled the coup de grace, offering a "free" $1000 bet on the Superbowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers against the Miami Dolphins for the first game of the 2006 NFL season. The Steelers covered, of course, smashing a $5 million bonus-whore piñata in celebration of the start of football season.
The bonus era didn't last forever (for details see the next installment), but for a time it put a lot of money into the pockets of gamblers who were used to losing year-in and year-out. While it certainly presented some downsides for the sportsbooks, as well as the industry as a whole, it finally gave the average Joe a chance to turn a small profit on his gambling hobby, something that could never happen when he was betting into local bookies with inflated lines and full juice.
Veterans of the beginnings of online gambling will tell you how easy the money was to come by "back then". It was hard to make a lot of money, but almost too easy to make a few extra bucks every week. Those opportunities are all gone, they would now probably argue. And in fact they are, but they were replaced by new opportunities that today's gamblers will look back on and reminiscence about the "good old days" at some point in the future. Hindsight is 20/20 and, odds are, 10 years from now we will once again look back at today's opportunities with envy. Unfortunately, uncovering those opportunities while they are still available for the taking is the truly tricky part.
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