7 Historical Facts About Sports Gambling

By in Sports & Betting on
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Kids born after the year 2000 will likely never understand the struggle of sports gamblers throughout the past several centuries. Though it has become ubiquitous in sports culture today with several network TV shows, big-name podcasts, and billboards along the interstate, it wasn’t always so out in the open.

As most have come to expect, when there’s a black market enterprise, the government wants it cut. Similar to alcohol in the 1920s, lawmakers have realized it’s more beneficial to make it legal.

In this article, I’ll get into 10 historical facts about gambling and explain their significance in getting to where we are today.

1 – It Began With Horses

Gambling has been around for thousands of years, but was primarily kept out of sporting events for fear of spoiling the competitive nature of sports with greed. With so much money at stake today, it’s surprising—in a good way—that this conflict has been avoided for the most part.

The First Sports Bets Have Origins in Ancient Rome

According to historians, bets were often placed on chariot races or gladiator fights. With that being said, bets could only be placed in the city of Rome. As would be the case for thousands of years after that, one has to imagine money was also changing hands outside of the legal framework.

Sports betting as we know it today didn’t start showing up until nearly 2,000 years later. Becoming popular in the early 18th century, betting on horses began to grow in popularity when more than two horses at a time began participating in races (though between you and me, betting on 1v1 horse races sounds awesome).

By the late 19th century, countries like the US, New Zealand, and Canada had established a set of laws to reign in this emerging underworld industry. For ovrer 100 years after that, very little notable progress was made in terms of legality. But that would all change when the internet came to play.

2 – The Web Changes It All

One of the hurdles that stands in the way of placing a bet is the logistical process. You have to find someone willing to take your bet, pay you on time, etc. While it certainly could be done, it required quite a bit of work on the bettor’s end—at least enough to discourage it on a widespread scale.

That all changed as the internet became a permanent cultural fixture in the mid- to late-1990s.  Now, anyone could communicate across the country or even across the globe in real time. This was also had major implications for getting around gambling rules that varied wildly from one place to another.

As expected, the internet introduced a whole new set of problems for both gamblers, bookies, and the authorities trying to track them all down. However, without their struggle, we probably wouldn’t have the easy methods of gambling we enjoy today.

3 – Everyone’s Doing It

Okay, maybe everyone isn’t doing it, but it’s more common that most people would suspect. According to the latest numbers, roughly 85% of all American adults have gambled once in their lifetime. Maybe that isn’t so surprising, but when you consider that 65% reported having gambled in the last year and nearly a third in the last month, it starts to reveal just how popular betting really is overall.

Now, there is an unfortunate downside to those numbers, and it’s not just all those lost bets. Experts suspect that an estimated 2% to 3% of the overall gambling population meets the criteria for a gambling problem. Let this section be a reminder that if you’re feeling out of control in terms of betting, it might be time to take a break.

4 – The Black Sox Scandal Can’t Be Ignored

Any article about the history of sports betting must include some mention of the black sox scandal that rocked the sports (and gambling) world in 1919. Several members of the Chicago White Sox—eight to be specific—took money from gamblers in exchange for “throwing” the series, or losing on purpose.

While most have moved on from this event that happened more than 100 years ago, the ripple effects are still, in many ways, felt throughout the world of sports gambling. The scandal has served as a reminder to what the potential downsides are of sports betting and led to increased scrutiny and regulations around professional sports.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the potential for scandals like this (and a handful of others) suggests that increased legality, and thus heightened regulations, are the way to ensure a fair experience for players, fans, and bettors.

5 – Full-Scale Legality Is Growing in the US

The laws surrounding sports betting can seem pretty complicated when you consider that although it’s illegal in some states, there are plenty of websites that allow you to bet legally due to the location of the sportsbook. Luckily, it looks like the offshore sportsbook (which, let’s be honest, isn’t necessarily ideal), might become a thing of the past.


As of January 2021, 18 states in the US have legalized sports betting. Several more states have pending legislation in the pipeline, and it’s not crazy to think that federal legalization is something that might happen down the road.

It bears mentioning that if you have questions about the status of gambling legality in your state, do your research before making any risky decisions that could have negative consequences.

6 – The Point Spread Didn’t Always Exist

If you’re familiar with sports betting and do it on a regular basis, it’s hard to imagine what the world would be like if point spreads were never introduced. Up until the 1940s, that was the reality.

Charles McNeil, the “father of the point spread” you might call him, had his bright idea while working as a securities analyst in Chicago during the 1930s. Due to a salary that wasn’t able to provide him with as much money as he wanted, he took up his own bookmaking operation during the early 1940s.

At the time, betting on sports meant using a standard system of odds. For example, bettors would have 2 to 1 odds that Miami would beat Notre Dame, or 3 ½ to 1 odds that Army would beat Navy—you get the point.

McNeil, looking for a way to get an advantage over other sportsbooks, began offering point-spread betting as a way to differentiate his operation. It was a massive hit, so much in fact, that he had to quit due to the fear of retribution from the mob, who was responsible for facilitating sports betting in those days.

Today, trying to picture a world without point-spread betting seems incomprehensible. On behalf of gamblers (and sportsbooks) everywhere, thank you to Charles McNeil.

7 – Football (and Futbol) Reign Supreme

In the US, many sports bettors might scoff at the idea that any other sports beside professional and college football drive more business when it comes to gambling. With that being said, the World Cup receives an incomprehensible amount of action that makes Super Bowl betting look like child’s play.

In 2018, the FIFA governing body (which if I’m being honest, doesn’t have a reputation for being the most truthful) estimated that more than $136 billion was wagered throughout the tournament. Not just that, but $7.2 billion in action came in on the final.

When it comes to single-game bets, the Super Bowl does come close to that number.

One difference between the Super Bowl and World Cup action?

Billions will be wagered on strange and exotic props for the Super Bowl, not so much for the World Cup.


Sports betting has continued to grow as it becomes more accessible to anyone over 18 or 21 with an internet connection and a bank account. As it becomes integrated into mainstream culture, it’s hard to speculate when, or if, the rapid growth will slow down any time soon.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to follow the growth of the industry as it adapts and evolves with the changing times.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...

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