The real life of a sports tout.

The real life of a sports tout.

The real life of a sports tout.

What really happened.
Oct. 7 2005 1:59 PM

Slim Pickings

The real story behind the sports tout in Two for the Money.

(Continued from Page 1)

Sports touts are not illegal, but the business is full of cheats, cons, and scams akin to the Psychic Friends Network (which was started by a former sports tout). Few gamblers, after losing their money while gambling illegally, are likely to complain. These sports services promise sacrifices (one tout, Jack Price, offered to "blow his brains out" if his predictions were wrong) and connections of unbelievable repute (the inside scoop on a game that's been fixed in advance) that are worth about as much as their recommendations. Some convince subscribers to switch to a new service without telling them that both are owned by the same company, and others will sell both teams to two different sets of callers, knowing half their clientele will think they are geniuses. An Atlanta-based 900-number service once advertised your money back if the picks lost, which didn't happen since $25 was already taken once a call was made. It also claimed to be the top-rated site by a monitoring service, which turned out to be owned by the same company.

But the oldest trick is not really a trick at all: If you sell yourself as a winner, people will pay to hear what you have to say, even if you're wrong. In the early 1990s, a businessman in California, David James, set up a 900 number, advertised in a sports paper, and earned tens of thousands of dollars doling out picks that turned out to be made by his 4-year-old son. And the more James charged for the picks, the more legitimacy the callers ascribed to the choices. Right or wrong, the risk is always left up to the squares—the amateur sports bettors—who are putting their money on the line. But they're likely to lose whether they pay a tout service or not.

Jacob Lewis is the managing editor of The New Yorker.