Sports betting isn’t new to the Mississippi Coast, it’s been happening for generations in back rooms, over the phone, and now online.
But until August, it wasn’t exactly legal. The only way generations of Biloxians and others were able to place bets was through a bookie.
Now that casinos have entered the sports betting game, the Sun Herald sought out a local bookmaker who’s still operating after 25 years. He identified himself only as “The Bookie.”
He said there are “hundreds” of bookies on the Coast and even more customers.
Overall he said he hasn’t lost any profit since sports betting became legal — and he’s actually gained.
The bookie way
The Bookie said he has 200 clients in Biloxi and across South Mississippi, most of whom have been with him for years. He picks up another 25 percent each year by word of mouth, he said.
“Ninety percent of your money is made on football,” he said. His business goes from 200-300 bets a week during football season, he said, down to 50 a week after the Super Bowl.
Most of the bets are on the Saints, he said, along with Mississippi college teams and LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Florida State.
The minimum bet is about $25, he said. People can bet on the outcome of the game, a proposition bet on an event like who will score first, on horse races and occasionally on a political race, which is something not allowed under Mississippi law.
“(At) the casinos you have to put your money up front,” he said.
That’s not the case with him. Betters work on a line of credit. The money can roll over from week to week, he said, or he will meet the client at a local spot on the Coast and settle up on Tuesday.
The old way of placing a bet with a bookie by phone has gone away, and he doesn’t make the odds. Now all wagers are made by cellphone or computer over the internet, and all to offshore websites.
He is the local face of an offshore betting site and he has meeting spots in Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs and other locations.
“It’s all about trust,” he said. “On both sides.”
Most of his clients are casual betters, but he said, “There are a few on the Coast that are big betters. There are professional players that do nothing but play with 10 different bookies, 10 different casinos,” he said.
The federal tax on winnings for individuals is 25 percent and casinos are required to report payouts of $10,000 or more to the IRS. The bookies are not.
Bookies have the edge
In August, the first month Mississippi had sports betting, $9.8 million was wagered in the state. In September, with college and pro football games drawing sports betters, wagers more than tripled to $31 million.
Every one of those bets in Mississippi had to be made on a casino property.
As long as that’s the case, The Bookie said, then bookies have the edge.
“At the end of the day you still have to go to the casino to place your bet,” he said.
Bet with him, he said, from anywhere.
He said some of his customers want to try wagering at the local casinos, similar to how people want to go eat at every new restaurant.
“Maybe some have not played as much,” he said, but legalization has helped the overall perception of sports betting.
“In people’s minds it’s helped business,” he said.
App for that
In Nevada, people place legal bets from anywhere in the state once they’ve opened an account, and casino operators are pushing for completely remote betting apps.
In New Jersey, 57 percent of the $184 million in wagers in September came from online and mobile bets.
In Biloxi, the former director of the American Gaming Association warned legislators about the loophole in Mississippi’s law that he said would limit state revenue and allow bookies to flourish.
“Having mobile gaming only here inside the brick and mortar casinos will ensure the future success of the illegal market,” Geoff Freeman said during the Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi in May.
“If Mississippi allowed betting by phone using an app, I do think that would hurt some,” The Bookie said. When people have to physically go to a casino to bet, The Bookie said he and other bookies in South Mississippi have the edge in the game.
He isn’t alone
“There are tons of bookies on the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of them,” he said.
“It’s not as lucrative as people make it out to be,” he said, but it is his only job. He takes “a small percentage” off of each bet and that’s how he makes a living.
“I don’t gamble at all,” The Bookie says.
“I actually do pay taxes,” he said, although he jokes that he doesn’t file as “The Bookie.” He’s never been arrested for bookmaking and says paying taxes keeps officials who may know about his activities off of him.
That doesn’t mean people are never arrested for bookmaking in Mississippi. In 2017, three South Mississippi bookmakers operating in Biloxi and Diamondhead were fined between $3,000 and $5,000 for sending bets to offshore betting sited in Costa Rica. They had faced maximum penalties of two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.