How a small-time Vancouver bookie helped turn sports betting into a multibillion-dollar industry
Roxy Roxborough has watched sports betting move from smoke-filled pool halls to the mainstream
As a young man in Vancouver in the early '70s, Michael Roxborough was drawn to the world of gamblers. That led him to hanging out at the race track, pool halls, and the Vancouver Stock Exchange.
Roxy, as he came to be known, worked as a bookie, taking bets on NHL and NFL games. He'd spend time at Seymour Billiards on Seymour and Nelson streets and various dives — the kind of places, he said, that still had spittoons for people who chewed tobacco.
In those days, Roxborough couldn't have imagined sports betting would be legal in Canada, with ads for gambling websites airing during the Stanley Cup finals. He also couldn't have guessed he would play a role in building sports betting into a multibillion-dollar industry, one that some critics say comes with significant social costs.
Roxborough says he was a "smalltime bookmaker" in those days. He earned extra money driving a cab and selling alcohol out of a cab trunk on Sundays when liquor stores were closed.
Through a personal connection, he set up an office at Vancouver's notorious stock exchange, which Forbes Magazine once dubbed the "scam capital of the world."
Roxborough said the VSE, which later merged into the Canadian Venture Exchange, was a perfect place to take wagers, given the highly speculative nature of the stocks that traded there.
"You could buy a stock in the morning and you could quadruple your money, and after you came back from lunch, it wasn't trading anymore," he said.
Calculating the odds
When he started as a bookie, Roxborough would call Las Vegas — always from a payphone out of fear of wiretaps — to get the daily odds put out by the Churchill Downs sports book.
For each sporting event, bookmakers set a point spread, which consists of the number of points a team perceived to be the favourite must win by in order to cash a ticket. The goal is to attract an equal number of bets on both sides — the favourite and the underdog — with oddsmakers profiting by charging a fee, known as the vigorish, or "vig."
Spreads are often adjusted depending on betting activity and news related to the game.
Scott Schettler, who worked at Churchill Downs, says good information was hard to find in the '70s. He used to have cleaners at the Las Vegas airport collect newspapers from airplanes so he could read sports sections from around the country for any updates.
After stern warnings from Vancouver police, Roxborough moved to Nevada in 1975. Schettler later hired him to set odds at the prestigious Stardust Casino, and he thrived.
"I respected his numbers more than anybody," Schettler said of Roxborough.
Roxborough opened Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which would go on to provide odds for casinos around the world.
He took a data-driven approach to oddsmaking, using computers to gather and analyze information. He also used technology to distribute lines and info to casinos. Tech also allowed casinos to expand their betting menus to include more esoteric sporting events.
Roxborough sold the company in the late '90s, but not before setting the table for the current generation of oddsmakers, who rely heavily on algorithms.
"Well, somebody had to do it first," he said. "I think we had a pretty big influence on a lot of bookmakers."
Canada's big bet on sports
Now 71, Roxborough has watched sports betting move from smoke-filled pool halls to the mainstream.
Last year, Canada passed Bill C-218, allowing for single-game betting in an effort to redirect money from offshore sites into provincial government coffers. Before then, only multi-event bets called parlays were allowed.
A Deloitte Canada report suggested that the sports betting industry could grow from $500 million to $28 billion within five years of nationwide legalization in 2021.
Ontario allowed for multiple operators in a provincially regulated market back in April. Since then, betting ads intended for Ontario audiences have appeared on screens in other provinces.
Online betting sites licensed in Ontario are not licensed to operate in B.C.
The B.C. Lottery Corporation started taking single-game wagers back in August through its Playnow website. BCLC says it remains the only place where British Columbians can legally place an online sports bet.
Roxborough says corporate and government interests need to consider the wider implications of sports betting or they could face a public backlash.
"I think there has to be some conscience driving the industry… and I don't know where that comes from," he said.
The lure of gambling
Roxborough fell in love with gambling at what is now Hastings Racecourse in East Vancouver. He saw gambling as a glamorous alternative to the drudgery of a nine-to-five job.
"You could go out at night, drink, wake up, play, read the sports sections, read the daily racing form, make your money and have a nice lifestyle," he said.
While Roxborough was first exposed to gambling at the race track, a new generation is learning about it through advertising.
Luke Clark with the University of British Columbia's Centre for Gambling Research says ads can contribute to the normalization of sports betting.
"For young people, in particular, it creates a norm where sports and gambling are very tightly connected and I think that's a development where we need to tread very carefully," he said.
Clark notes that there are supports in place for problem gamblers, including a program where they can voluntarily exclude themselves from gambling facilities.
Roxborough says the romance of gambling is an illusion. Most gamblers lose money. The few who make a living at it are locked in an endless cat-and-mouse game with oddsmakers, each mining data to find the slightest edge. In the end, what seems like an exciting escape is just a business like any other.
"When I went to Las Vegas, the idea was to escape conventional work," he said. "It turns out you have to spend 60 to 70 hours a week to escape a 40-hour job."
With files from Kelly Provost, Myles Dichter, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press