Betting pioneer envisions nationwide legal fantasy sports

Updated March 10, 2017 - 12:21 am

It was a glorious time. Wiseguys were everywhere.

There was One Eye Scotty and Dick The Pick. Then there was Jerry The Hat and Bobby The Owl, who used to help make the line at the Stardust. And there was Montana Mel and Herbie Hoops, who was Jimmy The Greek’s source for his betting segments on “The NFL Today” with Brent Musburger.

No, we’re not quoting the scene from “Goodfellas” where Henry Hill introduces Jimmy Two Times, who got that nickname because he said everything twice, like “I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers.”

We’re referring to the cast of characters who frequented Leroy’s Horse &Sports Place, circa 1978, when Vic Salerno took over the standalone book located in downtown Las Vegas from his father-in-law, Leroy Merillat.

“Leroy’s, it was just unbelievable the things that would happen. I’d have guys die in the sports book, and the first thing they’d do is check if he had any winners in his pocket,” said Salerno, 72. “We had people riding their motorcycles into the place. I made a big mistake once and put a pool table in the bar, and guys would get in fights with pool cues and the balls. It was terrible. That didn’t last long.

“A guy came running in with a machete one day chasing another guy. I said to the guy with the machete, ‘What did the guy do to you?’ He said, ‘Well, I owe him money, and he keeps bugging me for the money, so I’m gonna kill him.’”

OK, so maybe those days weren’t exactly idyllic after all. But you’ve got to love those nicknames.

The names have changed since then, and sports betting and the sports book industry have exploded, thanks in large part to Salerno. The Gaming Hall of Famer pioneered several sports betting innovations, including satellite books and self-service betting kiosks. In 1984, he replaced handwritten betting tickets with a computerized betting system. In 2010, he developed Nevada’s first mobile betting app.

A visionary who sold his company — American Wagering Inc., which owned Leroy’s — to William Hill for $18 million in 2011, Salerno also has been working on a Sports Book Combine app for the past three years that he’s submitted for approval to the state’s Gaming Control Board. It will allow bettors to shop for the best numbers and place wagers at any book on the app, regardless of where their account is located.

Currently, Salerno is all-in on daily fantasy sports (DFS).

In June, eight months after DFS companies FanDuel and DraftKings ceased operations in Nevada, Salerno’s company, USFantasy, became the first licensed by the state to operate fantasy sports contests through a pari-mutuel wagering system similar to horse racing.

“We think we have a better, fairer way,” Salerno said. “We’re giving back 90 percent of the money, where FanDuel and DraftKings, only 1 percent of the people win.”

The contests, which are available at most Las Vegas sports books, with the exception of William Hill and the Wynn, offer win/place/show and exotic wagering — including exactas, trifectas and an NFL Pick 7 that pays $1 million for a $1 wager.

Bettors can wager on the best finish from a group of eight to 12 athletes. The top exacta payout in the NFL this season on a $2 bet was $1,217 on Andrew Luck/Trevor Siemian.

“It’s a fun prop. It’s easy. It’s like a parlay,” said former Mirage sports book director Robert Walker, USFantasy’s strategic planner. “You can bet LeBron James, and now you have action on him and seven other players for a $2 bet. I don’t know if there’s a better bargain out there.”

Salerno declined to divulge his company’s handle, but he said it increased each week during the NFL season in Nevada and Colorado, where betting was offered on a trial basis.

“It’s been slower than I thought it would be, but when I go back to other products in my career, like the mobile app, when we started, it was difficult,” he said. “I’m still enthusiastic about it. I think it’s going to catch on.”

Salerno’s main goal is to get his business licensed in other states and create a national pool.

“I think it will happen, but it’s going to take probably three years to get there,” he said.

All but seven states already allow pari-mutuel wagering, but the different verbiage in each state’s laws has complicated matters.

“One word can change the whole thing,” Salerno said. “A lot of them say only pari-mutuels on animals. So is a human an animal or not? How do they interpret that?”

If only Salerno could show them the guy who ran into Leroy’s with a machete.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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