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Oddsmakers pounce on Friday night football

Rian Williams, a former standout running back for Nature Coast, says he took money for performing well during games.

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times (2006)

Rian Williams, a former standout running back for Nature Coast, says he took money for performing well during games.

For five bucks, fans can get into the high school football game of the year. And with an Internet connection and a credit card, they can bet on it.

The hot ticket during the opening week of high school football is Armwood at Plant, a game that promises to be a smorgasbord of Division I prospects broadcast live on national television.

Naturally, everyone wants to cash in.

More than 5,000 people will squeeze into Dads Stadium on Friday, while more than 21-million will have the game beamed to their homes thanks to ESPNU.

And now almost anyone can bet big bucks on the big game without leaving home.

There are hundreds of gambling Web sites eager to take bets on anything from card games to slot machines to the World Series, both MLB and Little League.

This year alone, Christiansen Capital Advisors, which does studies on, among other things, leisure and entertainment, estimates global Internet gambling revenue will exceed $20-billion.

Internet gambling laws are complex and differ at the state level. Federal law does not prohibit an individual from placing a bet online, though it is illegal for someone to accept a wager from a server in the United States.

The site 5dimes.com of Costa Rica confirmed in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times that it will place a betting line on the Armwood-Plant game. The Web site was criticized last year for placing a line on another nationally televised game on ESPNU featuring Southlake Carroll (Texas) and Miami Northwestern. After backlash from the community, the line was removed.

No one from 5dimes.com would speak by phone, though a representative identifying himself only as "Tony" answered questions through the Web site's instant chat service.

He wrote: "We're here to service customers. If they want it (and it's not too much trouble), we do our best to provide them with every option they could possibly want."

In other countries, Tony said, wagering on sporting events involving children is common. In Europe, he said, people wager on soccer matches featuring children younger than 16.

Money in the stands

Online wagering on high school sports might be relatively new, but gambling on those events is not.

Pasco High athletic director Jim Ward, whose family has lived on Church Avenue in Dade City since 1896, said he recalls people in Dade City talking about wagering on the Pasco-Hernando football rivalry game in 1991 when the crowd swelled to more than 8,000 to see Class 3A top-10 teams square off.

"Rumors had it back in the early '90s there was betting," Ward said. "… I always heard the guys talking about, 'I got $100 on this,' and stuff like that."

In Brooksville, Nature Coast coach Jamie Joyner said people tell him about wagers.

"When you're walking along the fence before or during halftime of a game, you might have the occasional guy tell you to get somebody a touchdown or keep giving (junior running back) Tevin (Drake) the ball," Joyner said. "You know there's side bets going on about yardage, and that's mainly with the rivalry games. … Just listening to the talk between the players, you know what's going on in the neighborhood."

Florida High School Athletic Association spokeswoman Cristina Alvarez said she witnessed wagering on races at state track and field championships two years ago at Winter Park High.

"You can see it," Alvarez said. "They're in the stands handing money back and forth betting on these kids. There's something wrong with these people if they think that's okay."

There are no bylaws to directly address gambling other than restrictions on gambling advertisements for broadcasts of FHSAA events. Alvarez said the FHSAA has not given the issue a serious look but needs to. She also said there have been no recent allegations or memorable infractions or violations related to gambling on events governed by the FHSAA.

Of course, that does not mean athletes are untouchable.

Pay for play

Rian Williams left Nature Coast in 2006 as the school's all-time leading rusher with more than 1,800 yards. Today, he is 20 and still lives in Brooksville.

When Williams was a student at Nature Coast, he said, people not only let him know they bet on him, but they rewarded him when he performed well.

"They talk to you before the game," Williams said. "They'll say, 'If you run well, I'll give you $20.' "

Williams said the bets are usually between people who know each other and that the amount of money trading hands is usually less than $100.

"Sometimes they'll bet if Nature Coast can get a first down," Williams said. "Sometimes they'll bet to see if they punt on fourth down, stuff like that."

Williams said he never accepted money to change the outcome of a game and was never asked to. Joyner said he thinks Williams' case is isolated and that no one on his team has been approached.

Wager danger

Armwood coach Sean Callahan has seen the benefits of national exposure.

Former Armwood receiver Deondre Kyles returned a kickoff 95 yards in a 13-6 victory over Jefferson in a 2006 game on ESPNU. Middle Tennessee State was watching and called Callahan the next morning to offer Kyles a scholarship.

In terms of people gambling on Armwood, Callahan said it isn't a concern as long as it doesn't seep into his locker room.

"Is it really happening? I don't see it," Callahan said. "Are people betting on games? Yeah, they're going to, I know that. As long as it's not affecting me and my kids, I'm fine with it."

Plant coach Bob Weiner said he got tons of calls after DirecTV carried Sun Sports' coverage of the Panthers' 25-21 victory against Ponte Vedra Nease for the 2006 Class 4A state title.

Annually, Weiner attends the American Football Coaches Association conference where he said a former mafia member gives a behind-the-scenes look into organized crime and its link to sports gambling.

"It is mainly geared toward colleges, but there are many high schools in attendance there," Weiner said. "So it does bring some perspective to the issue. Really, even in those conversations, there has never been a mention of how this has become prevalent or even a problem in high school."

ESPN spokeswoman Tilea Coleman said the network places these games on television to showcase players such as quarterback Aaron Murray, who has orally committed to Georgia.

"Armwood is ranked 14th in our ESPN Rise rankings, and Plant is ranked No. 20," Coleman said. "Obviously, it has great appeal."

ESPN began broadcasting high school football in 2003 with one game. The slate increased to 13 games in '06 and 19 this season. Indications are the trend of more national high school coverage will increase with last week's launch of ESPNRise.com and CBS Corporation's recent acquisition of Maxpreps.com.

And with more games on television and the advent of high school statistics on the Web, gambling Web sites are better equipped to serve customers.

"Obviously, it's a big concern of ours if the student-athletes that are playing take it in their own hands and say they are going to throw a game to win some money," Alvarez said. "It's back to the whole Pete Rose saga. … I don't know if there's anything we can do about it. But it's something we definitely need to start looking into."

Nature Coast and Pasco will meet in Dade City on Oct. 3, and there's little chance gambling Web sites will take bets. Asked if people in the stands might take wagers, Joyner said, "I'd bet on it if I were a betting man."

Times researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Izzy Gould can be reached at igould@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4619.

.FAST FACTS

Hot-ticket opener

Armwood at Plant, 8 p.m. Friday, Tampa, ESPNU. Go to highschool.tampabay.com for live updates.

Oddsmakers pounce on Friday night football 09/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 3, 2008 5:01pm]
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