Ryan Goldberg, Deadspin
Update (January 16, 2019): In June 2017, RJ Bell and Pregame filed a defamation lawsuit over this article. The parties agreed to settle the case and, as part of that agreement, Deadspin is providing a link to Bell’s response to the allegations in the article: RJ Bell’s Response to This Article. Deadspin stands by its reporting.
Full wagering is illegal in 49 states, but sports betting is big business, with billions wagered each year—and everyone knows it. Lines and moves are discussed openly on TV, and covers are mentioned right next to game stories. Media outlets nationwide turn to a handful of people for insight and predictions into point spreads and odds. And the man they look to more than any other is RJ Bell, a self-proclaimed modern-day Jimmy the Greek.
Various titles, some generous and others outright false—betting expert, professional handicapper, Vegas oddsmaker—are used to identify Bell when he is interviewed, but his role as head of Pregame.com is always included and rarely explained. Pregame, which Bell started in 2005, sells sports-betting picks. Bell does not sell his own selections any more–they never did very well–but instead oversees a revolving cast of two dozen men who do. Bell says they are winning pro bettors, and by paying for their advice, the implication is that you will win, too. After all, they do this for a living.In the industry if not in the media, Bell’s army of handicappers are known, usually derisively, as touts, and Bell is chief tout of the most visible and quite possibly the most profitable pick-selling operation.But unlike his forerunners—notable loudmouths from the ‘80s and ‘90s like Jack Price and Stu Feiner who came across like professional wrestlers—Bell is not braying on TV infomercials, promising to bury your bookmaker. He doesn’t have to. Mainstream media now brings the heads of these services on air and passes them off as analysts, affording people like Bell streams of new customers and free advertising a salesman could scarcely imagine.Scribes and sportscasters alike present Bell as the oracle of Las Vegas. You can hear him on Stephen A. Smith’s Sirius show, KROQ in Los Angeles, ESPN radio in Las Vegas, Yahoo’s national networks, NBC Sports Radio, and Colin Cowherd’s nationally syndicated Fox Sports 1 show; see him in primetime on SportsCenter, CBS, ABC, CNBC, CNN, or at South by Southwest; and find him quoted regularly in the New York Times, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and any local rag or blog that calls him. A few years ago, he wrote a regular betting column for Grantland. On Twitter, his followers number more than 117,000. Following him, he says, is like having “a seat in the sportsbook.”