R.J. Bell says he started betting sports at age 14 with $200, bought the Pregame name for $300 and has Cantor Gaming eyeing him to be a major player in a half a trillion dollar industry.
“It’s all about trust,” said Bell, the founder and president of Pregame.com in a 1-on-1 from the company’s office at Russell and Pecos. “If you don’t have trust, the information you give them is worthless.”
According to Bell, Pregame is close to finalizing a major deal with Cantor Gaming and local ESPN radio for an 11 p.m. show Monday through Friday that will discuss sports betting from that day and take a first look at the next day’s opening lines.
“The hope is to start distributing it in July,” Bell said. “We will have a month or two to work out the kinks so we are really ready to roll for the NFL.”
Thanks to a $250,000 contribution from a tech company out of California, a 3,500-square foot studio near the Orleans is good to go for podcasting.
“We are a sports information website with a sports betting perspective that works perfectly with what Cantor is about,” Bell said. “We got on Cantor’s radar. I have been a fan of theirs for a long time.
“People are confused about their business model and many are skeptical,” Bell said. “I think Cantor is truly visionary. Aggressiveness and risk management, where they are willing to take a bet, combined with the experience of meaningful sports betting.”
The Big Break
Pregame.com is really better known nationally than here in Las Vegas. The reason – they provided the statistical data that broke the Tim Donaghy point-shaving NBA scandal in 2006.
“I did some research on the Donaghy movement and found there were 15 straight games he officiated in where the line moved 1½ points or more,” Bell said. “We reported the data to show the Vegas numbers backed up the case against Donaghy. Nightline, CBS, ABC Evening News, SportsCenter had us on. We gained both a ton of attention and publicity all at once.”
From that point Pregame.com cultivated a relationship with radio and TV on a national level. The website became respected and Bell landed a weekly role on Colin Cowherd’s national ESPN radio show.
Not bad for an original $300 purchase of the Pregame name from an old nutrition company that was going out of business.
“I made the purchase in 2003 and launched Pregame.com in January 2005,” Bell said. “It began with me and two guys – one I grew up with in eastern Ohio and the other a college buddy at Ohio State.”
Bell graduated summa cum laude in finance and was accepted at several Ivy League law schools, but decided his Masters degree would come from a dog track across the river in Wheeling, W.V.
“I grew up an hour from Pittsburgh and spent a lot of time in Steubenville, the home of Jimmy The Greek,” Bell said. “My dad was a coal miner and the betting sheets would come out of the mine. The parlay cards were ties lose and would pay 10-1. The first time I bet I hit a four-teamer for $200. I would take $20 each week from the $200 and bet a four-teamer until the envelope was empty.”
Bell was hooked. He began playing one-teamers and took in single side bets all through high school. He learned at that Wheeling dog track that at 20 percent hold, he could not beat the house.
“A lot of people knew more about betting than me, but not many knew more about the business side of betting,” he said. Vegas to me was the epicenter of sports betting and I moved out here in 1998. I saw a business opportunity and planned to create a site I wanted as a bettor.”
So instead of studying law books, Bell took in the wisdom of Jim Feist and Mike Warren, plus betting shows on the former USA Network.
“It made sense to me that some people were great at sports betting,” Bell said. “I tried to piggy back them. It stuck with me to get the best possible content. The mission of Pregame.com is bringing thousands of people together. With the best possible people, the collected IQ gives us the best chance of winning.”
The Cowherd show gave Pregame the necessary exposure and spawned a regular weekly radio spot in Los Angeles at the local ESPN affiliate.
“I’ve been on in L.A. for three years now,” Bell said. “Cowherd also used me on Fridays in his 12:45 ET slot. I would grade his picks and it became a very popular segment on ESPN radio.”
Bell saw what was happened in the industry with Rivals.com being purchased by Yahoo and Huffington Post acquired by AOL.
“It was borderline absurd that betting sides were relatively small,” he said. “There was no monster site. We were getting probably 150 media mentions a year. I was a fan of the Cantor Fitzgerald infrastructure with their unmatched in-game technology.”
In turn Cantor and its CEO Lee Amaitis became interested in developing a relationship with Bell and Pregame.com.
“We understood the reality of the future – tech companies,” Bell said. “Having bettors in beautiful multi-million dollar environments that Cantor has developed was more appealing than sitting in a smoky, trashy book. I was a fan of their approach.”
Bell’s website is similar in appearance to Covers.com, but vastly different in both demographics and purpose.
“Covers is in Canada and we’re here,” Bell said. “They’ve taken a few PR hits, we’ve developed a trust with bettors dating back to the Donaghy scandal. By the way, Donaghy would later come to us looking for a job. Talk about what goes around, comes around!”
Donaghy wasn’t hired, which further enhanced the trust factor so lacking in an industry full of “the hustle.”
“We’re definitely not about that,” Bell said. “I firmly believe our handicappers should participate locally in our community. Vegas Runner lives in Las Vegas and contributes to GamingToday. Bryan Leonard, Scott Spreitzer, Stephen Nover (another former GT writer) and Tony George are among the best in the business. Plus they are accessible. Once you gain the public’s trust, the benefits come later on.”