Still Feist(y) after all these years

Apr 5, 2005 6:51 AM

When you talk sports betting in Nevada, one of the first names mentioned is Jim Feist. For 30 years, Feist has been the recognized leader in the sports information and sports gaming industry.

In addition to operating one of the most popular sports handicapping web sites and publishing numerous sports books, manuals and schedules, Feist is the ringmaster of a stable full of sports handicappers, and the host of Proline, a handicapping TV show.

Even before he hit Las Vegas in the early 1970s, Feist was an accomplished sports bettor and handicapper.

"One of the problems in those days was getting paid," Feist recalled. "That’s one of the reasons I came to Nevada."

Feist established his first betting service in 1975, but the business didn’t start to "make a difference" until 1978.

But the biggest surge in business came in the mid 1980s, when Feist bought up most of the 900 telephone numbers and tied his sports service to Ma Bell.

"I think at one point I had 90 percent of all the 900 phone numbers in the country," Feist said. "We made a lot of money with them, as much as $140 million a year."

Not only were the 900 numbers linked to Feist’s sports handicappers, they were used to promote other businesses as well.

"At one time we had 7,000 different programs operating," Feist said.

But the 900-number boom was to be short-lived. After a few years, government intervention took a bite out of the lucrative phone service industry.

"The government passed a law that said phone customers could refuse to pay a 900 number on their telephone bill," Feist said. "Our business went from a 2 percent charge back rate to 45 percent in one year."

Today, those lucrative 900 numbers account for only 10 percent of Feist’s sports service business. But the slack has been taken up by other vehicles, especially the Internet.

"Our online business has taken off," Feist said. "Of course, we also spend a lot more on TV, radio and direct mail to generate business."

That business includes Feist’s own personal sports handicapping service, as well as contracted handicappers such as Dave Cokin and Bob Donahue. He also operates a 24-hour score phone, and publishes several sports preview magazines.

Feist’s most popular publications probably are his Pro and College Football Annuals, which most handicappers consider the "bible" of sports information, including 10-year point spread histories for all teams.

"Most of these services, including the publishing side, are really loss leaders," Feist said. "But they build exposure and help drive the other businesses."

Many of those businesses are tied to the Internet, which Feist says still offers limitless potential. He even threw his green eyeshade into the online poker ring, though his poker site doesn’t offer gambling.

"You can buy anything on the Internet and people will always want to gamble," Feist said. "If the government would regulate and control it, people wouldn’t mind paying taxes on the Internet."

Even though sports betting in Nevada has changed dramatically over the years, mostly because of tighter controls on wagering, rebates and courier betting, Feist is still bullish about its future.

"I’m excited about the sports and gaming industry in Las Vegas," he said. "I think the industry is going forward and will grow in the world."

Feist said critics need to recognize and accept how gaming has changed.

"We’ve gone from a high roller town to a low roller town," he said. "But because the appeal is broader, the growth in tourism has been amazing."

Feist acknowledges that the sports information business has become more competitive than ever before.

"On the Internet, we’ve gone from 12 betting sites to more than 75,000 sites," he said. "The result has been a watering down in the cost of the product, and profitability has become very difficult.

"But our business is good," Feist continued. "I’ve been here for 35 years, and I’m not ready to leave."