I started out this tale with a simple question: Is there anyone out there that makes genuine money betting on Major League Soccer?
It's an important question for any league that wants to make it in America. Whether you advocate gambling or not, the betting industry -- legal and otherwise -- is a huge factor in the success of the NFL, international soccer and plenty of other sports around the world.
Until I started working on this piece, I had never met anyone who bet on MLS games. Granted, I'm not a gambler, but I was still curious. Who out there is betting on the U.S. soccer league? And does MLS's single-entity system and tight salary cap (read: institutionalized parity) make it even harder to make money betting on games?
So I put out a tweet seeking MLS gamblers. And George Dempsey responded.
Dempsey, a 21-year-old website developer, does not live in the U.S. -- he calls Bristol, England, home -- and in fact he has never visited America. But he is thoroughly enthralled by watching and betting on U.S. soccer: MLS games, mainly, but also U.S. national team games and even USL third-division games. He even keeps track of all his bets here.
Dempsey began following MLS when David Beckham joined the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, and he has been betting seriously on MLS games the last two years. In a typical week with nine league games, he'll bet on three or four and watch at least six in their entirety online. It's a different experience than gambling on, say, the English Premier League.
"You look at teams like Manchester United, and you know they're going to be a top-three team for 10, 20 years," Dempsey told me over Skype. "You look at San Jose and D.C. compared to last season, and it's just two different teams, and that can happen a lot in MLS. The talent is spread out a little bit more. But there's still a gap between teams like L.A. and Chivas. It makes it more unpredictable sometimes, but it's kind of the same as betting any league. The more you watch it, the more you understand it. And if you understand it well enough, then it's actually possible to make money on it."
Lately, Dempsey's MLS bets are going well. Depending on the odds, he says he wants to hit around 55 percent of his bets. So far in June, he says, he's at around 62 percent on a total of nearly 30 bets.
"At the start of the season, some of the results were just crazy," he says. "I think it's settled down a little bit. There are form teams now. It's getting a little easier."
Because Dempsey watches so many MLS games, he may have an edge over the oddsmakers. "I'm not saying I know more than them," he said, "but because MLS is not as big as the Premier League, they probably give it less focus when setting the odds. I think they probably go off the stats a lot of the time. Other factors like [travel] distance, altitude and heat are things they may not take into account. That probably makes it easier to take advantage of the odds."
Which MLS teams does Dempsey like? "Sporting Kansas City," he says. "I watch all their games. I call them my team." And while Dempsey does sell his tips for money on his site, he did share one for free.
"Don't bet on Toronto," he explained. "I bet against them every week, and I'll do it until it stops working."
We'll see how many more George Dempseys start betting on MLS, both in the U.S. and abroad. And if their numbers really start multiplying, it wouldn't be a bad sign for the health of the league.