Mike Tenay discusses breaking into pro wrestling, his gambling podcast
Mike Tenay is known in wrestling circles as the “Professor,” but if it weren’t for Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Tenay claims he would simply be an afterthought.
“Bobby Heenan was my traveling partner for my entire time in WCW, and his stamp of approval meant so much,” said Tenay. “Just by its nature, wrestling has always been a very closed business that did not allow in many people, but Bobby Heenan went to Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, and he said to them, ‘Mike Tenay is one of us.’
“The greatest experience in my time in the wrestling business was my time spent with Bobby Heenan. There is absolutely nobody like him, and he was the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met. He never went out with a lot of show prep behind him. That would be counter-productive. Bobby Heenan relied on having a Mike Tenay or a Tony Schiavone or a Gorilla Monsoon to set the table for him, because Bobby Heenan can take anything you say and twist it in a way that is entertaining and comical. I can’t stress how important Bobby Heenan was to me as far as allowing me to be accepted by people in the wrestling business, and I cherish our friendship at a level that is even difficult for me to put into words.”
Tenay stressed that Heenan opened countless doors for him in the business of professional wrestling, but the main reasons that the modest and humble Tenay has succeeded for the past 21 years are his undeniable talent and work ethic. He now hosts the “‘Professor Vegas’ Mike Tenay Sports Betting Podcast” for CBS Radio and the Play.it podcast network, but for wrestling fans, Tenay will always be the man who called the 1994 When Worlds Collide pay per view on November 6, 1994 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
The pay per view was co-promoted by AAA and World Championship Wrestling, but the WCW broadcasters refused to call the show.
“The WCW announce team, led by Tony Schiavone, was not interested in doing it,” said Tenay. “For Tony, it was a one-off show with a roster of wrestlers he had no knowledge of, so it was a lose-lose situation.”
For Tenay, however, it was a win-win situation.
“That’s the night my life forever changed,” said Tenay. “I was allowed to show, on a worldwide stage, that I could entertain and inform by providing information about those wrestlers. That is the night that all of the doors opened up for me.”
When Worlds Collide featured an array of future wrestling legends in Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Konnan, and Psicosis. For a wrestling fan, watching the show was akin to seeing the Beatles first perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“The business changed that night,” said Tenay. “Before When Worlds Collide, the chances of a wrestler the size of Rey Mysterio ever getting a job with a national wrestling promotion were less than one percent. At that time, WCW and the WWF would have absolutely never hired Rey Mysterio. But because of the popularity of that pay per view and the amazing athletic ability those wrestlers showed, the doors were opened.”
In addition to appealing to mainstream fans, the Lucha Libre style allowed a wider array of people the opportunity to join pro wrestling.
“So many new fans, and younger fans, were able to relate directly to Rey Mysterio because of his size,” said Tenay. “And many people who were not the 6’2”, 240-pound minimum now had the option to become professional wrestlers. That option was really never there until Mysterio and Juventud Guerrera opened things up that night for the next generation, and Mysterio then went to WCW and took it to the next level.”
Tenay worked for WCW from ’94 until it was purchased by Vince McMahon in 2001, and saw the rise and fall of the company. Despite eventually closing its doors, the behind-the-scenes taste of WCW was a wonderful marriage of body, spirit, and soul for Tenay.
“You hate to say the words, ‘Dream job,’ because you’re setting yourself up for failure, but that was a dream job,” said Tenay. “I used to run a tape recorder during the matches in Los Angeles when I was fifteen years old, and this was this dream job that came to me because I was never afraid to go out and try to get it. The reality was that it was unlikely that I would ever get that opportunity, but When Worlds Collide opened the floodgates for me.”
Tenay stated that he will always remain grateful for the opportunity Eric Bischoff bestowed upon him, ultimately giving him a shot on Monday Nitro, but he did not agree with a multitude of creative decisions the company made at the turn of the century.
“The nature of the wrestling business is always open for second-guessing,” said Tenay. “But some of the booking decisions of the late 1990’s certainly hastened the decline of WCW. All of a sudden, WCW couldn’t garner the interest of the mainstream fans like it did in 1996 and ’97, and soon after, so went the company.”
Many of WCW’s short-sighted decisions – like rushing the Hulk Hogan-Bill Goldberg feud, misusing Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and crowning David Arquette as world champion were crippling mistakes for the company.
“When it comes to wrestling booking, I’ve always been a fan of sports-based booking,” said Tenay. “The wrestling product should be presented as legitimate as possible, with individuals fighting over championships and over issues that resonate with the audience. But there was a time when WCW creative went in a different direction. While I never want to take away the entertainment aspect of pro wrestling, WCW went too far in that direction. If you look at the success these days of the UFC, you’ll see a product very similar to pro wrestling in the pre-sports entertainment era, and it’s no surprise that UFC is so successful with that mindset.”
Tenay has a history of looking where no one else is looking – which was never more evident than with his call of When Worlds Collide, but also led to the genesis of his gambling podcast.
“I was making regular appearances on Taz’s podcast, and the folks at CBS Radio, as well as Taz, mentioned the possibility of me doing a podcast,” said Tenay. “I looked around and saw a very crowded, competitive field, as you had successful wrestling podcasts with people like Taz, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, and Jim Ross. At the same time, I looked at the existing podcasts for CBS Radio, and there was nothing remotely like my idea for a sports betting-themed show. I pitched that, delivered a fifteen-minute monologue over the telephone, and they liked the idea.”
The 60-year-old Tenay has gracefully put his own touch on his podcast, just like he did with his wrestling broadcasts.
“If you’re doing what everyone else is doing at that specific time, you’re going to get in line with a lot of people,” said Tenay. “But if you have a subject matter that is different from everyone else, that uniqueness blends itself to a better potential for success.”
Tenay is not a “Vince McMahon Guy” or a “Paul Levesque Guy.” He is self-made in the very cut-throat world of pro wrestling.
“My past is similar to guys like Paul Heyman and Jim Cornette,” said Tenay. “We were lifelong fans who got involved in the periphery of the wrestling business at a young age. I started in 1966 at the age of eleven writing for the newsstand wrestling magazines, and I started my own newsletter called The Mat News.”
Tenay’s publication ran from 1966 until 1973, was a two-time winner of the Wrestling Fans International Association Newsletter of the Year, and captured the imagination of the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
“Before Dave Meltzer started doing his own newsletter, he was a subscriber to mine,” said Tenay. “For that era, it was a very popular newsletter. It was such a different era for the wrestling fan. The only real knowledge you could attain was from the wrestling magazines, but those magazines were limited in the amount of information they could give. The wrestling magazines knew they couldn’t step on the toes of the promoters.”
The top money attractions during the heyday of Tenay’s newsletter were “Classy” Freddie Blassie and The Destroyer.
“When I first watched wrestling in 1962, my grandfather was visiting, and he said, ‘We’re going to watch professional wrestling tonight on TV,’” recalled Tenay. “I said to him, ‘What’s professional wrestling?’ The first vision I had on that TV was of a masked wrestler named The Destroyer cutting these great promos. I’m not sure whether I should give Dick Beyer [The Destroyer] the credit or the blame for getting me hooked.”
Tenay grew up just outside of Los Angeles in Whittier, California, watching the matches as far back as 1962 at the Los Angeles at the Olympic Auditorium. His knowledge of the Mexican wrestling scene also dates back to the 60’s.
“Because of the heavy Hispanic population in Southern California, we had a promotion that relied on bringing a lot of wrestlers from Mexico as drawing cards,” said Tenay. “This is really where the first wave of Lucha Libre came to the United States. It was always in the border towns, so whether it was Texas or California, the promotions were always smart enough to realize that their fan base wanted to see a lot of their heroes from Mexico that a lot of fans who grown up with in Mexico. So my timing was really great when it came to Lucha Libre, especially with how popular it grew in the 1990’s.”
Once Tenay graduated high school, he went to work with his father, Bill Tenay, at a company called Haldeman. For thirteen years, he sold industrial and commercial heating and air conditioning equipment in Los Angeles.
Life moves in interesting directions, and Tenay’s interest in gambling ultimately brought him to Las Vegas.
“I’ve been an over-the-top sports fan my entire life,” explained Tenay. “I’ve always tried to get as much information as I could about all of the major sports, and I used to go to the race track with my dad together in Southern California to Santa Anita and Del Mar and Hollywood Park, all the major thoroughbred race tracks. So I was introduced to horserace betting at a very young age, and I grew very interested in sports betting.
“Since I lived so close to Las Vegas, it gave me the opportunity – well before I was 21 years old or could bet – to go to the sports books in Las Vegas. I was so intrigued that you could bet on these sporting events, and once I became of age, that became a real hobby of mine. I was always so interested in the sports and horse racing side of the casino business.”
Tenay’s transition into bookmaking occurred when he was introduced to fate on a sojourn to Sin City.
“I happened to see that the community college in Las Vegas was offering an entry level course in Race and Sports Book,” said Tenay. “The person who was teaching the course was going on to run the sports book at the Gold Coast Casino in Las Vegas when it opened in 1986, and one of the caveats to that class was that the teacher would be taking the top five students and give them the opportunity to work at the casino.”
While it is odd to think of “Professor Vegas” as a day, he actually began his tenure into bookmaking by correcting his professor.
“The first night of class, the teacher explained, ‘We’re going to do horse racing today, and then we’ll get into sports betting,’” said Tenay. “The teacher started to write all of the different types of bets in horse racing on the board, and I remember looking around the class – there were about 60 of us there – when I noticed one of the definitions on the board was incorrect.”
Tenay was forced to gamble whether correcting his instructor in the opening minutes of the first class was in his best interests.
“The teacher had reversed the definitions for the exacta bet and the quinella bet,” recalled Tenay. “I remember saying to myself, ‘We’re five minutes into the class – am I going to do myself any favors by correcting the teacher?’ But I said raised my hand and quickly had 60 sets of eyeballs immediately turn to me as I said, ‘I hate to point this out, but the definition that you have for exacta should be for quinella, and vice versa.’ For whatever reason, from that moment on, I had a really great relationship with that teacher. So I made the right decision to correct the teacher – he ended up hiring me for the job at the casino.”
The experience of working in a casino and seeing its inner-workings was an entirely different education for Tenay.
“Until you work in the casino, you can’t really appreciate the amount of knowledge and information that you’re able to soak up,” said Tenay. “You see every aspect when you’re working behind the counter. You see the temperament of the sports better, and you see the ones who will never spend the amount of time necessary to get the information and process the information, the ones who will never win. No matter how much you study, the amount of knowledge you gain from working in the industry is ten-fold.”
Tenay recalled the time when bookmakers literally used a book to compile and crunch numbers. Now, with sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, the avenues to gamble are far different. Instead of fearing change, Tenay has always evolved with the business.
“The internet is the greatest invention of my lifetime,” said Tenay. “Before the internet, you’d have to go to the library and read old newspapers about out-of-town teams, or find stores with out-of-town newspapers. A lot of professional gamblers hired people who worked at the airport. They’d give them a few bucks a day, and in return, they’d gather up newspaper sports sections from across the country. That was still a part of many professional gamblers’ routine in the 80’s and 90’s, but it is unbelievable the amount of information we have access to now.”
Tenay’s podcast also divulges the intricate measures Vegas casinos use to set a line. He looked at the week two NFL match-up between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills as an example, which was a game where the Bills were at home and a slight favorite.
“People think that, when Las Vegas sets a point spread, they’re trying to get equal bets on both sides,” said Tenay. “In a perfect world, that would be exactly what to shoot for, because you have to lay $110 to win $100. If you were able to get an equal amount of bets on the New England side and an equal amount of bets on the Buffalo side, then all the casino would have to do is sit back and let the money roll in because they’d be acting merely as the middle man. That’s the ideal world for casinos, but it happens less than ten percent of the time when you’re booking games.
“The reality is that casinos always have a side they’re rooting for in games. So when you set the line, you’re trying to get into the head of the bettor. There are many different types of bettors – there are public bettors, professional bettors, the guy who’s going to bet a $5 parlay card, and another guy who is going to bet $20,000 on a game. You’ve got such a wide variance when it comes to your customers. Casinos are trying to get ahead of the game anticipating where the betting will come in, while not getting too far ahead and giving a bargain to the professional bettor.”
Vegas’ method for creating lines for games is incredibly accurate, so “Professor Vegas” encourages listeners to look for anomalies.
“If you look at a line and think, ‘Vegas nailed it – that’s the right line,’ then look for another game,” said Tenay. “Do not force the bet. If you feel you have an edge – because of something that you read, or something you anticipate because of the way the scheduling dynamic is playing out – that’s the only time you should be looking to make a bet.”
Battling the house is extremely challenging, but Tenay’s podcast is a rare advantage for the gambler.
“I’m trying to be entertaining and educational at the same time so you can come away with a higher level of knowledge,” said Tenay, who then offered a piece of information about the NFL’s most bet team.
“This year, and it’s not even close, the New England Patriots are the most public bet team. Every week, the sports book knows that the general public is going to bet the New England Patriots, no matter what number you put up. Now your job as a bookmaker is to come up with a number that is good for your casino for the public to bet, but – at the same time – the number can’t be so good that now the professional bettors will come in on that other side.”
Tenay laughed at whether there are more politics in pro wrestling than pro football. In the case of Roger Goodell vs. Tom Brady, Tenay is not surprised at the manner in which Goodell has allowed legal issues to become personal.
“There are many similarities in pro wrestling and pro football,” said Tenay. “Professional sports – just like pro wrestling – are such big business that there is no way that it’s not going to become political.”
Tenay has also worked for TNA since 2002, but has been off television since July. He confirmed that he is still employed by the company and under contract, but could not disclose whether he will be part of the live broadcast on TNA’s POP TV debut on Tuesday, January 6.
“That hasn’t been discussed with me,” said Tenay. “I think it’s great that TNA, in a very competitive time, found that outlet for Impact Wrestling. There is an absolutely terrific group of very talented people who still have the ability to ply their trade and make a living because of that, and it’s fantastic for everybody involved.”
The “Professor Vegas” podcast allows listeners the opportunity to hear Tenay every week.
“It’s sports from a Vegas perspective, and it’s the only podcast of its kind,” said Tenay. “I’m presenting a weekly audio magazine covering so many different facets of sports betting. The meat and potatoes of the show is the special guest segment with a different professional gambler every week breaking down college and NFL games and giving picks off the point spreads, and we have a weekly segment with Jimmy Vaccaro out of the South Point Casino here in Las Vegas, and he’s the dean of Las Vegas bookies. We find out if the sports books won last week, we find out if the bettors came out ahead, we look at the big bets the casinos took, and we anticipate the games that the casinos will be rooting for.”
New shows drop every Thursday, but since Christmas falls on a Thursday, this week’s podcast will launch this Wednesday. As long as there are games, Tenay confirmed, there will be a podcast.
“If Mike Tenay talking sports with bookies and gamblers sounds interesting to you,” said Tenay, “then the ‘Professor Vegas’ podcast is for you.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.