The advent of the pointspread literally transformed sports betting in the United States. For most of the 20th century there was little interest in sports betting and particularly on football. Many games were mismatches where the winner was a foregone conclusion. These had little, if any, betting interest since players didn’t want to lay the huge odds on the favorite nor did they want to back the underdog no matter how much they were getting in return. For that reason, horse racing had significantly more betting interest until the middle of the 20th century.
Historically, there’s no real consensus as to the point spread’s origin or for that matter who came up with it in the first place. It likely came into use in the United States in Minneapolis during the 1930s with several different bookmakers claiming to be the inventor including Carl Ersine and Darby Hicks. For several decades the ‘Minneapolis Line’ became the most respected in the country and was distributed nationwide.
Despite the clear evidence that the pointspread predated him by a decade the origin is often credited to Connecticut math teacher Charles K. McNeil. During the 1940’s he decided to make a career ‘pivot’ and became a bookmaker in Chicago. McNeil became successful on both sides of the counter working out of his ersatz ‘office’ at the Gym Club in Chicago. The point spread make him one of the most influential bookies in American but many of his associates thought that he was more adept at betting and viewed his handicapping ability with extreme respect.
THE POINTSPREAD COMES TO THE MAINSTREAM
McNeil is frequently credited with the invention of the pointspread but those with an extensive understanding of the history of sports betting dismiss this narrative. There’s even a school of thought that it began not in the United States but in Australia and New Zealand to create more interest in rugby betting. Even if McNeil didn’t invent the pointspread he’s viewed in much the same way as Henry Ford is in automotive history—as the person who brought it to the masses. He’s often credited with improving and popularizing its use. Sports book history export Mort Olshan sums it up by saying “McNeil might not have invented the pointspread but he certainly refined it”.
With all due respect to McNeil’s importance in improving the pointspread and raising its profile within the gambling community the opinion that he is the primary source for its widespread uses is also highly questionable. The individual who is likely responsible for bringing the pointspread to the collective consciousness of the masses was Las Vegas bookmaker turned major celebrity Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder. ‘The Greek’ found rock star like fame from being part of the top rated NFL pregame show on network television. As unfathomable as it seems now, he contributed his handicapping and betting insights on ‘The NFL Today’ along with Brent Musburger, Irv Cross and Phyllis George.
What most don’t know is that Jimmy ‘The Greek’ was fairly well known long before he was hired by CBS. As manager of the downtown Las Vegas Sports and Turf Club he became the mainstream media’s top source for anything sports or betting related. He was such a fixture in the media that he earned the sobriquet ‘America’s Bookmaker’. This modest fame brought him to the attention of CBS and his stint on ‘The NFL Today’ made him a household name.
‘The Greek’ is now considered an anachronism of the 1970’s best known for his ham handed comments on the genetic origins of African American athletic ability than anything else. The reality is that he deserves credit more than anyone for introducing the point spread and basic handicapping concepts introduced the concept of the pointspread to the larger, non-gambling public. It’s not a stretch to say that he brought sports betting to ‘flyover country’ and establishing the NFL as the USA’s top betting sport.