Danny Sheridan is a young man with a six-figure income. He has appeared on NBC's Tomorrow and ABC's Good Morning America. He has been featured in Esquire and Argosy and acclaimed by newspaper columnists, including such heavy hitters as Dave Anderson of The New York Times and Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times. He is the wonder of football fans across the country. Maybe not all fans, but certainly the 32 million or so who play the office pool, are aware of point spreads, or back their favorites with an occasional wager. Danny Sheridan is a football forecaster. Moreover, he is an inspired forecaster, a guy who gets "vibrations" from "a higher authority." Or so he maintains.
This magazine, too, was intrigued by him. When we visited Danny Sheridan he was 28 and unknown, a garrulous real estate agent in Mobile, Ala. who was dissatisfied with his job and convinced that he had an uncanny power to predict the winners of football games. He "dreamed of scores." He used to walk to nearby Ladd Stadium and toss a football around, waiting to get overwhelmed by a "feeling" of the outcomes of the next Saturday's games. Sheridan claimed that in 1974 he had picked 184 winners in 205 games. He said he hit 28 of his "specials" in a row. More remarkably, he was not simply picking winners, but picking winners against the spread.
Invented by bookmakers in the 1920s, point spreads are a handicap imposed on the stronger team in any given game. It is a sum of points subtracted from the favored team's score that is meant to transform every game into a fifty-fifty gamble. Thus, when Texas meets Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, odds are that the Longhorns will win. But, if they are favored by, say, 7½ points, they would have to win by eight points or more for a Texas backer to collect an even-money bet. Favorites cover, or exceed, the spread as often as they don't. So, mathematically, the odds against Sheridan's boast of 28 "specials" in a row, or against 28 consecutive hits on any other fifty-fifty gamble, such as a coin flip, exceed 200 million to 1. "Trust me," he said, "I know it isn't easy."
Sheridan's predicting prowess, if not his actual predictions, was first brought to public attention by Bill Sellers, an award-winning political reporter for the Mobile Press Register. Sellers said that Sheridan's selections were truly astonishing, although he could not substantiate his professed record. Still, Sheridan appeared to be an interesting phenomenon in the world of football, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ran a story on him in the Sept. 22, 1975 issue.
Shortly afterward Sheridan appeared on the Tomorrow show and was asked to make a few point-spread predictions. He later advertised that he picked 17 of 19; in fact, he correctly picked five of seven. His "best bet," the New York Jets, were beaten 43-0 by Miami. Nonetheless, overnight Sheridan had become a celebrity in betting circles. According to the article in Esquire, he received more than 12,000 letters from football addicts throughout America after his TV appearance. Most were from people asking him to put out a tout sheet. After all, if 50 other tip sheets were being sold around the country during the football season, certainly Sheridan owed it to the public to join in.
Sheridan does not gamble himself because it's illegal, but he hoped to grow rich predicting football winners. At one point he tried to contact Bob Martin, the Las Vegas oddsmaker who was making point spreads before Sheridan was born, trying to find out how he could cash in on his "talent." Martin didn't return the call. Sheridan called Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder and recited his record. When Sheridan insisted he picked 85% winners, Snyder was incredulous. "He's pure applesauce," The Greek said. Sheridan then contacted Mort Olshan, publisher of The Gold Sheet, an information service that's been in business for 21 years. Olshan told Sheridan he didn't think Sheridan could pick the winners after the games had been played. Sheridan, who says he has a photographic memory, said he could. Olshan tested him with two games that had been played the previous season—Texas Christian vs. Rice and Oregon vs. Oregon State—asking Sheridan which team had won and whether it had covered the spread. Sheridan answered incorrectly on both counts in both cases. Olshan showed him the door.
After he came to public attention, Sheridan started a telephone tout service. For $100 he gave clients eight or nine selections a week. New clients kept calling, so Sheridan upped his fee to $300 a week. Still people called. He raised his rates to $500 and later to $900. It was about then that Mark Bernstein, a handicapper and bettor from Far Rockaway, N.Y., phoned Sheridan to ask for his selections. "How many are you?" Sheridan asked. "Eight," said Bernstein. "How much do you bet?" Sheridan asked. "Ten thousand a week," Bernstein responded "O.K.," Sheridan said, "send me $4,500 and we'll talk." Bernstein coughed up.
Sheridan's annual earnings jumped from $18,000 a year to an estimated $200,000. Rich is a condition Danny Sheridan might have enjoyed forever. But last year, urged by "thousands requesting me," as he says, Sheridan began his first full season of printing and distributing a weekly tip sheet. Right off he had 2,500 subscribers paying him an average of $500 a season. On one hand, it added roughly $1.2 million to his income. On the other, suddenly there were 2,500 people besides Danny Sheridan who could record and grade his selections. To subscribers, the results were disheartening. So far, in two seasons Sheridan has made 222 selections—documented them, as he says—and he has been wrong on 112, with two ties or what gamblers call "pushes." It adds up to 49.1% winners. As a football prognosticator, what Danny Sheridan is a loser.
In 1976, Sheridan's long-awaited tip sheet listed 14 selections of games to be played on Sept. 11-13. He hit seven winners and seven losers, 50%. But for bettors who followed his advice it still meant a loss. Bookies receive a 10% commission, called the "vigorish," on losing bets, which means that when you bet $100 (let's be realistic, if someone pays $500 for a tip service he isn't making $10 bets) you collect $100 if you win but pay $110 if you lose. To break even, 52.38% of your bets must be winners. So that first week, a Sheridan client who bet $100 on every pick would have lost $70. The next week Sheridan picked 10 games and had three winners and seven losers. This time the $100 bettor lost $470, not counting the cost of Sheridan's service.
"Thanks for your telegrams of encouragement," Sheridan wrote in his tip sheet the next week. "Clients who stand by us in good as well as bad times will be remembered and taken care of in seasons to come." By Nov. 22 Sheridan had made a comeback and his season record was 62-48, a respectable 56%, and anyone who had bet $100 on each selection would be $920 to the good.
But then, on Thanksgiving weekend, Danny Sheridan went bust. He made seven picks and every one lost. "I apologize," he wrote in his next newsletter. "I wish I had passed on the Thanksgiving games." He might better have closed shop for the entire holiday season. He missed eight of 10 bowl games. Nine of 11 if you count Oklahoma State's 49-21 romp over Brigham Young in the Tangerine Bowl. BYU wasn't listed as a pick, but Sheridan did write, "I was leaning toward BYU against Oklahoma State because I think [the] game means more to them." He finished the year picking Minnesota to beat Oakland by three points in Super Bowl XI (for a $50 fee to newcomers). With the Raiders' 32-14 victory, Sheridan slipped to 71-69-1, 50.7%, leaving the $100 bettor who played every pick a $490 loser.
This season, as of Nov. 20, Sheridan's record is even worse. He is 37-43-1, or 46.2%. Still, his star is rising. Beginning Oct. 7, Sheridan was hired to make weekly picks on the Good Morning America show. For television, he picks winners of games, not winners against the spread. This is much easier. Herschel Nissenson of the Associated Press, for example, picks game winners weekly and his record is currently 71.3% correct. But Danny Sheridan's record on TV is only 22-22-1. "It's just a fun spot," says Patty Mitnick, a Good Morning America researcher in charge of the Sheridan segment. "Besides, he tries to pick upsets."
On occasion, however, Sheridan also seems to be giving clues as to which team he thinks will cover the spread. Three weeks ago, for example, he said he liked Notre Dame to beat Clemson, but that the score would be respectable. People who bet might easily interpret that to mean Notre Dame wouldn't cover the 10½ Point spread. Which it didn't. But Sheridan's record against the spread on GMA is 20-25, 44%, roughly his tip-sheet average. Two of Sheridan's "picks" are not included in this total, because bookmakers don't have a "what if " category. On Oct. 7, while discussing the Alabama-USC game, Sheridan said he liked the Crimson Tide to win by one point, or USC to win by 17 or more. Alabama did, in fact, win by one point. Two weeks later, Sheridan announced that he liked Minnesota to beat Los Angeles by three points in overtime, or the Rams to take it by seven points or more in regulation (Los Angeles won 35-3 in regulation). Across America, viewers who follow these things were scratching their heads.
The last time this magazine saw Danny Sheridan he was an excitable, likable, self-assured curiosity. Often he would blurt out wild predictions, guesses about football and life itself. One night at a dog track, moments after the No. 3 dog had crossed the finish line a winner, Sheridan leaped from his seat, shouting, "See! I told you No. 3 is going to win all night long!" It was the first we heard of it, and no other No. 3 won the rest of the night.
Sheridan's thoughts drifted back to football. "I'm afraid to wager," he said. "It's illegal and I know if I do the IRS will catch up with me." His thoughts shifted to the future. "I'd love to quit real estate for a couple of years," he said. "I have this talent and I believe I could make a million dollars. I'll bet I could pull it off. Maybe start a tip sheet or something. Get a million in banks and bonds in two years and then live like a king off the interest."
The two years have passed. It seems that Danny Sheridan might connect on one documented prediction.
Since going public, Sheridan has been wrong more often than he has been right.