Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Matt Simo examined the sports book slip with the rigor of a neurologist scrutinizing a CT scan.
He darted his eyes across the five picks on the ticket — so many times that he lost count — matching them with the list he had printed out. For three years, Simo had placed contest picks for David Frohardt-Lane without fault, but the stakes were higher on this Saturday. Frohardt-Lane stood to win more than $550,000.
“You try not to put too much pressure on yourself,” Simo said. “But if I messed up one of David’s picks ... I could have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Simo and business partner Toni Nelson have handled thousands of picks over almost a decade of working as football contest proxies. Together, they’ve played a monumental role in the soaring popularity of Westgate Las Vegas’ Supercontest, which every year decides the unofficial world champion of sports betting.
Simo and Nelson make it possible for a third of the field to compete.
Anyone 21 or older can join the Supercontest; all it takes is a $1,500 entry fee. Sign-ups take place over the summer before the football season begins, and entry fees go toward contest payouts.
This year, 1,403 people are vying for a $2.1 million prize pool.
Contestants must make five selections against the point spread in each of the NFL regular season’s 17 weeks. The person with the best cumulative record at the end of the year wins.
Nevada gaming law requires contestants to turn in their own weekly picks or assign a substitute to act on their behalf. Simo and Nelson are those substitutes; they started a business five years ago offering a proxy service for people outside of Las Vegas.
They now put in weekly selections for hundreds of clients, from the country’s sharpest bettors to football fans with no background in gambling. Simo and Nelson devote six months of service each year to the contest.
“It’s a great feeling to be a part of it all,” Nelson said. “I love going down there and seeing the faces over the years. Every July, they know football season is starting because it’s, ‘Here come Matt and Toni.’ ”
The Supercontest has exploded in popularity over the past five years. This season’s 1,403 entrants represent a nearly 400 percent increase from the 328 who signed up in 2009.
Many say the contest’s popularity spiked because of increased exposure from ESPN personalities Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd, who cover the event. But Simo and Nelson are an even more significant factor.
“The overall proxy option is the No. 1 reason for the growth,” said Jay Kornegay, executive director of the Superbook. “It has been more people finding out they can enter a Las Vegas handicapping contest without living in the state of Nevada.”
Contest proxies are nothing new. Kornegay believes they have been part of the Supercontest since it began in 1989, the brainchild of then-Hilton sports book boss Art Manteris.
Nelson and Simo started turning in picks separately for a few people in 2005 when they worked together at a sports-betting information website. It wasn’t until 2009 that they joined forces and decided to build a company.
They started with 11 customers. This year, they’ve got 454.
“I felt like I could corner the market,” Simo said. “I have a web-marketing background, so I knew I could build a site that would get indexed well by the search engines and that people could find if I got a good domain name. I also knew customer service was a big issue. People want to be able to trust the person they’re putting $1,500 with in the sports book.”
Half of the first page of results for a Google search of “Supercontest” now direct people to Simo’s site.
That’s what led Dustin Rampi, a real estate investor from Massillon, Ohio, to the company. A longtime gambler and fixture on the Internet’s largest sports betting message boards, Rampi had contemplated joining the Supercontest for three years. He researched ways to get his picks in every week.
“I knew you had to be careful with hiring guys for a proxy service,” Rampi said. “But everything that I found doing research had great comments about Matt’s service. And I’m very happy with the service I’ve received so far. He runs it right.”
Under the alias Alcatraz Holdings, Rampi got off to a 26-4 start during the first six weeks of this year’s Supercontest to hold the lead. He since has cooled off, but with two weeks remaining, sits in 14th place. The top 30 earn prize money, with first place awarded $736,575 this year.
Simo and Nelson are heavily invested in their clients’ success. In addition to a flat fee of $300, they charge 2 percent of all winnings.
Rampi considers it a bargain with all the work they put in.
Each year between July and the early-September deadline to enter the contest, Simo or Nelson meet every client they sign at the Superbook. All contestants must appear once in Las Vegas before the start of the season to register for the contest.
Once football season begins, Simo emails contest lines to his customers every Wednesday, seconds after they’re released. He then picks up two reserved reams of contest cards from the Superbook.
His wife, Jessika Simo, fills out contestants’ names and identification numbers before passing the cards to Nelson, who marks the circles based on clients’ picks.
Nelson and Matt Simo alternate putting in the hundreds of cards at the Superbook on Thursday afternoons for clients who select the weekly game that night, and before the final deadline Saturday mornings. They review every ticket before leaving.
“It’s the consistency of double- and triple-checking to make sure we don’t make a mistake,” Nelson said. “It’s not hard; it’s filling out parlay cards. It just takes time, but we’re willing to put it in. That’s what we’re getting paid to do.”
Unique obstacles always present themselves. Last month, Westgate lost power the afternoon before a Thursday Night Football game. Simo loitered for hours hoping the system would reboot in time for kickoff — to no avail. Power was restored in the middle of the first half.
Another headache came this season when the Minnesota Vikings deactivated Adrian Peterson after he was charged with recklessly injuring one of his children. The cards already were filled out, and Simo had to switch picks for almost everyone who took the Vikings, who were playing the New England Patriots.
Not all impediments are football-related, either. Simo groaned remembering the time last year he got caught in traffic because of a bike race.
“You just never know what’s going to happen on any week,” he said. “I get the lightest sleep every Friday night because I’m worried I’m going to oversleep.”
Last season was a banner year for the proxy service. Frohardt-Lane, a veteran bettor and algorithmic trader from Chicago and a regular client of Simo and Nelson’s, won the Supercontest for $557,850. He passed the leader during the final week of the season.
Not only was he Nelson and Simo’s first-ever champion, the proxies also represented two of the contest’s next five finishers. In total, they had six contestants who finished in the money after never having had more than one during the previous four years.
Simo and Nelson are optimistic about the chances of celebrating similar success this season. The most exciting and rewarding part of their business, they said, is cheering on clients.
“I live for this,” Simo said. “This is why I’m in Vegas and why I’m going to be here as long as the contest is going — as long as they still use proxies.”