Is USA Today's Veteran Gambling Guy Buying Twitter Followers?

Remember our old friend Sarah Phillips, the internet huckster and former ESPN columnist? One of her many tricks, we learned, was to buy followers on Twitter—a new scheme for a new era. The more followers you have, the more influence you can claim to have. In a monetized social-media landscape, the Twitter follower counter acts as a kind of stock quote for your own personal brand.

Apparently, Phillips wasn't the only one to figure this out. The folks at WagerMinds, which uncovered the Phillips/Twitter angle, are alleging that longtime USA Today handicapper and betting lines dude Danny Sheridan recently bought thousands of Twitter followers.

So we checked it out. Four weeks ago, he had a very solidly respectable follower count of 11,000. Between late March and late May, he picked up on average about five followers a day. This is normal, especially for someone who took to tweeting quite so eagerly ("I feel bad if I don't answer right away," he has said about his tweeting reply habits).

And then, starting on the first of June, something crazy happened. His follower count started to skyrocket. Between June 1 and today, his Twitter follower count went from some 11,000 to nearly 400,000. For the last month, he has been picking up thousands and thousands of followers a day. Between June 6 and June 10, according to TwitterCounter, Sheridan picked up exactly—exactly—27,791 followers each day; for the next 10 days, he received exactly 12,085 followers per day. WagerMinds points out that his most recent followers were clearly bots.

[Clarification, 12:40 p.m.: For daily figures, TwitterCounter shows the average over a certain interval between samples. In other words, between June 6 and June 10, Sheridan picked up an average of 27,791 followers every day; that figure isn't necessarily exact.]

Things got even stranger. After WagerMinds posted its story, USA Today decided to do a follow-up of its own.

In the piece, Sheridan—who's had other recent brushes with controversy—denies buying any followers. And then there's this perplexing line written by boxing writer Bob Velin, who was in charge of the USA Today rebuttal:

However, a review of Sheridan's followers could find no such spambots.

OK, for starters, this is vague beyond belief. What kind of review? We were curious how Velin came to this conclusion since all available evidence loudly screams to the contrary (WagerMinds created a helpful video to prove this point). He didn't take too kindly to our questions. When we asked him if he could explain how he reached this conclusion, he wrote back:

I'm a boxing writer. If you want to know about boxing, I'll be happy to talk to you.

When we replied that, no, we'd really rather talk about that line, he emailed:

Hmmm. No comment.

(Sheridan later told me that Velin is a "nice guy.")

Then we emailed USA Today's sports editor Mary Byrne. She wrote back several hours later to inform us the website had a correction to make. It was included in the story:

CORRECTION: In a story published online June 26 about Danny Sheridan's Twitter followers, USA TODAY Sports erred in reporting that a review of Sheridan's followers could not find spambots. USA TODAY Sports did not review each one of his more than 350,000 followers. Sheridan, whose lines appear on this website, is not paid by USA TODAY Sports.

That is a very clear walk-back (and an even more obvious effort to distance itself from Danny "not paid by USA TODAY Sports" Sheridan).

On Wednesday night, Danny Sheridan called and engaged me an hourlong conversation. He denied ever paying for a single Twitter follower. He said that up to "90 percent to 95 percent" of his followers are real. He blamed "the criminals" and "scumbags" and "motherfuckers" for trying to smear him. Since Wednesday—that is to say, since he gave that denial to USA Today—he had noticed something wacky happening. "Someone is fucking with my account," he said.

He later emailed to make his point clear:

there was an authorized attack (for lack of a better word) on my twitter account [Wednesday] morning where 70k+ names were added in less than 1 hour, however the twitter filter that removes spambots within 24-48 hours did remove most of them. I don't think it's not unreasonable to assume who did this & have done this in the past. I'm pursing legal recourse on that now.

assuming twitter's attempt to remove spambots from everyone's account within 48 hours, shows that most of my followers are legit names.

When I told him on the phone that the crazy increases have come over the course of the entire month (not just on Wednesday), he said the uptick was all organic growth. "Well-known national celebrities" had retweeted him, he said, and he does 10 to 20 national interviews a week during which the hosts of those shows announce his Twitter handle. When I asked him for the name of a celebrity or a national radio show on which he'd appeared, he declined.

"I'm not going to punish them," he said.

And what about USA Today? Sheridan said he's been providing odds to the newspaper for 29 years.

When I asked him if USA Today paid him, he said yes. I told him that USA Today was claiming that it didn't. He switched tack and said that two years ago he'd told the previous managing editor of sports—that would be Monte Lorell—that the paper didn't have to pay him anything since it was going through business problems. Sheridan told me he had enough money. (When I asked the USA Today sports editor if Sheridan would still be supplying betting lines for the paper, all she would say is, "We are following up with Sheridan.")

In our interview, Sheridan did the aw-shucks old-guy thing. (He said he's 65.) "I'm computer illiterate," he said over and over. He said that he has a team of people—including some godsons—who help him out with his social-media presence. I asked him, once again, if he bought any Twitter followers.

"Nope," he said. "If they have, they haven't told me." He said he had no reason to believe that it ever happened.

Sheridan also asked me to include this statement:

the people responsible for this (claiming I've bought twiter names) appear to run criminal outfits, according to the DOJ & our country laws, and are only doing this to raise awareness to their name (by using my name & usatody's name, as no one has ever heard of them including you). I intend to contact the DOJ about them, & my guess is they will then crawl under the rock they've always been. I've not broken any laws, let's see if they can say the same thing if and when the DOJ contacts them

Emphasis his. "I know how to tweet," he told me over the phone, "but I don't give a shit about Twitter. I don't care about Facebook. It means nothing to me. I haven't updated my website in five years. People have said, 'Danny, give me your website. You have a brand name.'" He went on: "I have a brand name in this industry, and some people don't like it."

Know more? Or know any other sports media folks who are buying Twitter followers? Drop me a line (koblin@deadspin.com) or join the discussion down below.