Thursday, November 22, 2007

Investment Note

The Patriots are 22 point favorites over the Eagles this Sunday. This is the largest point spread ever for an NFL game that didn't involve a first year expansion team. And the line's been bet to 23 from Monday.

The Patriots are better than the Eagles. They're playing at home, and Donovan McNabb is hurting. So the spread should be big. But 22? That's a spread that renders the actual game almost irrelevant to the wager's outcome. There is no factual difference between a 38-14 game (the score by which the Pats beat the Jets in the season opener) and a 38-17 game (the score by which they beat the Chargers the following week). Unless of course, you gave the 22.

The number represents the attempt of the gambling industry to compensate for what usually is its bread and buttered caviar. Most of its customers are not well-informed. Like voters who haven't given a thought to the 2008 election who, when polled, say they're for Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani, football bettors go with the name they've most heard, the teams that are on television a lot. They're called "national" teams, and this effect can last a long time past said team's shelf life. The Raiders still get more play than they deserve.

Bettors, in short, play celebrity favorites. The fact Tony Romo dates celebrities probably adds at least a half-point to the Dallas spread each week. The Pats are the "national" favorite par excellence. The suckers, er, home investors have been betting New England with both feet. Since the awful events of the AFC championship game have convinced the Pats to never stop playing hard no matter what (isn't that an athletic virtue?), the suckers, for once, are cleaning up.

Bookmakers live off volume. Taking the Pats' games off the board would be self-defeating, since if nothing else, they serve as loss leaders, tempting the bettor to wager on other games. But it takes a great deal of vigorish to compensate for a high-volume loss on the book's balance sheet.

The 22 point spread is the effort by the sports gambling business to draw a line in the sand. It is the equivalent of the rescue fund the big banks set up to bolster the worthless mortgage-backed securities they can no longer sell to THEIR suckers. And like the fund, there's no guarantee it'll work.

What the spread WILL do is take the game off the board for any reasonably serious NFL handicapper. As noted, it makes the wager an absurdity. While there might be some spectator appeal to seeing a 40-yard dash between yours truly and Randy Moss with Moss forced to carry a refrigerator, it wouldn't be a sound bet either way.

For the 99 percent of underinformed investors, the spread might peel, oh, 10-20 percent of them away from their Pats habit precisely because it's such an eye-popping number. Any spread appeals to the human desire to get something for nothing. Three touchdowns plus a point is one hell of a sales promotion.

The slightly better informed investors will stick with the Pats habit that has rewarded them 9 out of 10 weekends this season. With a gun at my head, I'd put my money that way. Its probably a 53 percent chance. Since the Eagles have problems but are not hopeless, the Pats will be out there slinging the ball around in the 4th quarter no matter what.

All booms end in busts. The great Pats' boom of 2007 may not end as far as the records are concerned. They could well go undefeated, although that gets tougher as Christmas nears. But the Pats betting boom will end. If they cover against the Eagles, watch for the first 30 point spread in NFL history for their home games with the Jets and Dolphins.

If I had to guess, I'd say the best chance of an underdog covering a Pats spread would be when they play at Baltimore. Just a guess, though. They've been off my investment board since the Chargers game. I don't know what to think about a team that CAN beat arithmetic.


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