Points Unknown

Why you will watch the Super Bowl.

Americans at the end of the 20th century falsely imagine that our greatest cultural legacy will be the personal computer or jazz or abstract expressionism or really depressing stories by people like Ann Beattie. But personally, I think it will be the point spread. Though they achieved their apotheoses in this great country, microcomputers, jazz, abstract expressionism, and depressing minimalist fiction all have their roots in other cultures, as do such distinctly American institutions as rock ’n’ roll and bluegrass. But the point spread is a home-grown invention. And even if it’s not, we have made such a national fetish of the point spread that we have the right to call it our own. Who’s going to argue with us?

The point spread–the amount by which one team is expected to beat the other team–is a miraculous device that turns thousands upon thousands of utterly meaningless sporting events into must-see TV for millions and millions of Americans. At this writing, Las Vegas has installed the Green Bay Packers as 14-point favorites over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. There is no way that the Patriots themselves cannot interpret this as an insult. But it is also an insult to the lowly American Football Conference, whose championship the Patriots won when they dispatched the Jacksonville Jaguars. A point spread this huge declares that, in the eyes of the bookies, the Patriots are overmatched clowns who have no chance of winning the Super Bowl. They shouldn’t even show up.

But because the point spread is so large and insulting, and therefore so enticing to gamblers, a game that might seem like a ho-hum affair has now sparked interest all across the nation. That’s the whole idea of the point spread: Arrive at a number that gets the largest number of people willing to make a bet they’re sure they can’t lose, and then watch them lose it. (The point spread often shifts in the days leading up to a major sporting event, so people who take the Patriots and 14 points may win, while people who take the Patriots and 12½ may lose. Or, if the Packers win 37-10, which they will, anyone who bets on the Patriots will lose.)

This being the case, gamblers will be riveted on the game not because they doubt the outcome–the NFC always wins–but because a late, meaningless touchdown or field goal could enable the Patriots to cover the spread. But even people who do not ordinarily gamble will be making informal bets in the office or with friends. Because of this, they will be watching the game until the bitter end.

Without the spread, no one would be watching the game until the bitter end. Without the spread, most people would turn the game off by halftime, costing advertisers millions of dollars. This raises the question: Why do millions of casual sports fans who do not have any money riding on the game even bother to watch? The answer: Why do the Chicago Cubs even bother playing?

Nobody knows.

To get a clearer idea of the vital role played by the point spread in American life, let’s take a look at the three basketball games scheduled to be broadcast on Thursday, Jan. 16, the day I am writing this article. At 9 p.m., ESPN will show a game between Temple and Cincinnati. Because Cincinnati was the preseason favorite to win the NCAA championship, and because Temple is a perennial basketball powerhouse, this game will draw a huge audience. But it will command viewer attention all the way to the end because Cincy is favored by 14 points, and Temple plays good defense. Thus, ESPN can be reasonably assured not only of a large audience, but of an audience that will not drift away during the second half. Without the point spread, half the audience would probably switch over to Silk Stalkings.

A somewhat different situation prevails with the 7 p.m. game between Tulane and Xavier on ESPN2. The average basketball fan gets very excited about games between teams called Hoyas, Wildcats, or Blue Devils, but rarely gets worked up about games between teams like Tulane and Xavier because no one knows whether they’re the Tulane Fighting Wrens, the Xavier Hollanders, or vice versa. If a team’s name hasn’t penetrated the national psyche at this late point in the century, it’s a safe bet that the game doesn’t mean much to the average fan.

But here again, there are mitigating circumstances. Xavier, unexpectedly, beat Cincinnati in the first game of the year and made it up to No. 12 in the polls. And even though the Surprising Musketeers are eight-point favorites against the Tulane Whatchamacallits, they are playing on the road, where it is hard to cover the spread. This, in and of itself, makes this game worth watching. Provided you’ve got money on it. Or know where Tulane is.

I t’s ESPN2’s midnight game between Eastern Michigan and Boise State that really shows the brilliance of the point spread. With the exception of alumni, insomniacs, and drunks, I can’t imagine why anyone would stay up to watch this entirely meaningless game. Anyone, that is, except people who want to see if Boise State will cover the two-point spread. Purists may object to this reasoning, charging that hard-core basketball fans would stay up to watch this game for the love of the sport. Baloney. No one, no matter how pathetic their life, can honestly say that they can’t find something better to do with their time than to watch a midnight game between Eastern Michigan and Boise State. If farmers out in Idaho were regularly staying up till 2:30 a.m. to watch this kind of stuff, the rest of us would have already seen a significant drop-off in the quality of the potatoes we’re eating. I haven’t noticed any problems with my spuds. Have you?

Coaches, both professional and collegiate, always say that they pay no attention to point spreads and simply go out and try to win. Again: bullfeathers. If a nationally ranked team beats another team by fewer points than it was expected to win by, they get zapped in the polls. Two years ago, leading Indiana University by around four touchdowns late in the game, Penn State relaxed and let the opposition score a bunch of meaningless points. The next week, Penn State took a dip in the polls. Even though Penn State ended the season undefeated, it lost the national championship to Nebraska, which never, ever failed to cover the point spread. The lesson: If the point spread has you favored to win by 40, keep the first-string players in there until the bitter end and win by 50. Is this sportsmanlike? No. Is this the way things get done in America? Yes.

My most memorable exposure to the point spread took place at 5:32 on a November morning two years ago, when I took an early train from suburban New York on the way to my native Philadelphia to see the Eagles play the hated Dallas Cowboys. As soon as I entered the nearly empty train in my black-and-green Eagles jacket, I was accosted by the conductor.

“You goddamn guys better cover this week,” he said.

“Excuse me?” I replied.

“I said: You guys better cover this week. I bet on you guys all the time, and you never cover the spread. I could have retired on the money I’ve lost betting on the Eagles over the years.”

Insisting that I personally had nothing to do with the on-field activities of the Philadelphia Eagles, I listened with rapt attention as the conductor recounted his tale of woe. Like all gamblers, he did not evaluate sporting events in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of failure to cover the spread. His lore of losery was encyclopedic: He could remember missed field goals by long-forgotten Browns teams of the ‘60s, botched extra points by the 1976 Oilers, suspicious groundskeeping that prevented the Jets from covering the spread in 1983. In each case, he was convinced that the players had deliberately muffed plays just to screw gamblers like him.

That afternoon, the underdog Eagles were driving for the winning touchdown in the waning minutes of the game when their quarterback threw an interception in the shadow of the Dallas goal line that was run back for a touchdown. As I drifted out of the stadium, I feared that I would run into the conductor on the way home and he would tell me that just before the final drive, the Eagles coach had gathered his players on the sideline and said, “There’s a train conductor up in suburban New York who’s got a lot of money riding on this game. He’s a real pain in the ass, so let’s throw an interception at the end and miss covering the point spread. That’ll fix his wagon.”

Despite the often negative influence of the point spread, on balance I would have to say it is a positive force in this society. Without the point spread, nobody would want to watch college football or basketball games, TV ratings would drop, and there would be nothing on the air but NASCAR racing, Riverdance, and Bill Moyers specials. Also, without the point spread, American men would have absolutely nothing to talk about. Here, it is worth noting that the point spread serves not only as an indispensable diversion from the pressures of marriage, but as a metaphor for that beleaguered condition. By this I mean that marriage is a game that men cannot possibly win, but one in which they can at least hold the score down.

Women probably feel the same way.