Pro football: Not doomed, but has a bad cold

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A few years ago Dallas Mavericks owner and IU alum Mark Cuban made some waves with comments about the NFL. In an interview on ESPN and a detailed Facebook post, he said the NFL is “doomed” in the long run (which he implied was about ten years). He said that the problems were oversaturation, declining youth football participation rates, player behavior, changes to broadcast TV, and fantasy football.

A lot has happened in the intervening three years. I agree that the first four are a problem, but I do think he misunderstands the appeal of fantasy football. He seems (or seemed at the time) to think that FF is entirely technology-dependent, and people will move on to other pastimes. As I’ve written in this blog before, that certainly hasn’t always been the case. And rotisserie baseball leagues are still going strong, and pre-date fantasy football.

If I were making Cuban’s argument, I’d add that the NFL product these days is virtually unwatchable. Three plays. Punt. Commercials. Two minute drive ends at fourth and long. Commercials. Field goal. Commercials. Replay challenge. Commercials. Kickoff. Commercials. Etc, etc. etc…..

It’s telling that the NFL season package includes an option to watch any game shortened to 45 minutes. 45 minutes of action from three and a half hours of TV time. And some people think baseball is boring?

I like sports. I like watching baseball, basketball, soccer, horse racing, college football, and even hockey on occasion. And I do watch the Indianapolis Colts, if only to keep up with my friends’ conversations. But if I’m watching NFL football, odds are I’m also doing something else, like reading or keeping up with my fantasy players. There are just too many stoppages of action and players standing around to hold my full attention.

But I don’t think the NFL is going away anytime soon. Not because the games are so compelling, or people are so loyal to their teams. It’s because NFL football is an especially good vehicle for gambling.

Compared to the other mainstream sports, the NFL plays relatively infrequently. With only 16 regular season games, bettors have plenty of time to think about the bet, absorb new information, and chase down rumors. If a star player takes a fastball off his wrist in tonight’s baseball game, you have a only a brief window to find out if it’s something serious. In the NFL, they have daily practice reports leading up to the next game six or seven days later.

Since the NFL has the least effective union in pro sports, players in their prime almost never change teams, so season-long totals bets (i.e., wagering on the total number of wins) are less dicey. And the bettor doesn’t have to factor in the value of a player changing teams for a single-game wager in mid-season.  

Key numbers (most notably three and seven) are much more important when betting football than other sports. Between 2003 and 2013, over a third of all NFL games were decided by exactly three, seven, or ten points. Which is why you see a lot of point spreads hovering within half a point of those spreads. In contrast, the top three key numbers for NBA betting are 7, 5, and 6. Only about 18% of all games end on one of those. Reliable key numbers tease the bettor into thinking that half-point on one side of the line means a payday.

The NFL has also escaped any major point-shaving scandals. Players shooting it out in strip club parking lots? Sure. DUIs, domestic violence, and drug use? Obviously. But nobody fixing games. At least none that have come to light. The worst gambling scandal to touch the NFL was Paul Hornung and Alex Karras betting NFL games back in the early 1960s. (Naturally, Hornung was a Louisville kid. Man, I love my hometown.)

So bettors may have a little more confidence that the games are played on the up-and-up. (There is, of course, the opposite view.  If it was announced a particular horse race was fixed, you’d set records for the amount of money wagered, with every horseplayer in the country figuring he or she could dope out who was most likely to throw the race. But horseplayers are a different breed, anyway. Most accept corruption as an essential part of the experience, and only get frustrated at how much the state or city takes off the top in taxes.)

The American Gaming Association estimates that 90 billion dollars will be wagered on college and pro football this year, with only 2 billion of that bet legally at Nevada casinos. The rest will go to offshore sports books, pools organized at fraternal/social organizations, or Slick Sid down at the neighborhood tavern. And that total doesn’t even include the explosion in daily fantasy sports, which were in their infancy when Cuban made his case.  

So I think Cuban’s estimate of the NFL lifespan is wrong, because he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to acknowledge the importance of wagering to the experience. Daily fantasy sports might die out, because all the suckers will get tired of losing money to the consortiums (consortia?) who use private servers and compete as a full time gig. But I don’t see straight wagering going anywhere. NFL football dominates television on Sundays, and betting is the only thing that makes it bearable.

*****

Another signing event. In addition to the book release party on November 9 from 7 PM – 9 PM at Fountain Square Brewery (1301 Barth Ave., Indianapolis), I’ll be signing at Indy Reads Bookstore on Sunday, November 13 from 2 PM – 4 PM. The bookstore is a non-profit (as am I, though not intentionally) and a portion of all sales there will go to Indianapolis literacy programs. So your choice: a free pint at the party, or a worthwhile charitable organization at Indy Reads (911 Massachusetts Ave, Indianapolis). Or both! I won’t judge.

 

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Photo by Conman33

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