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News
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Football success a good bet
graphic January 11, 2002: 11:20 a.m. ET

The nation's most popular game gets a tremendous lift from gamblers' interest.
A twice weekly column by Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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  • SportsBiz: An Olympic bite on ad sales -- Dec. 18, 2001
  • SportsBiz: NFL fans' bottom-line loss -- Oct. 16, 2001
  • SportsBiz: NFL equals No Football in LA -- Sep. 7, 2001
  • SportsBiz: NFL flexes muscle in pre-season heat -- Aug. 10, 2001
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  • Business of Sports column archive
  • CNNSI.com's football coverage
  • NFL
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    NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It's a good bet that gambling is the reason that professional football is by far the nation's most popular sport.

    That's more opinion than fact, of course, and something that can't be settled definitively enough to declare the winner of a wager on that question.

    But what is known is that far more is bet on football than on any other sport, and it also easily tops the television ratings among sports. As the NFL playoffs start this weekend, fans will gather around television to watch games in numbers the other sports would kill for. What goes unsaid is that for many viewers it's the 4-1/2 point spread, rather than the game itself, that will keep them watching the New York Jets challenge the Oakland Raiders.

    Football accounts for about 40 percent of the $2 billion in sports betting a year in Nevada, the only state that allows betting on sporting events. That $800 million, of course, is a small piece of the money bet nationwide with bookies and in office pools. The betting lines for football run in virtually every newspaper in the country, demonstrating that it's not just Vegas jet-setters putting money on each game.

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    Football's lead over other sports in betting is even greater than the raw numbers suggest, since the NFL season has only one-tenth the games of Major League Baseball, and a fifth of the pro basketball or hockey schedules. So per-game betting on the gridiron dwarfs the other sports.

    Those facts don't prove my case; they merely pose a chicken-and-egg riddle: Is more bet on football because it's the most popular sport, or is it the most popular support because more money is bet on it, and gamblers watch to find out if their bets paid off?

    I'm inclined to lean toward the latter answer. Neither an appreciation of individual players nor a study of the match-up's intricacies drove the strong national television ratings for a 35-0 rout of the pathetic Detroit Lions by the playoff bound St. Louis Rams in October. Football simply lends itself to betting more than other games, for a couple of reasons.

    "You can't bet sports every day," says Robert Walker, the sports book director for MGM Mirage in Las Vegas. "With baseball, people start off excited in April, but by June, July, only professional players are still betting. With football they get a break -- they're burnt out by Monday or Tuesday, then by Thursday they're ready to bet again."

    Football's point spread and over-under bets are another driver.

    The point spread is an advantage given to the underdog in a game when a bet is made. Since the house is at its most profitable when equal number of bettors chose each team in a contest, the point spread tries to balance that betting.

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    In that Rams-Lions game, the Rams were 14-point favorites. If the Lions had been able to stay within 13 points, people betting on the Lions would have won their bets even if the team lost. The over-under in the game was 49, which means that as long as the two teams' combined score was less than that, those betting under would win.

    So even though the outcome of the game was known at halftime when the score stood at 21-0 and Detroit had benched its starting quarterback, the contest still held a fair amount of excitement for bettors. Even late in the fourth quarter this rout had more than twice the average rating posted by the first round of the baseball playoffs that started the next day.

    NFL and TV network spokesmen dodge making comments on the topic of gambling, which isn't surprising. Still, the NFL does its best to allow bettors to have some confidence that they're placing a fair bet -- teams have to announce injury reports so fans, and gamblers, know who's ready to play.

    Click here for CNNSI.com's football coverage

    Now the betting season is gearing up. Walker says this weekend's first-round playoff games won't likely draw significantly more bets in Las Vegas than a good nationally-televised Monday night match-up. But by the league championship playoff games in three weeks, the amount bet per game will likely be double this weekend's total. The Super Bowl a week later will generate 10 times that amount.

    If history is any guide, the game will end up being a super bore, with one team far ahead by half time. But ratings will stay high, even after the traditional half-time extravaganza. Wanna bet? graphic

    Click here to send mail to Chris Isidore

      RELATED STORIES

    SportsBiz: An Olympic bite on ad sales -- Dec. 18, 2001

    SportsBiz: NFL fans' bottom-line loss -- Oct. 16, 2001

    SportsBiz: NFL equals No Football in LA -- Sep. 7, 2001

    SportsBiz: NFL flexes muscle in pre-season heat -- Aug. 10, 2001

      RELATED LINKS

    Business of Sports column archive

    CNNSI.com's football coverage

    NFL





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    Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.

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