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Play

The New York Times has launched a quarterly Sports Magazine bundled with the Sunday paper, titled Play. The first edition came as a surprise this morning and it has been a great read, with stories galore:

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt on the Super Bowl Point Spread.

Michael Lewis on the evolution of football since the first Super Bowl as seen through the eyes of Green Bay safety Willie Wood.

Michael Sokolove on how testing for amphetamines will change the game of baseball.

Sokolove again on the leader, and the leadership business, that is Coach K.

And that is just scratching the surface. There are articles on the Super Bowl, World Cup, and Olympics by top writers that I won't get to for a while, lest I spend all of Sunday morning in my reading chair.

Some quick takes: Dubner and Levitt argue that the Super Bowl point spread is screwy, and that the underdog Seahawks are where to place your bet. They may be right. The Steelers seem to have been the beneficiaries of the hype machine in the past few weeks. And hype in these games, where the masses bet big and the impact of the sharps may be limited, may nudge the spread a bit in the wrong direction. USC in the Rose Bowl, and now Pittsburgh opened up at lines which looked to overstate their chances, and both moved even further in that direction. So I sense hype at work in these recent spreads, but that's just a hunch.

Dubner and Levitt base their conclusion on a different piece of evidence, the "home-underdog effect." Betting home dogs has been marginally profitable over the years, which suggests that the public may not fully understand the home field advantage, and how this interacts with relative team strength. But the Super Bowl is a different proposition as there is, obviously, no home field advantage. And betting the favorite has a slight edge, 19-17-3, over the previous 39 Super Bowls. So while I agree with Dubner and Levitt's pick, their analysis seems askew, and their plea to ignore prior history based on the small sample size doesn't do much for their case. Regardless, Go Hawks!

Sokolove's story on amphetamines is worth a read and a ponder. The claim is that a large number - perhaps most - baseball players use some form of stimulant to overcome the grind of a 162 game season. Given the prospect of a 25 game ban for a second offense, player behavior is likely to change. Sokolove quotes former player Billy Sample suggesting that people betting the over/under line "should probably take the under." That is, there will be a tendency for everyday players to be worn down, relative to the starting pitcher, particularly in day games which follow a contest from the night before. Working against that notion is that the players in the field will also be napping. So errors should increase, while batting average should decrease. My bet is that Billy Sample is right though, and scoring will be down a tad in day games. The question is how much, whether the market will re-price these games accurately, and how long it will take to do the job.