Saturday, September 02, 2000

In the pool or out?

        Like most men, I have a problem with commitment. Today is the last shopping day before the pro football season starts, and I still can't decide whether to join the office pool.

        I never, ever win at forecasting football, and my losses are always painful. My favorites inevitably fail to cover the spread. My underdogs invariably fail to cover the tight end. Every other week some soccer-style sadist shanks a 27-yard field goal just to spite me.

        My office pool experience has been expensive and excruciating, like a particularly rigorous root canal or any production of Cats. Trouble is, if I don't get involved, I don't pay attention.

Adds interest

               Without a betting interest, most NFL
games are not all that interesting. They contain the three staples of modern life — violence, committee meetings and commercials — but the actual action occupies only about five minutes of a three-hour time block. If you don't have some financial stake in the outcome, you're liable to fall asleep.

        Next to the riddle of the chicken and the egg, the world's great unsolved mystery involves which came first: the NFL's staggering popularity or the proliferation of office pools. Publicly, the NFL doesn't like to encourage gambling on its games. Privately, it is deeply beholden to the bookmakers.

        “Pro football is the most popular form of illegal gambling known to man,” said Ed Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling for New Jersey. “That's why you see so many people stay 'til the last minute of a (one-sided) game: the point spread.”

        That's why the NFL's television ratings remain relatively lofty no matter what two teams are matched on a given Sunday. Millions of Americans have a vested interest in virtually every game on the schedule. When they can't root for the home team, they root for their money.

Billions wagered

               Though legalized sports betting exists almost exclusively in Nevada, every area code has its bookmakers and parlay cards, its fantasy football leagues and its office pools. There is enough action available to sustain 146 legal sports books in Las Vegas, and Looney estimates “conservatively” that another $66 billion a year is wagered illegally on NFL games.

        How much is that? About $240 for every American citizen. More than the annual sales of Procter & Gamble and Microsoft combined. And that doesn't count offshore sports books and office pools.

        So long as no one takes a cut off the top, office pools are legal in most states. Same with fantasy football. They probably ought to be outlawed, however, because of their impact on worker productivity.

        When I participate in these contests, I waste precious hours poring over the statistics and studying the matchups. I know who is the backup quarterback in Buffalo and which running backs are hobbled by hip pointers. Every week, I gain a little more expertise and lose a little more self-respect, trounced by some twerp who based his selections on the head coaches' horoscopes.

        Conversely, avoiding the office pool tends to leave one out of the loop. You see Seattle and Miami not as a crucial contest but in sober detachment, like a teetotaler at a keg party. You start work Monday morning with no built-in banter.

        Wonder what I did with the sheet?

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