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?
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?