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Beating The Football Odds


Economic Trends

Beating the Football Odds

Being a contrarian might help

Among the Super Bowl's distinctions is that it inspires more betting than any other single U.S. sports event. According to industry estimates, small and high rollers wagered close to $100 million in Las Vegas this year. Add the bets made legally and illegally in other venues around the country, and the total could well exceed $1 billion.

While that's small potatoes compared with the daily action on U.S. stock exchanges, there are enough parallels between football betting and stock investing to pique economists' curiosity. And a recent article in the Journal of Business by Christopher Avery of Harvard University and Judith A. Chevalier of the University of Chicago poses a question about the football-betting market that is often asked about the stock market--whether it is efficient.

According to efficient-market theory, stock price movements instantly reflect all relevant information and are thus essentially random and unpredictable. (Indeed, stock market investors constantly look for minor inefficiencies, such as the so-called January effect, which they try to profit from.) Instead of prices, Avery and Chevalier apply efficiency tests to movements in point spreads on professional football games.

Point spreads are set by Las Vegas bookmakers when the betting begins a week before each game. A spread adds points to one team's final score for the purposes of determining a winning bet --so if you bet on a team favored by 7 points, and it loses by 6, for example, you still win. The casinos take a 5% fee out of the betting total and try to maintain a spread that causes similar amounts to be bet on both teams. Thus, the spreads are often changed as bets come in during the week in order to balance out the betting--or to reflect new information such as a player's injury.

If the football-betting market is efficient, such changes should be essentially random. Analyzing Las Vegas betting data from 2,300 games from 1983 to 1994, however, the authors identified several factors that enabled them to predict the direction of spread movements in advance.

One is the published opinions of sportswriters and other experts, who apparently influence the betting public even though their predictions are often off base. Others are the teams' records in recent weeks (the so-called hot-hand bias), and prestige variables, such as the fact that one of the teams previously made it to the playoffs.

Not only do these factors tend to foreshadow point-spread changes, but the analysis indicates that such changes are usually misguided--moving the spread farther from the final score than they were originally. In other words, bettors seem to act more out of sentiment than reason.

All this suggests that it's possible to make some money by adopting a contrarian strategy--that is, waiting till the last minute and then betting against point-spread shifts. But the authors find that such a strategy would be only marginally profitable after accounting for the casinos' fee. In sum, the football-betting market appears to be inefficient, but not enough so for investors to capitalize big on its inefficiencies.By Gene KoretzReturn to top

High-Tech Tools Can Be Fun

And economists show the way

Few doubt the productivity-enhancing impact of high technology, but in some cases it may have lessened the productivity of--guess whom?--economists. So concludes a study by Daniel S. Hamermesh of the University of Texas and Sharon M. Oster of Yale University.

Until recently, it was quite costly to communicate with distant collaborators on scholarly projects. In light of that cost, the researchers figured that economists would only work with distant colleagues if the published outcome were likely to be highly productive--ultimately inspiring more citations in scholarly journals than their other articles.

They also reasoned that the number of distant co-authored articles should have jumped as communication costs--phone, fax, and e-mail--plummeted. And the productivity of such projects probably declined as well, as the costs of pursuing them dropped.

Analyzing the contents of three major economics journals in the 1970s and 1990s, Hamermesh and Oster did find that the number of long-distance coauthored articles climbed sharply in the 1990s. Based on the number of subsequent journal citations they inspired, however, such articles were far less productive than their authors' other articles, both in the 1970s and the 1990s.

Noting that distant collaborations often involve friends, the researchers suggest that technology is functioning as a "consumption rather than an investment good." In other words, high tech is allowing many economists to choose to have more fun on the job rather than to boost their productivity.By Gene KoretzReturn to top


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