A Thousand Words: Electric Football

Electric Football

As Christmas approaches, it’s important to acknowledge a rite of passage every American child has faced. Getting an electric football set and only using it once. I remember getting an electric football set, thinking the players were actually programmable (ha!), watching them shake downfield once after turning the game on, and never touching it again.

The creation of Norman Sas and Tudor Games shortly after WWII, electric football involves a vibrating board to move its players. When the NFL expanded massively in popularity, electric football gained the official license, becoming the Madden of its day. If Madden was programmed in two days by people who couldn’t make the cut at Game Freak or Bethesda.

Now electric football is both technically improved and far less popular because, you know, video games exist. But it was and still is a thing.

College Coaches Fail In The Pros

College football coaches have a track record of failing in the NFL, with Urban Meyer being the most recent predictable casualty. The interesting question is “why”? The most stated answer is simple: Because the player-coach power dynamics are completely different.

In college, the coach is the centerpiece of the team, his players are short-term by the very nature of college, and he’s the one who gets the megadeal. In the pros, the players are the centerpiece of the team, most coaches are expendable and expected to be tossed aside at the slightest failure, and the players know it. Free agency and bigger player contracts have not exactly swung things in favor of the coaches, but as the tale of Lou Holtz and the Jets shows, the same dynamic existed long before 1993.

The other issue is that the gap between the best and worst pro players is a lot smaller than the gap between the best and worst Division 1 college players. There’s no “coasting through a week against the paid tomato can”, as the point spreads show. The biggest NFL point spread of all time was only 28 points for the Broncos against the Jaguars in 2013, and it was not covered by the favorite. Meanwhile seemingly every Week 1 (and many subsequent ones) power program game is so lopsided that most sportsbooks don’t even bother with moneyline (straight win-loss) options at all.

Review: Little Girls In Pretty Boxes

Little Girls In Pretty Boxes

Joan Ryan’s gut-wrenching nonfiction book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes is a beautifully written book about a hideously ugly topic. That is gymnastics, one of the most horrifying and least cost-effective sports ever. One horror story after another comes out of it. Fatal crashes, eating disorders, and girls forced into horrendous discipline and generally ruined by something that almost all of them see absolutely no benefit from. The aging curve is so ridiculously steep that at 24 , Simone Biles was considered the equivalent of athletes with freakish longevity like Jamie Moyer or Frank Gore.

Ryan’s only “problem” is that she’s so good at telling something where stage parents leave their daughters in the hands of a Ceausescu-vintage slave driver (and, with recent revelations after the book’s publication, someone far, far, worse). Most sports involve the participants getting bigger and stronger. Gymnastics forces them to stay small and underdeveloped. There’s been understandable talk of banning American Football, but Ryan makes a much better case for gymnastics.

It’s a good book about a bad sport.

Review: Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL

Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger’s Pros and Cons is a 1999 book about the massive instances of NFL players who had criminal records. These players were not just chosen in the draft in spite of their criminal backgrounds, but were often shielded by their teams to great extents. So far, that does not sound surprising, being just a few years removed from the OJ Simpson trial. But they deliberately avoid talking about the obvious “superstar power” and instead focus near-entirely on how the teams twist to protect criminal players who are not stars by any definition of the term.

It’s well-researched and has many harrowing examples. But it comes across as flawed for two big reasons. The first is that it ultimately feels sensationalist for the sake of sensationalism. This is of course a massive inherent issue for true crime books like it. But it seems to go further in that it assumes its readers are holding to a hopelessly outdated “Gee whiz, look at that Mickey Mantle, so nice and clean” mindset that I can assure you was not present even in children at the time of the book’s release (I know this because I was one at the time. I can tell you that I knew more about Dennis Rodman’s off-court antics than about what made him good on it).

Which leads to the second not-its-fault problem. This is like a book on unrestrained warfare-released in 1913. The internet was a paradigm shift in how these inevitable incidents were processed and viewed, and arriving just before it really broke out massively makes it horrendously dated.

I can’t really recommend this book. It’s a dated true crime book that’s basically redundant by this point.

Review: The Wandering Warriors

The Wandering Warriors

Rick Wilder and Alan Smale’s The Wandering Warriors is a very goofy novel. In it, a 1940s baseball team finds itself isekaied to Ancient Rome. Hijinks ensue. Lots of hijinks. Ok, lots and lots of hijinks.

This silly book has a silly premise and a silly conclusion. But it’s a lot of fun. Don’t read it expecting any kind of historical accuracy, serious study or culture clash. Read it for the ridiculous fun of a baseball team teaching Romans to play baseball in the Colosseum.

If you like out-there time travel fantasy, this is the book for you.

Frankfurt Football

I have a crazy alternate history idea to spread American Football. So,the NFL’s desire to expand outside of its comfort zone has been mixed. But still, this alternate history enables the powers of the other kind of football to cash in. Many if not most European clubs best known for their soccer teams are in fact multi-sports, all under one umbrella. So for the sake of local laws and convenience, they’re technically the American Football branch of the club. Even if everyone but the kicker is an imported player from the states.

Frankfurt, being in the American military sector in the Cold War, has some of the most exposure to American popular culture. Therefore, its dominant team, Eintracht Frankfurt, gets an American football franchise. Of course, one quirk of the German 50+1 structure that ensures (nominal) control over a club by its members means that it and other German entries to the NFL would theoretically have a similar organization as the Green Bay Packers.

Silly? But that’s what AH is for. And besides, their team emblem looks like it’d fit perfectly on an American football helmet.

Congratulations Astros

Last night, the Houston Astros won the World Series. I feel especially happy because…

  • It gives manager Dusty Baker a long-deserved World Series championship.
  • It’s a bit of schnaudenfreude for the firebreathers who mocked them for the 2017 scandal, which in my eyes was blown out of proportion purely because they beat the Yankees and Dodgers. If they’d beaten the Twins and Diamondbacks, no one would care. (Should we revoke the titles of any team who had a spitballer/steroid user on them?)
  • They beat the Phillies, my least favorite team in baseball even without Bryce Harper.

Congrats!

The Asian Sportsbook

Finally got the chance to hear about the peculiarities of Asian sportsbooks in an old podcast by betting hand Matthew Trenhaile. Of course it comes a year after I wrote an Asian megabook as if it was a western-facing post-up (you deposit money in the book instead of operating on credit) one in The Sure Bet King. Anyway, the entire segment is great and I recommend you listen to it.

Asian sportsbooks have had (note the past tense) a reputation for being “sharp”, ie taking bets unquestioned with huge limits. But as the podcast notes, it’s wrong to compare them to the western-facing “sharp books” (Circa Sports / Pinnacle /BetCRIS). The short version for their “balancing act” is simple:

  • A complex “agent system” that evolved from technological constraints and also legal ones.
  • More importantly,a gargantuan pool of recreational money (at least in soccer) and the ability to, for lack of a better word, “dilute” the sharp money across it.

The podcast, recorded in 2018, mentioned this system declining already. Limits were being noticeably reduced, especially for lower-tier leagues. The wider adoption of the internet makes the tangled agent pyramid less and less necessary. Since then, everything I’ve seen has indicated this trend becoming more pronounced.

It’s a fascinating look at an extremely important but murky even by sports betting standards component.

Prop Betting

One of the most revolutionary changes in sports betting in recent years has been the rise of player props (ie, will this player score? How much of Stat X will this player accomplish in the game? Will the final score be odd or even?) Veteran gambling reporter David Purdum talks about this paradigm shift in an ESPN column. Props began in popular culture as those goofy things they did in the Super Bowl, but have now risen up massively, displacing the old spreads, totals, and moneylines.

Although Purdum’s column talks about the NFL, props are something that can (and have) been done in any sport with a relevant stat. Looking at the upcoming English Premier League matches, I’m seeing between 400 and 550 props on each game. (There are already over 200 props at some books for NFL Week 1 games a month off from the writing of this post). I saw an array of props for an upcoming cricket match. During the dark sports days of Spring 2020, I was both bemused and a little impressed by seeing giant prop menus for Belarusian soccer matches.

Of course props have a downside too from a business perspective, and that’s that they amplify the sharp-soft clash greatly. Traditionally, the few sharp books have had fewer and tamer prop markets than the much larger number of soft ones. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent the player/team prop markets can be “sharpened” the way the main lines have been.

But as of now, it’s a very reasonable question to ask “how can you ensure a house edge on hundreds and hundreds of different markets [things to bet on]?” And the answer is often “you really can’t.” The approaches are frequently blunt: Low limits, high house shares compared to lines, and restricting/limiting people who consistently win.

Still, for better or worse, giant prop bet menus are here to stay and dominate.