Want to watch a great game? Check the spreads

Sep 23 2018

Suppose you are whisked back in time to ancient Mesoamerica and manage to become an honored guest of Olmec royalty. They want to show you the best of their culture, and it just so happens that on that day the crown city is filled with games of their favorite sport.

Between feasts and tours of the city, you only have time to catch one game. Which do you choose? Naturally, you have no emotional ties to any team. Your command of the Olmec language is lacking, so you can't ask about interesting rivalries either.

Luckily, the Olmecs, being an analytically-inclined people, just so happen to place bets on the games, and their bookies use a spread system to maximize the number of bets on both sides.

You know nothing about today's games except for the spreads. Can you make a reasoned choice based on spreads alone?

Yes. If you are looking to maximize enjoyment while watching a game, it makes sense to pick the game with the lowest spread, with a pick'em (where the spread is zero) being an ideal match-up. Sports betting is a prediction market that encodes all information prior to a game into its most likely outcome. If you assume that the spread is the most accurate prediction available prior to a game, you can compare the spreads of various games to find the one closest to zero.

The closer to zero the spread is, the more uncertainty of who will win the game. The further away, the more certainty that one team will win over the other. The most engaging game is one where the outcome is held in suspense the longest. In this scenario, picking the game with the most uncertain outcome is the best you can do, since it implies that the teams are the most evenly matched.

Of course, game outcomes often diverge significantly from the spread, and even if you choose a pick'em, it could end up as a blowout. Further, the spread tells you nothing about the quality of the teams, only their quality in relation to each other. If you want to maximize likelihood of virtuoso skill, you will need to find a different signal.