You might have noticed that my 2008 NFL picks have been incomprehensibly respectable. After throwing you off the scent with a rocky 6-10 start in Week 1, I finished .500 or better each of the next 10 weeks (an 81-59 stretch) as the “You suck, just stop making picks!” e-mails slowed to a trickle. Just know that it wasn’t a fluke. There are four specific and undeniable reasons for my resurgence. I am sharing one of them with you right now.
(Hold on, I’ll let you enjoy the anticipation for a couple of seconds.)
(Still milking it.)
(Just a little longer.)
For the first 11 weeks of the regular season, home-field advantage has not mattered like it once did.
I realized this during the Bears-Colts game in Week 1, when Kyle Orton waltzed into Indy and ruined the grand opening of Lucas Oil Stadium, the latest state-of-the-art football venue that seems much more interested in looking cool and making money over, you know, actually helping its home team win games. The place was so dead for four quarters that you could almost hear John Madden salivating over his postgame meal of fried turkey legs, blooming onions and Lipitor parmigiana. You could have laid a baby down at midfield, and it wouldn’t have woken up.
Home Teams vs Spread (since 1999)
Source: Las Vegas Sports Consultants
Following Chicago’s upset victory, after I had finished rejoicing that the Colts willingly gave away the trump card of a deafening Hoosier Dome, I remembered a conversation between me and my buddy Bug right before the season. Bug and his crew have owned season tickets for the Patriots since 1993. Once upon a time, nobody loved attending NFL games more than them. Bug woke up on Sundays at 7:45 a.m. no matter how hung over he was, paid the prostitute and asked her to leave (OK, that’s not true), took a quick shower (not true either), squeezed himself into his Willie McGinest jersey, packed his car with beer and food, picked up his pals, packed more beer and more food, and then they zoomed down Route 1 to Foxboro and snatched a choice parking spot right next to the stadium.
A massive, ambitious, artery-clogging tailgate commenced. Bug’s friend Niko (the Wolfgang Puck of tailgaters) assumed command of the grill and sneered at everyone who got in his way. Everyone else ate and drank, smoked cigarettes or cigars and discouraged their buddy Grover from starting potential fights for reasons like “That loser in the Jets jersey keeps eyeballing me” and “I just don’t like the way that guy with the earring looks — he looks a little too pleased with himself, if you ask me.” At 12:30 p.m., they packed everything up and headed toward the field, where they sat on freezing-cold aluminum bleachers in a lovable cesspool called Foxboro Stadium and cheered their crummy team.
And you know what? They loved it. They were part of something. When Gillette Stadium opened eight months after New England’s first Super Bowl title, the boys reacted like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” right after his rescue, when he’s wandering around an empty hotel room after the “Welcome Back!” party, looking at the high-rise tray of fresh seafood and wondering what the hell just happened. Suddenly, it was harder to get there and harder to park. Many die-hards were nudged to the third level of the stadium, with their noise drifting toward the sky instead of the field. The lower seats and suites were dominated by some die-hards and an inordinate amount of laid-back, well-connected fans who weren’t exactly painting their faces before games.
The chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was jarring. I’ve attended three Pats games in the Gillette Mausoleum and always felt like I had been transported into a David Lynch movie in which everything looked slightly the same, only it isn’t even remotely the same. Throw in the dirty secret that it isn’t really fun to attend an NFL game in the 21st century — the routine of “kickoff, TV timeout, three plays, punt, TV timeout, five plays, field goal, TV timeout, kickoff, TV timeout, someone gets hurt on first down, prolonged TV timeout, three more plays, touchdown, extra point, TV timeout, kickoff, TV timeout” gets old after about 25 minutes — and by 2006 Bug’s friends were making pro-and-con lists for keeping their tickets.
So, why haven’t they given them up yet?
“The tailgates,” Bug says grimly. “If we could take the tailgate and replicate the camaraderie in our backyard, we’d do it.”
Yikes. Even those tailgates became less enjoyable when the Patriots opened Patriot Place this season, a super-mall/mega-complex that bumped fans out of the main parking lot unless they paid an extortion fe— er, a premium fee. Team Buggy now tailgates on the other side of Route 1 for $50, crammed between a zillion other cars in a miasma of charcoal fumes. It takes them 35-40 minutes to walk from this space and find their seats inside. It takes them another 90 minutes to get home because common fans can’t use the special access road for high rollers. Suddenly, it’s an 11-hour commitment — and a relatively expensive one — to hang out and support their favorite team in an increasingly somber stadium.
“We used to stand for every big down and every big drive,” Bug says wistfully. “Now people yell at us to sit down. The old stadium was a dump, but we felt like we were at a football game, you know? Now we’re at … I don’t know. The fans don’t affect the game anymore. It’s really sad. Grover calls it the wine-and-cheese crowd. We’ve become the fans we always made fun of.”
So, how did we get here? Like so many other Patriots fans who fretted about them possibly moving in the early ’90s, I will always appreciate Robert Kraft for saving the franchise, hiring Bill Belichick, winning three Super Bowls and keeping the team competitive. But he turned the experience of being a Patriots season-ticket holder into something of a Have/Have-Not dynamic, an ironic twist for a local businessman who originally curried favor because of his “I’ve been a lifetime Pats fan and season-ticket holder just like you!” mantra. Once upon a time, the fans felt like Kraft was one of them. He was a “have” who cared just as much about the “have-nots.” Fairly or unfairly, some don’t believe that anymore. I would put my buddy Bug and his friends in that group. They feel disenfranchised to a degree. Like Turtle and Drama if “Aquaman” hit big, then Vince told them they had to start sleeping in the guesthouse.
That brewing disenfranchisement keeps popping up at these home games. You can not hear it, if that makes sense. And not just in New England. Thirteen teams have built SOTAS (state-of-the-art stadiums) since 1999; 14 if you include Daniel Snyder’s overhauling of FedEx Field in 2004. Each stadium follows a similar let’s-rake-in-the-cash blueprint. The first section of seats hug the field. At the top of those sections, the club seats start. That’s followed by a phalanx of premium luxury suites. More luxury suites dominate the second section. And the majority of blue-collar fans are crammed into the upper decks. Fundamentally, it’s a flawed way to cultivate a home-field advantage; beyond the emotional compromises and festering resentment of the blue-collar fans, the newer stadiums don’t reverberate noise the same. Look at Lambeau or Ralph Wilson Stadium — just rows and rows of fans, one after the other, rising for something like 75 rows before you hit your first luxury box. Watching the Browns-Bills game Monday night, I found myself enjoying the fans as much as the contest itself. Now this was football!
Of course, Buffalo “needs” to build a new stadium to bank that suite money and “compete” with bigger teams. That’s what owner Ralph Wilson says. He snookered outsiders like me with that argument until I made a few Toronto jokes and Buffalo fans graciously educated me on what was really happening. They want to purchase the team in a public trust and keep the stadium as is, like how the good people of Wisconsin own the Packers, but the NFL passed rules years ago preventing that from ever happening again. Why? So its owners could sell their franchises for the highest dollar, and so they could bilk their fans for new stadiums without them saying, “Wait, why can’t we just keep the old one?” It’s Economics 101 and one of the reasons that the fan/team dynamic can be so indefensibly one-sided and discouraging. We care about them; they don’t care about us. In a perfect world, Wilson would sell the Bills to the locals and everyone would be happy. In the real world, the Bills will probably move to Toronto some day and play in — you guessed it! — a SOTAS that looks like every other SOTAS.
What does this have to do with gambling? In the words of Russell Hammond, everything. After sitting through that Colts-Bears atrocity, I made the executive decision to discount home-field advantage until the weather turned. Turned out to be a wise move. Through 11-plus weeks (including Thursday night’s Pittsburgh cover), the 14 teams that built SOTAS since 1999 (including Washington) are 29-44 against the spread.
Yup, you read it correctly: 29-44.
Week after week, those teams keep getting toppled at home or fail to cover big spreads, typified by three Week 10 games: New England losing in overtime to the Jets, the Colts winning but failing to cover an 8.5-point spread against lowly Houston, and Dallas handling the Redskins in Washington. Would you want Sage Rosenfels trying to cover eight points at the deafening Hoosier Dome? Could 30,000 Steelers fans have taken over a madhouse like RFK? Would Elway’s Broncos have ever stumbled to an 0-4-1 record against the spread at Mile High? Could the Titans ever have prevailed in Soldier Field in cold weather without running the ball? Would I have picked last Thursday’s game between evenly matched Jets and Pats teams by saying, “I’d like us if we were playing on the road, but since we’re home, I’m taking the Jets?” The NFL has been flipped on its wealthy behind.
|NFL FRANCHISES THAT BUILT NEW STADIUMS IN THE PAST 10 YEARS|
|*Washington renovated Fed Ex Field for the ’04 season; Chicago essentially rebuilt Soldier Field in 2003|
A reader named Matvei alerted me to a fascinating trend before Thursday’s game in Pittsburgh: Of 14 double-digit home favorites through 11 weeks, only ONE covered: The Giants in Week 7 (see sidebar). You could call it the ho-hum theory — if you attend an NFL game that’s not so much fun in the first place, and you’re fully expecting your team to blow the other team out, how do you get excited for anything that happens in that game unless it’s a night game and everyone’s bombed? Win and you’re supposed to win. Struggle and it’s more annoying than anything. Ho-hum. And if you think the home team doesn’t get affected by that lack of energy, you’re crazy.
There are other reasons for the erosion of home-field advantage, of course. The QB/coach headsets. Charter planes. Better grass and turf — except for Pittsburgh’s field (which is like playing on Chunky Soup). Giant heaters for cold games, giant spray machines for humid games. I’d even add the Internet and video games here — in the old days, players laid in their hotel room after curfew, flipped between three channels and listened to their roommate snore. Now? They can keep themselves relatively entertained. It’s not the worst thing in the world to play a road game anymore. But back when you were flying coach to Chicago to play in 14-degree weather at Soldier Field? Or on the rock-hard turf at Arrowhead Stadium? Bad times.
So how far away is the average NFL home game from turning into a neutral-site Super Bowl? Closer than you think. The following home-field “advantages” work as long as the teams involved are legitimately solid (and not mediocre, like we saw with the Bills on Monday night): Minnesota, Buffalo, Oakland, Green Bay, Kansas City and the Jets/Giants. Of the SOTAS teams, Seattle and (to a lesser extent) Denver can make the field cameras shake for big moments. But because of the prices, TV timeouts and cold weather — not to mention the BlackBerry generation of people who get bored in three minutes — home cooking doesn’t matter like it did. And the numbers back this up.
Home teams versus spread (2008): 66-89
SOTAS home teams versus spread: 29-44.
SOTAS home teams versus spread as favorites: 19-34.
Hmmmmmmmmm. Could it just be a fluky season? Let’s look at the past six years of SOTAS teams at home against the spread:
GAMBLING TREND OF THE YEAR
Sixteen 2008 home teams opened as double-digit favorites and only two have covered: The Giants (Week 7) and Steelers (Week 12). The Dallas-San Fran game takes place on Sunday.
WK 1: Patriots (-16.5) Chiefs
WK 3: Patriots (-12.5) Dolphins
WK 3: Giants (-13.5) Bengals
WK 4: Cowboys (-11.5) Redskins
WK 5: Cowboys (-15.5) Bengals
WK 6: Redskins (-13.5) Rams
WK 6: Vikings (-13.5) Lions
WK 7: Giants (-10.5) 49’ers
WK 7: Buccaneers (-10.5) Seahawks
WK 8: Jets (-12.5) Chiefs
WK 9: Bears (-12.5) Lions
WK 10: Chargers (-15.5) Chiefs
WK 11: Dolphins (-10.5) Raiders
WK 11: Panthers (-14.5) Lions
WK 12: Steelers (-10) Bengals
WK 12: Cowboys (-11) Niners
2002: 30-41 (13-26 as faves)
2003: 51-33 (37-24 as faves)
2004: 42-49 (28-32 as faves)
2005: 47-48 (37-28 as faves)
2006: 49-52 (27-41 as faves)
2007: 55-42 (41-35 as faves)
2008: 29-44 (19-34 as faves)
Quick follow-up to those numbers: Your typical NFL season goes one of two ways, either predictable or unpredictable. Predictable seasons play out like the ’03 or ’07 seasons did, with a clear separation between high-end teams, middle-class teams and the lower class. (For instance: In ’03, the Pats, Titans and Eagles finished 38-10 overall versus the spread and 16-7 at home versus the spread.) Unpredictable seasons play out like ’02 or ’08, when the number of high-end teams dwindles and the middle class swells with up-and-down teams. We can usually determine by late September if we’re headed for an unpredictable season — remember, I predicted goofiness in 2008 after three weeks — and those are the times you HAVE to think, “Road teams! Road teams!” for gambling purposes. At least for the first 11-12 weeks. Taking it a step further, home teams are 53 games under .500 against the spread since 1999 (1134-1187). Remember the days when you just filled out an office pool by saying, “I’m taking all the home teams?” No more.
Look at what happened Thursday. Once Cincy’s inept offense fell behind to a superb Pittsburgh defense in snowy conditions, normally the Bengals would have had as much of a chance as a second season of “Sports Soup” … and yet, they came within a Troy Polamalu goal-line interception of covering that 10.5-point spread. When the weather chills over these last few weeks of the season, could the staggering success of the road teams get tempered a little? Maybe. But it sure seems like we have entered a new era of NFL gambling, and with three more SOTAS teams arriving soon — Dallas and the two New York teams — half the league will be playing in stadiums that have absolutely nothing in common with Lambeau Field. It’s a little depressing. Potentially lucrative … but depressing.
|2008: WEEK 1 TO WEEK 11|
As for Bug and his friends, they planned to give up their seats after this season until Niko talked everyone out of it. After all, the man is in his grilling prime. It would be like Leo DiCaprio giving up acting or Todd Palin giving up his snow machine. You can’t take the tongs out of Niko’s hands. He has people to feed.
“Doesn’t matter, I’m sure we’ll get our seats yanked within the next two seasons,” Bug predicts. “Grover is going to flip out soon. He’s like 25 more ‘SIT DOWNS’ away from causing an international incident. It’s not gonna end well. He takes this stuff personally.”
And he should. The bad news is that, with just a few exceptions, it’s now more entertaining to invite your friends over, tailgate in your backyard and watch your favorite team on TV. You get the replays. You get HD. You have your own bathroom. You’re saving money. You can stand up if you want. You don’t have a commute. If you have the NFL package, you can flip around to other games during commercials. What’s the downside? You got me. I had 10 times more fun watching the Pats-Jets game at a New York City bar last week than I would have had at the actual game. And the sad thing was, I knew that would be the case.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that we can keep profiting from home-field disadvantage during those first 11-12 weeks before Vegas finally catches on. And they haven’t. At least not yet.
(Wait a second, why did I write about this again?)
NOTE: ESPN researchers Mark Simon and Matthew Willis, as well as the Las Vegas Sports Consultants, contributed with research for this column.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.