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Northwestern Brings Down the House

It’s been many years since I was in Las Vegas, so I can’t put a definitive date on when this happened. But the details are etched in my mind forever. I was standing at a betting window in a sports book in Vegas, trying to decide which way to bet on a men’s basketball game being played that evening.

Nevada lost its corner on legalized slot machines and table games action a long time ago. No longer is a flight to Vegas necessary when the urge to play some blackjack sets in. But one way that Nevada remains unique is betting on the outcome of sporting events. If you want some action on any game, whether college or professional, you either need to be in Nevada or have a bookie who is. In no other state is such wagering allowed by law.

I don’t have a bookie–and never will, either–so if I’m not in Vegas, I’m not betting on sports. But I was in town for a few days back then, and the Northwestern Wildcats were playing that night, so I wanted to put down a small bet. It was my way of showing some interest in the sporting affairs of my alma mater.

Northwestern was playing Purdue, I want to say. And since the team was playing its usual brand of Northwestern basketball they were, um, less than competitive in Big Ten play. I walked up to the window, intent on taking Purdue to cover what I believe was an eight-and-a-half point spread.

But at the last moment, I felt a twinge of regret. I spent some very good years on the Evanston campus, and met my wife there. Betting against Northwestern, on any level, felt wrong to me. I felt as if I would need to explain myself to all of my friends, or perhaps to Willie the Wildcat. As a result, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I told the man behind the counter to change my bet to Northwestern and the points.

The man hit the cancel button on his machine, printed out a Northwestern slip instead, and handed it to me with words that I’ll always remember: “Always bet with your head, and not with your heart.” Do I even need to mention that I lost my bet on Northwestern for that game?

There’s always going to be a split between the people who have an interest in the outcome of a sporting event. On one side are the fans, who just want their team to score more points than the other team does. On the other side of this divide are the gamblers who, by virtue of their wager on the game’s outcome, have nothing more than a vested interest. Some bets certainly arise out of team loyalty, but for the vast majority it’s a question of, as Tina Turner once asked, “What’s love got to do with it?” It’s a money play, pure and simple. Winning and losing, in an absolute sense, is almost always irrelevant.

Last weekend’s Northwestern-Ohio State football game, for all of the drama it provided, is an object lesson in how wagering on sports events works. The point spread that was given was Ohio State plus a handful of points. I’ve seen numbers ranging from five to seven points online, but the consensus seems to be that it would be closer than the shellacking that many OSU fans were expecting. When you beat a team 76-0, as the Buckeyes did against Florida A&M earlier this year, you expect to win big all the time. And Buckeyes fans undoubtedly saw a small point spread as a play that was ripe for the taking.

But it’s not the old days of Northwestern football, and the gap between the two schools—especially coming off a bye week for Northwestern—is much smaller than Buckeye Nation believes it to be. If they had bet with their heads, and not with their scarlet-colored hearts, they would have realized this.

Northwestern, the scrappy little team that (almost) could, fit this narrative storyline to a T, for the first 59 minutes and 55 seconds of Saturday night’s game. They gave it the old college try, and even though they came up just short on the scoreboard, the Cats were poised to at least cover the spread. Those who bet on this storyline were set to be rewarded for their faith in the Wildcats.

But there was still one Wildcard to consider. The Wildcats had a slight hope of winning the game as the final play was being lined up. Sure, it would have taken a miracle, but it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, right? So the Wildcats ran a schoolyard hook and ladder play, in the hope that the Stanford band would somehow magically appear on the field. They didn’t, of course, but as the ball came loose on the field, the worst possible outcome of all for the sports books happened: Touchdown, Ohio State. The Wildcats had still lost the game, but the margin had shifted from the close-but-no-cigar range to the same-old-Northwestern range. And this turn of events cost the sports books plenty.

Northwestern fans got same the outcome they would have had if no points had been scored on the play. And Ohio State fans who didn’t put money on the game got the result they wanted, too. But the final play changed the betting landscape, to the point that Brent Musberger commented on it in an esoteric way while the play was unfolding. He knew what the gamblers knew: In a game they nearly lost, Ohio State had not only won but covered the spread.

According to USA Today, that last-minute touchdown cost Las Vegas $100 million. At least I only lost five bucks.

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