NCAA Tournament, Raiders Draft Pick
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 14, 2007

WHY HAS the NCAA basketball tournament become so important? Office pools.

Gambling is the dirty little secret behind the popularity of American sports, going back to the 1920s and ‘30s when baseball, college football, horse racing and boxing were the major sports interests. Baseball was No. 1 because it was the sport more Americans had played growing up and college football attracted those who were alumni of the school. With boxing and horse racing, it was gambling.

Horse racing had an advantage because races were handicapped, with better horses carrying more weight, which in theory equalized the racing. It didn’t entirely, of course, but bettors had the ability to do their own handicapping, deciding whether it was better to bet on the favorite or on a horse with higher odds.

At that time, horse racing had another edge: Betting was legal at the tracks. Bettors also used bookies away from the track, though that was illegal, but many bettors did not know bookies so they had to come to the track.

Now, it is easier than ever to bet on the horses, with off-track betting, and the overall handle has grown. But, except for major races like the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup, horse racing is no longer a major sport.

The decline of horse racing was inevitable once pro football discovered the point spread. When it was simply a matter of betting on a winner, there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense because, in pro football, the best teams win a very high percentage of their games and the worst teams lose a very high percentage. To put it in specific terms, last year the San Diego Chargers were 14-2 and the Oakland Raiders were 2-14. If it were simply a matter of betting on the winner, if you bet on the Chargers for every game and against the Raiders for every game, you’d have won 14 times in 16 weeks. But if you have a point spread, you can bet on the losing team and still win if they lose by less than the spread.

In effect, the point spread on football games achieved the same result as handicapping in horse racing, with one significant difference: Many more bettors grew up either playing or watching football than ever grew up knowing horses. That gives bettors an illusory sense that they know football, so they’re more inclined to bet on football games than horse races.

Now, there’s so much bet on football, with the sports books in Nevada, the NFL is very nervous about the effect on the game. Understandably, because they’ve looked at the point-shaving and fixing scandals in college basketball.

Much of the basketball betting, though, is more benign. Who has not participated in the office pools which have proliferated through the country? Often, that doesn’t even take any special knowledge, in those pools in which names are just picked out of a hat.

If you’ve got a team in a pool, you have a rooting interest, which makes it more likely you’ll watch. And the NCAA tournament is great for that because of the unpredictability of college basketball. In the last game of the regular season, for instance, Cal scored only 40 points in a loss to Arizona State, the worst team in the conference. The next week, the Bears upset conference champion UCLA in the conference tournament.

The NCAA tournament is just as unpredictable; one year, Arizona finished fifth in the Pac-10 and then won the NCAA tournament. Each year there are big upsets and surprise winners and losers. That makes it an unreliable indicator of the best team in college basketball, but it also lends interest to the office pools. So, draw your team and enjoy!

RAIDERS PICK: I’ve been discussing the Raiders’ need to draft a quarterback, both in my Examiner column and on this website, but not all Raider fans agree. Several who don’t have sent me e-mails saying they’d rather see the Raiders draft the best wide receiver in the draft, Calvin Johnson from Georgia Tech.

In fact, using that pick to take a wide receiver would probably be the worst decision. Only two wide receivers have been taken with that pick in the last 25 years, Keyshawn Johnson and Irving Fryar. Don’t look for them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are two reasons not to draft a wide receiver at that position: 1) There always seems to be a large pool of good wide receivers available, and the difference between the best and, say, the 10th in the pool is not huge; and 2) You want to go for the player who can have the most impact for your team. If you’re picking an offensive player, it has to be the quarterback, because everything starts with him.

A wide receiver never has the same impact. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice are arguably the best players at their position ever, and Rice has the stronger argument with his unbelievable career statistics. But Montana had already won two Super Bowls before Rice arrived and he and Steve Young, when he took over, were always more important to the 49ers’ success than Rice.

If you need a quarterback – and the Raiders do – you have to go for one with that pick. Fortunately, the Raiders seem to have grasped that point.

BLOG ALERT: With so many blogs out on the Internet, I’m often asked my favorites. The two I look at most often are 49ersParadise and AthleticsNation. In both cases, they’re run by men who are real fans of the game. The 49ersParadise site is more oriented toward news, and Bryan Hersh posts every story on the Niners that’s out there. If I want to know what others are writing about the 49ers, I always head there first. The AthleticsNation site is more involved with interaction with readers, often posting comments, and interviews with A’s players and executives.

CHARLES EINSTEIN: A great figure in sports journalism died last week in New Jersey, Charles Einstein. Actually, Einstein was a multi-talented individual, also writing screen plays and working in adverising and public relations, but I knew him as a baseball writer, even before I came to work at The Chronicle in 1963.

Einstein had been covering the Giants for The Examiner when he wrote a delightful book on the 1961 season, titled “A Flag for San Francisco.” The title was ironic because the Giants didn’t win the pennant that season; it was 1962 when they first appeared in a San Francisco World Series. But the book was an extension of Einstein’s daily writings, both humorous and analytical. He was the best baseball writer I’ve ever read on a regular basis.

From 1965-70, Einstein switched to The Chronicle and wrote a baseball column. That was when I came to know him and he was as enjoyable in person as in print, telling stories from his youth and earlier career. Though I was only 10 years younger, I was far behind him in experience, because he had been watching and writing on major league baseball for many years before following the Giants west. He was a major league presence in a press box filled with writers who had graduated from covering the Seals and Oaks in the Pacific Coast League and were still learning the major league game. He contributed to my education as well, and I will be forever grateful for that.


REAL ESTATE: If you’re interested in buying or selling a home in San Francisco or the East Bay, click on my wife’s website, www.NancyDickey.com,

MARCH MADNESS: Tickets for all NCAA tournament games, right through the Final Four, are available on the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! link on this website, as are tickets to major league baseball games and the July All-Star game at AT&T park. Tickets for The Police concert on June 13 at the Oakland Coliseum are available, as are tickets for the Jersey Boys, which runs through April 21 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are also available for Warriors and Sharks games, and for concerts featuring James Taylor, Van Morrison, Bob Seger, The Who, Justin Timberlake, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Norah Jones and Gwen Stefani, among others. Click on the Bay Area or national links below and the whole list will come up.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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