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"...There are 32 professional football teams in the NFL...if you count the Lions."
- J. R. Miller



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You've just spotted a situation that's 10-1...Do you bet it?


Say you have a cigar box containing 100 white marbles and 100 black marbles. Say the white marbles are 'winners,' the black marbles are 'losers.' Your task is to pull out a marble without peeking, note if it's a winner or loser, put it back in the box, shake the box, and repeat the process.

Of course, with an equal number of winners and losers in the box, your chances of pulling a winner are 50-50; - no mystery there. Trouble is, over the short term that ain't likely to keep happening. In fact, some very unexpected results can - and will - occur, even over a relatively long stretch of observations.

If you keep detailed records of everything happening around you while you're pulling marbles, you will quickly spot what seem to be 'trends,' or patterns. For example, you might suddenly have a winning streak when your spouse walks into the room, which turns into a losing streak when your spouse leaves the room. Or you might suddenly have a losing streak when your cat shows up, or maybe you'll notice that the last four times you took a sip of coffee you immediately pulled precisely four winners, or maybe the last three times the telephone rang your luck changed from bad to good, or good to bad. Maybe after the last four times you switched from using your left hand to using your right hand you pulled three straight losers, or two straight winners, Etc., etc. The point is, if you pay close attention, there is a 100 percent chance that there will appear to be several different "trends" taking place.

When you're betting on sports such natural variances from the norm can easily be regarded as being meaningful. You might discover that six teams in a row have lost their next game after playing in Chicago, or seven of the last eight teams have lost after playing the 49ers or Bulls or Maple Leafs or Yankees. Or nine of the last ten teams from the South have lost in New York State during December...A zillion such unusual patterns are there for the finding.

Sports touts sell such patterns - "trends" - as though they were important information. Trouble is, just as with the marbles in the cigar box, these trends are usually nothing more than pure ol' coincidence; binomial distribution at work, nothing more than the natural result of the mathematical probabilities involved. In short, most of these trends are absolutely meaningless. They are bound to happen, but there's no reason for them to continue. For example, if you flip a coin only 3 times the chances of getting 3 heads (or 3 tails) are 7-to-one. You knew that. However, if you flip the same coin 50 times I can virtually guarantee you will get 3 heads (or 3 tails) in a row at some time or another during the 50 flips. The odds are no longer 7-to-one against getting 3 heads in a row; the odds are virtually 100 percent. You cannot then look back and think you 'overcame' 7-to-1 odds. You didn't.

The Dallas Cowboys developed an interesting 'trend' of losing their tenth game of the season no less than 10 years in a row, from 1987 through 1996. In 1997, the 900-number gurus were selling that information all over the place. But what possible reason could there be for such a streak? It made no sense to attach a meaning to it without substantive causative factors. Sure enough, Dallas won the tenth game of their 1997 season, bringing their record for the tenth week to 1-10, which some touts surely continued to sell the following year.      

So, does all this mean you should ignore trends? Well.....not exactly. The key is in double-checking for a possible legitimate cause of such a trend. If teams in pink uniforms have beaten teams in yellow uniforms 9 of 10 times, there may be some other common thread that runs through those games, - some reasonable cause for such a disparity. When such a streak is spotted it might be worth investigating further, - but you can be sure of one thing: the record was not caused by the colors of their uniforms. 

One legitimate trend that has actually made a long-term profit over the years is betting against NFL road teams on Monday night; - especially road favorites. NFL home teams on Monday night have covered the pointspread well over 55% since 1980. This particular trend has legitimate supportive evidence. One causative explanation might be the fact that being spotlighted on national television somehow enhances the effect of a home field advantage. This 'spotlight' effect might also be even more enhanced by the fact that teams chosen for Monday Night Football are always the better teams in the league. Our research has shown that good teams tend to perform better than expected as underdogs, no matter how good a team they're facing.

But, as a whole, searching for obscure trends in professional sports is a waste of time. As a rule, there can never be enough observations to support a reliable conclusion. Results from only 20 or 30 observations are simply not enough unless the winning rate is astronomical.

One 'false' trend concerns NFL total scores of games played in domes. It's a fact that NFL games played indoors have higher total scores than games played outdoors, - but once you recognize the logical reason for such a 'trend' you also recognize it is meaningless. Indoor games do not have higher scores than outdoor games that are played in good weather. Outdoor games played in bad weather quite obviously and logically bring down the overall outdoor average. The dome itself has nothing to do with it.

The bottom line is, you should rarely or never bet on a trend without having logical evidence to back it up. Professional handicapper Bob McCune cites an amusing analogy: Suppose it's rained 9 out of the last 10 Tuesdays in a row. Would that mean it's more likely to rain next Tuesday than any other day of the week? Not really. Common sense says otherwise. Common sense tells us that the nine-out-of-ten streak was nothing but coincidence. Trouble is, if teams from New York beat teams from California 9 out of 10 times we tend to attach special significance to it, even if it's no more significant than the wet Tuesdays. There may be a legitimate reason for the New York teams' winning streak, but you'd better make sure such a reason exists before you risk hard-earned money on the next match-up.      - J. R.


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