Ah, yes, I remember it well. It was a cold Saturday, the 11th of January, 1975. I had been living in Western Pennsylvania for almost a year.
On that night, all of Western Pennsylvania was excited: our Pittsburgh Steelers had at last reached the Super Bowl! The next day in New Orleans, we were going to meet the Minnesota Vikings for the National Football League championship.
When I tuned in that week's episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I discovered that football fever had infected even this CBS comedy.
Since gambling is of questionable morality, this is the only way that a proper sitcom episode can end. However, considering that the fictional WJM-TV was in Minneapolis, I was puzzled that the writers didn't have Lou place his bet on the hometown Vikings. Maybe the episode had to be filmed before the NFC team had been decided.
Over the closing credits, Mary Tyler Moore voiced an apology to Pittsburgh fans for depicting our team as losers. In real life the next day, the Steelers actually defeated the Vikings to win the first of their four Super Bowl championships. [Update: make that six.]
Is It a Useful System?
This episode was reportedly based on the real-life experience of its co-writer, Stan Daniels. That suggests the obvious question: Does the Ted Baxter System work in real life? And if it does work, is the magic number we'll call it BN, the Baxter Number really 11 points? Or might some other point spread give better results?
The following season, I tried to find out (without actually gambling, of course). For a few weeks, I kept a record of the Las Vegas odds, "The Latest Line," which I generally obtained from the Wednesday newspaper. Then I compared these point spreads to the actual outcomes of the games.
The preliminary results were favorable, but the experiment became tedious and I soon abandoned it.
This year, armed with a modern computer and a spreadsheet program to make the calculations easier, I decided to repeat the experiment, continuing it for a full season this time. Now that the final regular-season game of 2002 has been played, I can share the results with you.
The short answer is yes, the Ted Baxter System does work! Using a Baxter Number of 11 points would have been successful in 2002. However, a better choice would have been either 2½ points or 13½ points, depending on your strategy. I'll explain the details below.
But first, I should point out that over the 28 years since Ted Baxter invented his system, the National Football League has changed. They've added six expansion teams and a salary cap. No longer are the best players concentrated in a few powerhouse franchises; instead, they're scattered around the league. This competitive balance is called "parity." The NFL likes parity because it means that almost every team has a chance to win.
However, many fans don't like it. Here's what a columnist wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on November 30, 2002:
My data for the 2002 season bears this out. Let me show you, using charts and graphs. Paul Shaffer, do we have some theme music for this segment?
Charts & Graphs
Suppose that there are two bettors: Franz, who always bets on the Favorite, and Ulf, who always bets on the Underdog. Also suppose that there are four games, A, B, C, and D, and that the spread on each game is three points.
Here's how we'll make a chart.
The horizontal scale represents the point spread: half a point, one point, and so on. Our four games A, B, C, and D are represented by blue diamonds at the horizontal position "3," for three points.
The vertical scale represents the actual results of the games: by how many points did the favored team win?
In game A, the favorite won by four points. Franz won his bet, and Ulf lost.
In game D, the underdog upset the favorite by four points. On the chart, this is shown as an result of -4, meaning that the favorite's "winning" margin was a negative four points. Again Franz lost his bet, and Ulf won.
You can see that Ulf, who always bets on the underdog, will win every game that's below the push line. Franz, who always bets on the favorite, will win only those games that are above the push line. Since there's more area below the line than above, it would seem that Ulf has the advantage if the games are scattered evenly across the chart.
But we wouldn't expect them to be scattered all over the chart, now, would we? The betting public ought to know enough about football to establish point spreads that are somewhere close to the actual outcomes of the games.
So much for the charts, which we've used to visualize the fact that NFL games are highly unpredictable. Now let's get to our graphs, which we'll use to determine one or more optimal Baxter Numbers.
Suppose that Ted chooses a BN on the show it was 11 points and for every game where the point spread is BN or more, he will "take the points" and wager $10 on the underdog. (No money changes hands until after the game is played. If Ted wins, he gets $10, but if he loses, he owes the bookmaker $11. The extra dollar is how the bookie makes his living.) However, if the point spread is less than BN, Ted will not bet on either team.
Using the spreadsheet, I can analyze my 2002 data for all the different possible values of BN and see which would have worked best.
The exception is at BN=8, where the underdogs won 18 and lost 19 against the spread. Ted would have won $10x18 = $180 and lost $11x19 = $209. His "profit" (actually a net loss) would have been -$29.
At BN=8½, he would have had a winning record, barely, as the underdogs were 16-15. But because wins are worth only $10 and losses cost $11, he would still have ended up in the hole by -$5.
At every other BN, however, he would have made a profit.
For example, Ulf's technique always bet the underdog corresponds to a Baxter Number of ½, which would have resulted in a record of 131-106 and a net profit of $144.
Surprisingly, however, that BN did not correspond to the largest winning percentage.
All of the small Baxter Numbers, from ½ through 7, had winning percentages around 56% (give or take 1½%). With a small BN, you place a lot of bets and make your profit on volume.
But if you're looking for a bigger winning percentage, you need a BN greater than 11. You won't bet very often, but when you do, you'll win at least two-thirds of the time.
Taking it to the extreme, 13½ was the best BN percentagewise this year, with a 100% success rate. Ted would have wagered on only three games, but by backing the underdog, he would have won all three bets:
However, this strategy wouldn't be much fun. For weeks on end, Ted would have had no stake, no interest, in what happened on Sunday. A real gambler like Lou Grant wants to have "action" every week preferably every game. He can't stand not being involved.
[Update here: from Down Under, a footy fan has a solution.]
Additionally, a real gambler wants to feel that he's outwitting the other bettors by being smarter at predicting the final score.