Where did the modern point spread come from?

Where did the modern point spread come from?

Gambling, as far as I can tell, has been around basically since prehistoric times. You can be sure that lives were risked and lost long ago, as there weren't many other ways to pay a big bet off.

Sports gambling in the United State has been around since the 19th century. Baseball was the first sport people could bet on because, quite simply, it was the first pro sports league in the country. Back then, moneyline wagers were really all that was available and it stayed that way until the 1940s.

There have been heated debates about where the point spread was actually invented and who should get the credit for it.

One story says that the mob chased a guy out of Chicago who was bookmaking there and he went to Wisconsin, opened up an ice cream store and started making lines on games and putting them on a parlay card. He would give his customers a free one to fill out and if you hit a 2-teamer or 3-teamer, you would win a gallon of ice cream. The man not only crafted his point spread but he sold a lot of ice cream.

Most folks believe that Charles McNeil from Connecticut was the inventor of the point spread. A pro bettor and bookmaker, McNeil became a securities analyst for a Chicago bank in the 1930s but draw a paltry salary. He eventually began to bet in some Chicago bookie joints in the late 1930s and was so successful that he either got thrown out or got his limits cut.

Undeterred, McNeil opened his own operation in the early 1940s and that is when he put his intellect to good use on football games. He made up his own power ratings and would compare the two teams in a matchup and estimate how much one team should beat the other team by.

Instead of having to lay or take prices on the moneyline in a college football game, people could lay 11-to-10 on a point spread.

Naturally, bettors ate it up and he quickly became the biggest bookmaker in Chicago. He introduced point spread wagering to college basketball after football season was over and ran a successful business for almost a decade before mysteriously shutting down his operation in 1950. McNeil was rumored to have told a friend that the mob wanted "to go partners with my brain". Sounds somewhat close to the first story, with the mob ties and ice cream, eh?

Point spread wagering made the demand for betting on sports skyrocket. As bookmakers across the country began to implement the new system, lines would vary from city to city and astute bettors with many outs quickly realized that they could win by shopping for the best number.

Television sets began to pop up in households across the country in the 1950s and for the first time, bettors could actually watch the games they bet on without being at the event. The point spread and the television set were the two primary reasons why sports wagering took off.

From there, legend has it that "The Minneapolis Line" was created by Leo Hirschfield and it was widely popular for decades. Nevada legalized gambling in 1931 and legalized sports gambling in 1951, with individuals much more known to the average bettor like Bob Martin, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder all taking turns in the public spotlight until Roxy Roxborough became the most illustrious linesmaker in the world in the 1980s.

Still, most consider the basic roots of the point spread go back to McNeil. In a 1986 Sports Illustrated story by Robert H. Boyle titled "The Brain That Gave Us the Point Spread”, McNeil was quoted with one of the best gambling quotes of all time:

"There are three things a gambler needs: money, guts and brains. If you don't have one, you're dead. I've got all three."

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