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Science behind nail-biters: What do neck-and-neck matches mean for the fans (and oddsmakers) who watch them?

UPDATED: Fri., March 16, 2018, 6:45 p.m.

Everyone knows that a nail-biter like Gonzaga’s NCAA game Thursday in Boise can raise your blood pressure. Hearts pound. Adrenaline surges. The mind focuses in, as if the outcome of a play could be tipped by sheer force of will.

It’s all part of the rush, the price and profit of investing in the fortunes of your favorite team. But like almost anything that amps emotion to the point of ecstasy or agony, there’s a dangerous edge. In the case of close games, that edge has even been quantified.

So, let’s take a quick look at the science – the possible health ramifications and even the mathematical probabilities – of rooting for a team that literally puts the cardiac into the nickname “Kardiac Kids.”

These guys are gonna give me a heart attack

In 1980, over a period of about 14 days, the population of Los Angeles County saw an uptick in cardiovascular deaths. It wasn’t a huge jump, but it was uniform across different types of heart attack. And it coincided with a bruising Super Bowl that ended in defeat of the L.A. Rams by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Multiple studies from the United States and Europe have found evidence suggesting that the strong emotions kindled by sports, particularly during pitched, neck-and-neck matches like Gonzaga’s game in Boise yesterday, can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular events like heart attacks. The key is stress – and the effects it has on the body.

“You can boil down stress to the basic fight-or-flight response,” said Dr. Darryl Potyk, director of medical education at the University of Washington School of Medicine-Gonzaga University Regional Health Partnership. “The body goes through physical changes. Levels of cortisol” – a hormone associated with stress – “go up.”

The result is increased blood pressure and a diversion of blood from less necessary functions, like the intestine, to muscles and the brain. And those effects can be a good thing, Potyk said.

“Short bursts of stress can be beneficial,” he said. “You get a burst of energy, a heightened awareness of the things around you.” Research has even suggested a link between short-term stress and improved short-term memory. And, of course, the rush of adrenaline can feel great.

“It’s why people seek out thrills,” he said. Like skydiving. Or seeing your team retake the lead in the final seconds with a 3-pointer from the parking lot, only to miss four straight free throws – when sinking just one would have sealed the win.

But who’s counting? It’s just a game, right?

Yeah, but that sort of stress also puts strain on your system, particularly when it’s prolonged or chronic, Potyk said. And while a reasonably healthy person has little to fear from the kind of adrenaline rush drawn out by a close game, “if you’re going into it with a bad heart or ill health, those things could be exacerbated,” he said.

So while many fans relish the rush of a close-game finish, for those with concerns about their heart, it might be a good idea to take a break from the game every now and then. Especially if your favorite team tends to take things down to the wire in what seems like a substantial number of games.

In March. Against an unranked team most of us have never heard of.

Or you could practice deep breathing. Or center yourself through meditation. As incongruous as these may seem paired with game-day fervor, they have a track record of lowering stress levels, Potyk said.

And the L.A. County study? There was a silver lining. Four years after the initial period of study, Los Angeles again went to the Super Bowl. This time it was the Raiders of Los Angeles crushing the Washington Redskins 38-9. During the game and in the days immediately following, death rates for all causes declined in the county.

Here’s hoping for a super healthy 2018. Hint, hint.

But what do the numbers tell us?

This is where we can mathematically prove that being a Gonzaga fan has been stressful this year.

This season, Las Vegas oddsmakers have not only picked the Zags to win most games, but by wide margins. The problem is that the games have been a lot closer than gamblers – and especially Bulldogs fans – have wanted.

Gonzaga is 15-18 against the point spread this year, including eight straight “losses” from Jan. 13 through Feb. 8.

So, yes, games really have been a lot closer than they should have been. You weren’t imagining that.

The good news is Gonzaga is 9-3 in games decided by 10 or fewer points. And when the Bulldogs haven’t beaten the spread, they have beaten their opponent. And that’s what really matters.

Gonzaga was a 12.5-point favorite against UNC Greensboro Thursday. They won by 4 in the final 30 seconds.

On Saturday, the Zags will play Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. When the two teams met earlier this season in the PK80 Invitational Tournament in Portland, the Zags were favored to win by 6. Gonzaga won 86-59.

The Bulldogs are favored to win again, but this time by only 3. What changed?

Well, veteran Nevada bookmaker Nick Bogdanovich can tell you.

He sets the lines for over 100 sports books in Nevada for William Hill, one of the world’s most famous betting companies. When you hear national broadcasters talk about point spreads, they likely got their information from this guy.

“On Saturday, it’s just the second round and Gonzaga is only a 3-point favorite, and they have to go against a team that performed very well in the Big Ten,” Bogdanovich said. “I think they’re going to have to be all in just to get to the next round.

“I think if they had played a little better in that first-round game, it could have been a little higher, but they struggled, so the numbers adjusted,” Bogdanovich said. “It probably should have been a 4- or 4.5-point spread, but Gonzaga looked a little more vulnerable than people expected them to in that first game.”

Which probably just made your heart beat a little faster. Maybe made you feel a little more anxious.

Breathe deeply. Maybe meditate a little. Tipoff is still several hours away.

Besides, what does science have to do with basketball, anyway?

This story has been updated to accurately report the 1980 and 1984 Super Bowl participants.


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