contrarian betting value lies in NFL Week 7
David Solar, ESPN Chalk
At Sports Insights, we practice what we preach, consistently going against the public by taking the NFL's least popular teams (especially after they've been blown out, or lost a star player to injury) and buying on bad news while selling on good news.
The contrarian way, especially betting against the public, has proved an effective strategy across all six major U.S. sports. The ideal range differs from sport to sport, but generally these systems focus on teams that receive less than 30 percent of public bets at our seven contributing sportsbooks.
We're inundated by questions on why going against public perception works. One simple answer: The house always wins, so betting against the public ensures you're always on the same side as the house. Under further examination, the answer is more complicated.
Nonstop media coverage, which often creates Kardashian-like drama, can influence square bettors, who are prone to overreact to recent outcomes. Winners are celebrated, losers are ridiculed. These narratives have a tremendous impact on public perception and are magnified by a propensity for bettors to pound favorites and overs.
We can extract more information based on a comparison of our public betting trends and the line movement at market-setting sportsbooks. Let's say Team A opens -3 and receives 90 percent of spread bets. If that team moves to -3.5 and we don't track any additional sharp money indicators (i.e., steam moves) it typically indicates that public money is responsible for that half-point line move. That means bettors willing to take an unpopular stance and take Team B are getting a free half-point purely based on the wagering habits of uneducated bettors.
On the other hand, let's say that Team A opened -3 and drops to -2.5. Many bettors may be confused by line movement that contradicts our public betting trends. This is known as reverse line movement, one of the best and easiest ways to diagnose sharp money.
Reverse line movement essentially tells us that even though more bettors are taking one side, more total dollars (typically from Vegas sharps and betting syndicates) have taken the opposing side. In this example, opportunistic bettors could quickly shop for the best line and find a slow sportsbook still hanging Team B at +3.
In other words, NFL betting against the public is an effective strategy no matter how the line moves. The value of betting against the public is also magnified based on the volume of bets, and it's not exactly breaking news that the popularity of the NFL dwarfs all other leagues.
Since the start of the 2003 NFL season, teams receiving less than 50 percent of spread bets have barely posted a winning record at 1,566-1,552 ATS. However, we have observed a direct correlation between lower levels of public support and a higher winning percentage.
In order to optimize our returns, we first wanted to know the most profitable range for contrarian betting. After narrowing our scope to focus on underdogs, we found that teams receiving less than 25 percent of public bets had gone 252-207 ATS (54.9 percent) with +32.23 units won. This was easily the best range in our database.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the most simple and profitable contrarian strategies that bettors can employ is simply wagering on teams following a loss, or better yet, a blowout loss. Broadcasters and analysts will spend all week overreacting to a subpar outing, and this often creates artificially inflated lines for the following week.
When dogs receiving less than 25 percent of spread bets have lost the previous week, that winning percentage improves from 54.9 percent to 57.1 percent. When that team lost the previous game by at least a touchdown (7+ points) that winning percentage jumps to 60.6 percent. We also knew that larger underdogs had historically provided added value, so we wanted to focus on underdogs of at least 3.5 points since three is the most common margin of victory and getting the hook in that situation is crucial.
CRITERIA ATS RECORD UNITS WON ROI
Receiving >25% of spread bets 252-207 (54.9%) +32.23 +7.0%
>25% of spread bets, Lost game by 7+ points 132-86 (60.6%) +38.54 +17.7%
>25% of spread bets, lost by 7+, underdog of 3.5+ 115-67 (63.2%) +40.86 +22.5%
* Closing lines from Pinnacle were used to determine records.
Why does this work?
This week's system is based on taking advantage of betting market overreactions to teams that lost by a significant margin in their previous game. Oddsmakers will also shade their opening lines and/or line moves based on one-sided action, forcing bettors to take favorites at bad numbers. When bettors overreact to recent trends, opportunistic contrarian bettors can buy back the unpopular side at an artificially inflated price.
This system encompasses three of the biggest contrarian strategies: betting against the public, taking advantage of recent results and getting the best line around key numbers. With a large sample size, consistent year-to-year returns and a strong driving hypothesis, it features the three most important criteria for building a winning betting system.
Both games this week involve question marks involving starting quarterbacks, but this just provides another opportunity to buy on bad news.
Week 7 system matches
Jacksonville Jaguars (+4.5) vs. Buffalo Bills
In the second London game of the year, the Jaguars opened as 4.5-point underdogs and have received just 18 percent of spread bets. Despite this lopsided public betting, the line actually dropped from Jacksonville +4.5 to +4 before public money pushed the line back to 4.5.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to this game involves the Bills' starting quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is listed as questionable with a knee injury, and EJ Manuel could get his second straight start if Taylor is unable to play.
The fact that oddsmakers have even posted a line for this game indicates that they don't see a significant drop-off from Taylor to Manuel, which seems like a mistake. Although Taylor doesn't have many starts under his belt, the former Raven has compiled a higher completion percentage, better QB rating, better TD-to-INT ratio and more rushing yards than his backup.
Blake Bortles has quietly improved this season and T.J. Yeldon should be returning this week. In what's expected to be a fairly low-scoring game, this is an excellent time to buy low on the Jags as a contrarian dog.
Tennessee Titans (+3.5) vs. Atlanta Falcons
We should start by noting that this game is currently off the board at the Westgate Superbook; however, many offshore sportsbooks are offering Tennessee +3.5 or +4.
The reason this game is off the board is because Titans quarterbackMarcus Mariota suffered a sprained MCL in Sunday's loss to the Dolphins and is listed as questionable this week. If he's unable to play, Zach Mettenbergerwould get the call.
Right now we simply have too many sharp money indicators on Tennessee to ignore. Since 2003, teams that lost their previous game by 20-plus points have gone 338-286 ATS (54.2 percent), which provides additional value. The Titans also fit the criteria from last week's contrarian betting system and our 80/20 betting rule.
Tennessee is currently receiving just 12 percent of spread bets, and will provide excellent value regardless of whether Mariota or Mettenburger get the call.
These lines are always subject to change, so make sure to check ESPN Chalk'sLive Odds page throughout the week for updated lines and betting trends.