There are a lot of strategies when it comes to betting on sports. Some people take a high-volume approach because they feel like a lot of small edges add up to a much bigger advantage. Others bet a small number of games but a larger amount of money because they believe that one big edge is a better situation than a lot of small edges. Some people like to “chase the steam” and immediately follow along with the “sharp side”, based on line movement or the opinions of some of the industry’s most respected bettors. Others like to “fade the public”, which means that they will bet against the “consensus” opinion because the public loses over the long-term.
Fading the public is also called contrarian betting. Technically, it doesn’t just have to be fading the public, because the public and the sharp side can sometimes be the same. It’s akin to playing the “Don’t Pass” line on a craps table. If you break down the house edges in craps, it’s actually better to play the “Don’t Pass” line rather than the “Pass” line. But, it’s hard to do that. Craps has a community feel. When everybody wins, everybody wins on the “Pass” line. Everybody is having fun. Who wants to be that guy that plays the small advantage to go against everybody?
It’s different with contrarian betting because you don’t have to look anybody in the eye when you are deliberately doing the opposite. The motto for a contrarian bettor would be, “It looks too good to be true”. Do this long enough and you’re bound to hear the phrase “public dog”. What this means is that the public, a group that collectively bets more favorites than underdogs, has found a team it loves that isn’t supposed to win the game. One of the best examples we’ve seen of this recently was the Green Bay Packers against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship. The Packers were a five-point underdog most of the week, even though they had won eight straight games and Aaron Rodgers looked like a guy ready for a bust in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As we know, the Falcons crushed the Packers and Atlanta wound up being the sharp side in that game. They also closed -6.5.
When too many people climb on board a team or an athlete in an individual sport, alarm bells start going off. Think about it. If you’re in a room with a lot of people, isn’t it a weird feeling when everybody agrees? Say you’re doing a group project at work or school and there are no dissenting opinions. Everybody is on the same page. Isn’t there that voice in the back of your mind that knocks on your skull and says, “Aren’t you missing something?”
Contrarian betting basically has the same type of mindset. The team that nobody wants to bet on is the team that the contrarian player is dying to bet on. There is a method to this madness. For starters, perception of these teams or individuals is very low. Because of this, oddsmakers often shade the lines a little bit on the team or player that everybody likes. It may be subtle, just an adjustment of the vig or a half-point here or there, but there’s already value built into the line on that undesirable betting option. For another thing, there’s probably going to be even more value on that side as betting action increases. The more action, the more the bookmakers need to adjust the lines. The more the lines adjust, the more value there is on the side that nobody wants to play.
Understanding bias is such an important part of being a handicapper. If the Milwaukee Brewers have lost seven straight games and were just beaten 11-2 by the Chicago Cubs, who is going to bet on them in the next game? The models for that game may have the Cubs listed as a -275 favorite, but oddsmakers open the game -300. The Brewers are playing the reigning World Series champions, have lost seven straight, and just lost by nine runs. Who wants to play them the next day? Throughout the day, the line climbs up to -340. Mr. Contrarian strolls up, dashing and debonair with his coiffed hair and designer suit, and plops a couple dimes on the counter on the Milwaukee Brewers.
Some people look at him and question his intellect. They’ll wonder whether or not he even cares about that $2,000, considering it’s less than his suit cost. But, Mr. Contrarian walks away knowing that he got 65 cents of value that should not have been there because nobody wanted to bet on the Brewers. The Brewers may win. They may not win. The one thing we cannot debate, however, is that Mr. Contrarian got the best of the number and that has proven to win more often than not over the long-term.
These are decisions that you are forced to make as a handicapper. It’s no fun losing and it’s no fun being an island, but it’s also not fun losing with everybody else. A lot of deep-pocketed professionals will subscribe to contrarian betting theories. It’s all about line value. It’s nearly impossible to get more line value than to bet on a team that nobody wants to bet on.
In this industry, we look for “buy points”. You try to buy low. You try to buy stock in a team that nobody wants to buy. Whether it’s simple variance or regression to the mean, those teams are generally going to improve. It’s harder to envision with a money line sport like baseball, but the Phoenix Suns aren’t going to get beat by 15 or more points every game over the course of a season. String together three or four of those losses and everybody throws that team away. Some bettors believe that is the time to buy.
The nice thing about sports betting is that there are a lot of approaches and a lot of ways to make money. Maybe contrarian betting doesn’t work for you. Maybe you don’t want to have to root for that bad team. Unders are usually the preferred total bets for professional handicappers. Why? Joe Public on his couch with a PBR tall boy and a bag of pork rinds is rooting for points. Oddsmakers and bookmakers know that Joe Public is rooting for points. It’s more fun to watch points. The percentage of sharp players that oddsmakers and bookmakers are worried about is a lot smaller than the large percentage of public players that come in on the game no matter what. In a way, betting the under and the underdog are the simplest ways to be contrarian.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes the public will back an under or an underdog, in which case, sharp players generally go contrarian the other way. Sometimes, everybody is on the same page and a contrarian bettor will wait until close to kickoff, tip-off, or first pitch to get involved.
There’s no right or wrong way to handicap games, but there’s a wrong way to handicap the industry and that’s to not be aware of all of these different approaches and strategies. This is just one more for you to consider as you look to improve as a bettor and look to bang the books.