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Contrarian Betting Strategy in the NFL, Week 1...By Jay Graziani

Traditional wisdom says that squares bet the favorites and overs in the NFL, and that sharps stick to the underdogs and play under the total. While it's not quite that simple, there is some truth in that thinking, and some profit to be found in following it.

Historically, the NFL betting lines are biased towards the favorites due to the influence of a heavier public betting handle than in other sports. Underdogs across the board have fared about 51.5% against the spread over the past two decades. Home underdogs, a well-known winning subset, have done a litter better at about 52.5%. These results are over thousands of games, so the favorite bias in the NFL has been well-documented and fairly consistent. And while not spectacular, just playing into these "contrarian subsets" blindly has been enough to break even or grind out a small profit against discount lines.

For this reason, contrarian betting in the NFL has been a staple of sharp handicapping strategy for years. Going against the grain and betting against the recreational money, contrarian bettors look to back teams that are out of the public eye or are perceived to be worse than they truly are. Such a betting strategy requires identifying which lines will most be influenced by square betting. A little psychology into the mind of a square bettor can be useful in identifying good contrarian betting spots.

There are a number of reasons why "recreational" or "square" gamblers often prefer favorites in their betting:

"Action": For most recreational bettors, the thrill of the game is a big motivating factor in placing bets. The favorite is less likely to get buried early, and even if they do, the "better team" should be able to mount an exciting comeback. No one wants to waste their betting dollar on a team who goes into the fetal position after the 1st quarter. The top teams in the NFL are never really out of it, and Joe Public knows that his bet on the Colts, even laying 10, is at least going to have a fighting chance going into the 4th quarter, regardless of the game score. But on the other hand, bet on the 7 point underdog and you can envision being down 24-0 at half, the game in the bag and an end to betting excitement for the rest of the afternoon.

Focus on Winning Percentage Rather Than Profit: Square bettors know that the better team will likely win, at least on the scoreboard, but it is easy to discount the effect of the pointspread. Unfortunately, "picking the winner" is not remotely close to handicapping against a pointspread. Rarely is a square bettor thinking about how he needs to win 53% long-term; instead he is thinking he needs to win this game right now, and the favorite has the best chance of winning. This also plays to the ego of the undisciplined gambler, in that his team will often win the game, yet he will lose his money when measured against the betting spread. He had the right team, it's just that the damn spread got in the way.

Influence of Sports Media: ESPN makes its money talking about the winners, not the losers. Sportscasters prognosticate about who will win the division, who will make the playoffs, and who has made important trades to improve their teams. The extended coverage of the "good" teams gives recreational players a sense of familiarity with those teams and players, inspiring confidence at the betting window. The underdogs are generally ignored by the media, and therefore by the betting public as well.

Embarrassment: While professional gambling is usually a solitary endeavor, recreational betting often has a large social component. Square bettors want to talk about the games and predictions with their buddies or officemates. This leads to a "sheep mentality": No one wants to seem stupid among their peers, and no one wants to tell their friends that they bet North Texas plus-40, because when the final scoreboard shows them losing 79-10 to Oklahoma, they will feel stupid for wasting their money on a team that put up no competition whatsoever. But if they took Texas minus-40 last week, even though they lost by over 30 points, it's easy to excuse the loss - after all, no one knew that would happen. It was a fluke, a losing bet that can be chalked up only to bad luck, not fault on the part of the handicapper. Just like the stock market, most will prefer to "go with the flow" rather than swim upstream, and playing the popular favorites is the easy way to justify your selections - after all, they are favorites for a reason, and they are generally thought to be the better team. No one wants to feel stupid for losing their hard-earned money on the "worse" team.

Keeping some of these points in mind should allow you to identify games where the majority of the square gamblers will be on one side. Any line attracting a decent amount of public action is vulnerable to over-adjustment. Exploiting a contrarian betting strategy requires identifying situations where public action will overpower wise guy action, leaving value in the betting line.

And nothing brings out the squares quite like Week 1 of NFL Football. They've had all summer to lick their wounds, they've done their homework and drafted their fantasy team, they've been teased with a weekend of college games, and they just re-upped at a few offshore accounts, or reopened with their local "bartender". It's betting time, and they are coming with both guns blazing.

With the added hype and media attention surrounding the first week of the NFL Season, you might think the lines would be inflated even more towards the underdogs. In fact, historical data shows that underdogs and home teams tend to overperform in Week 1. Since 1983, Week 1 home teams have performed at about 51.5%, versus nearly 50% for all home teams against the spread. There is also a small gain across all underdogs, who covered at 52.1% in Week One versus 51.5% through all weeks. Combining the two subsets, home underdogs in Week One have been nicely profitable, hitting at 55.5%, compared to 52.5% over all weeks.

Following the same logic, it makes sense that the larger favorites would be subject to even more public bias, and that the home advantage may be under less consideration by the betting public in these cases. This plays out in the statistics, as home underdogs of more than 3 points in Week One are 34-23 (59.6%) against the spread since 1983.

On this week's NFL card, that makes Cleveland +4.5 and the Jets +6.5 look like good opportunities, with Buffalo and Green Bay, both field goal underdogs, also worth some extra attention in your handicapping. The Jets seem like the contrarian pick du jour, as they are facing a popular, successful team catching a fairly large amount of points at home.

Jay Graziani

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