(If you’re not playing in football pools, by the way, keep reading to learn why you should.)
This post kicks off a three-part series, in which we’re going to explore key strategies that will give you a much better chance to win your NFL pick’em pool, football confidence pool, or NFL survivor pool.
Why You Should Play In Football Pools
Compared to fantasy football or traditional sports betting, football pools get a lot less attention. Many people spend hours every week doing research for their fantasy team, but don’t even allot more than 15 or 20 minutes to formulating their football pool picks.
Yet NFL and college football pools draw tens of millions of participants every year.
That means the following two things are likely true:
- You know someone, somewhere, running an NFL pick’em contest or survivor pool you can enter
- Most entrants in that pool either don’t understand how to make the smartest picks, or won’t take the time to do it
The Sweet Smell Of Opportunity
Those two dynamics present a fantastic profit opportunity for sharp football pool players. Exploiting it, however, also requires two things:
- The data and analytical skills to identify the optimal picking strategy for a specific pool
- The discipline to persevere with that strategy, despite variance in weekly and yearly results
If you can manage those two things, you should have a big edge to win your NFL pool. In some cases, our research indicates that a smart player can have up to 5-10 times the chance to finish “in the money” in a football pool compared to an averagely skilled player. Even in pools with scoring systems that enable randomness to play a bigger role in the final standings, winning twice as often as expected is realistic.
Let’s be clear: Being a sharp football pool player doesn’t mean you’ll win a prize every year — not even close. In a 20-person pool, for example, being twice as good as average means winning once every 10 years instead of once every 20 years.
But in the long run, the law of large numbers dictates that smart picking strategies should result in a fantastic overall return on your football pool entry fees.
Optimal Football Pool Strategy Is Not Easy
Here’s the challenge, though. Maximizing your odds to win an NFL pool is far more complicated than just figuring out the most likely teams to win each week.
In some ways, the nature of NFL pools is similar to fantasy football. Just as in season-long fantasy, in pools you compete against other people, as opposed to a “house” like in traditional sports betting. And your goal in football pools, as in fantasy, is simply to beat all of your opponents. That leads to a core principle behind winning football pool strategy:
It doesn’t matter how good you are picking winners, as long as you pick more winners than all (or almost all) of your opponents.
Football Pools vs. Betting: What It Takes To Win
In traditional sports betting, the payout calculus is simple — if you don’t win at least 52.4% of your point spread bets (assuming the typical -110 payout odds, bet $11 to win $10), then you lose money. If you bet on all 16 games in NFL Week 1 and only pick 8 winners, you’re in the red. There’s no way around it.
In pools, though, that’s not the case. If a bunch of crazy upsets happen in NFL Week 1 and you only get 8 of 16 picks correct in your pick’em contest, you can still end up having the best score of the week and win a prize. You just need your next-best opponent to only get 7 picks right.
These types of outcomes happen all the time in football pools, and the possibility to achieve them makes football pool strategy incredibly dynamic and complex.
How To Get A Proven Edge In NFL Pools
Since 2000, we’ve been studying the dynamics of sports pools. In 2005, after realizing that optimal pool pick strategy required a much deeper level of analysis than scratch pad math or even Excel spreadsheets, we started building technology to identify and exploit the inefficiencies in popular types of pools.
So far, the results have been very strong. As a group, TeamRankings subscribers have crushed expectations for how an average player should expect to fare in football pools. Just last year, for example:
- 81% of our Football Pick’em Picks subscribers reported winning a season-long or a weekly prize
- Our NFL Survivor Picks subscribers reported over $1 million in survivor pool winnings
As far as we know, we are the only site that collects objective performance data from our subscribers about how our pick recommendations have performed, and we’ve now customized pick recommendations for nearly 20,000 real-world football pools.
We still have work to do to achieve what we consider to be truly “optimal” picks for the many different flavors of NFL pick’em and survivor pools, but the results so far speak for themselves.
3 Secrets Of The Football Pool Pros
If we had to sum up all of our research into to making the best football pool picks in two words, they would be:
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that how likely an NFL team is to win a game (or to cover a given point spread) is critical information for playing in football pools. Having accurate predictions at your disposal is effectively the cover charge for entry into the sharp pool players club.
But if you want a seat at the VIP booth, your pick strategy needs to incorporate much more than just good predictions.
Here are some examples of what we mean. If you’re not considering the three factors below when you make your NFL pool picks this year, then you are almost certainly not making the best possible picks.
1. The Number Of Entries In Your Pool
The more entries there are in your pool, the more likely it is that one (or a few) players get very lucky with their picks this year. Maybe they pick mostly favorites and a few upsets in a pick’em contest, then get lucky and nail most of their upset picks. Maybe three of the survivor picks they make over the course of the year end up winning in overtime.
You still need to beat these lucky players in order to win.
Bigger Football Pools
As a result, if you pick too conservatively in a large pool, you’re going to lower your odds of winning a prize. You may end up with a solid score that puts you in the top 10% of the final standings, but it’s a mirage; you never actually had a fighting chance to win the thing.
In short, you need to take some risks with your picks in large pools. In almost all years, that strategy won’t deliver, but so what? Your most likely outcome in the first place, by far, was not winning the pool. Even the best pick strategy in the world is only going to win a big pool once in a great while.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it to play in big football pools. Winning a huge pool once every 20 or 25 years could still generate an amazing return on your overall investment in pool entry fees. You just need to be committed for the long term.
Smaller Football Pools
On the other hand, in a small pool, it could easily be the case that no player really gets super lucky. So if you pick too aggressively in a small pool, your odds to win a prize can plummet. You may think that you “need” to make one or two bold upset calls every week to differentiate your picks from your opponents, but in a smaller pool, that approach is usually the kiss of death.
Sometimes, the math clearly demonstrates that picking all the favorites is the decision that maximizes your expected pool winnings.
In the end, the trick is figuring out what level of aggressive vs. conservative pick making makes the most sense for your particular pool size. Unfortunately, there’s no simple rule of thumb for that. In order to figure it out, we had to build software that simulates millions of football pools, and we tested how various combinations of picks fared in pools of different sizes.
2. Your Pool’s Rules And Scoring System
It goes without saying that you should know all the rules of your pool. Nevertheless, few NFL pool players appreciate just how significantly their pool’s rules or format should impact their week to week pick decisions.
For example, one of the most popular rule variations in NFL survivor pools forces entries that are still alive later in the season (say, in Week 10) to start picking two teams per week, instead of just one. Both teams must win their games in order for the entry to survive to the next week.
Most players don’t realize that one rule twist has a significant effect on how they should approach making picks in earlier weeks, by placing a greater value on saving better teams for later use. If your approach to a survivor pool with double picks in later weeks is simply to say, “I’ll deal with that if and when I make it to Week 10; first priority is to survive until then,” then you’re giving up edge to sharper players.
Likewise, if your NFL pick’em pool offers big rewards for picking upsets, take the time to fully understand the scoring implications. It may turn out that making lots of risky picks, and only getting a couple of them right, would still be expected to generate more points than picking a mix of favorites and underdogs.
3. Your Pool’s Prize Structure
A pool’s payout structure is another factor you need to think about when you make your picks each week.
For example, assume you’re playing in a 200-entry NFL pick’em pool, and the prize structure is winner-take-all. You’re in fourth place with two weeks to go. In that scenario, you probably have no chance of catching the leader and cashing in the pool unless you start aggressively picking unpopular teams and upsets, and hope for the best.
The most likely outcome of that strategy? You drop like a rock in the standings, maybe not even finishing in the top 50 by the end.
Some Chance > No Chance
But that’s irrelevant. Why? Because picking aggressively over the last two weeks is probably your only chance to win something from the pool. If you assume the pool leader is going to act rationally, he or she is going to close out the pool picking mostly favorites, or all favorites, since that strategy gives them the best chance to defend their lead.
In that case, you have zero chance of catching the leader unless you pick the opposite way on multiple picks, and hope for enough luck to make up a four point deficit in two weeks.
Most players don’t understand this concept. They may still have some chance of placing in the money toward the end of a pool, even if it’s just a slim chance, but they squander that opportunity by picking too conservatively over the final weeks.
Flatter Payout Structures
On the flip side, picking aggressively at the end of the season would be a terrible strategy if that same pool split its prize pot equally among the top five finishers.
While you would increase your odds of catching up to the current leader (from a slim chance to a slightly less slim chance), your odds of dropping out of the top five and finishing out of the money entirely would skyrocket.
So make sure you’re keeping your pool’s prize structure in mind as you make your weekly pick decisions.
Wrapping It Up
The three strategy factors we covered in this post are examples of what it takes to get a big edge in football pools. Most players aren’t thinking about them, or don’t appreciate their importance as much as they should. If you can effectively incorporate them into your pick decisions, you will win football pools more often.
While pool size, pool rules, and prize structure are three of the most important strategy factors to understand, there are still more angles to consider. In particular, to become a true football pool pro, you still need to master the science of using game theory to maximize your odds to win.
Or, if you’d prefer to outsource all this math data gathering to us, you can just subscribe to TeamRankings, and we’ll apply all of these advanced strategies to customize picks for your NFL pick’em pools and NFL survivor pools.
2018 Football Pool Strategy Series