August 27, 2019 - by Tom Federico
Aaron Donald and the Rams look to salvage a win to end 2019 (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
Besides being fun games, NFL and college football pick’em contests can offer fantastic profit opportunities. You just need to know the smart way to play.
At TeamRankings, we’re on a quest to crack the code of optimal pick’em pool strategy. We’ve researched football pools for the better part of a decade now, and built proprietary technology to simulate millions of pools and test various picking approaches.
In this post, we explain the core strategies that will increase your chances to win an NFL or college football pick’em contest. These strategies are based on objective analysis and real-world results, not opinions or theories.
How do we know they work? Every year, our premium subscribers put these strategies into action, and 80% of them reported winning at least one prize in a football pick’em pool last season.
That level of success far exceeds expectations, and it’s all based on the concepts below.
Before we get started, let’s quickly explain what we mean by an NFL pick’em contest or pool.
In a pool, you play against other people — not against a “house” like in traditional sports betting. You can challenge your friends or coworkers in an office pool, or compete in a public contest sponsored by ESPN, a local bar, or a casino sports book.
In an football pick’em pool, you typically need to predict the winners (or point spread winners) of every game over the course of the season. You also may need to assign “confidence points” to each of your picks, or perhaps only pick five or six games of your choosing each week. Many formats exist.
Examples include ESPN’s Pigskin Pick’em, Yahoo’s Pro Football Pick’em, the popular Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest, or more customized contests you can set up on premium pool hosting sites like RunYourPool.
A lot of people think winning an NFL pick’em contest is simply a question of deciding which teams are more likely to win. Then, maybe throw in an upset or two each week and hope to get lucky.
That’s not the right approach to dominating pick’em pools. In fact, there are two things wrong with it.
First, if you blindly pick all the most likely winners every week, it means you’re only thinking about minimizing your risk to get picks wrong. It may sound weird at first, but that approach often doesn’t give you the best chance to win your pool.
Improving your odds to win a pick’em pool requires a higher level of analysis. You need to evaluate both the risk and the potential reward of every pick you make.
In addition, there are a number of contextual factors about every NFL pick’em contest that you should consider as you make picks each week. Examples include:
Many pick’em players completely ignore these important dynamics. But they often determine whether picking the favorite or the underdog in a specific game will give you a better chance to come in first place at the end of the season.
We’ll examine some of these factors a but more at the end of this article, but first, let’s talk about risk vs. reward driven thinking.
It’s pretty easy these days to estimate the chance that an NFL team wins or loses a game.
With a few clicks of your mouse, you can get high-quality game predictions that are either market-driven (e.g. Vegas odds) or data-driven (e.g. algorithmic predictions from TeamRankings, FiveThirtyEight, etc.). Averaging win odds or implied win odds from several smart sources can often improve prediction accuracy even more.
As long as you’re willing to put in the work, you can get a solid and objective measure of which teams are the favorites, and by how much.
You can then select all the more likely winners on your pool’s weekly pick sheet, tossing your favorite coin to decide on any 50/50 games. If your pool uses confidence points, you can simply rank your picks by relative win odds and be done with it.
This strategy maximizes your numbers of expected winners in a given week. And that sure sounds good.
The problem is that in pick’em pools, all winners aren’t created equal. In fact, picking a winner may or may not be cause for much celebration at all.
What most pick’em players often forget is that there is only one way to win an NFL pick’em contest: you need to get some picks right that your opponents get wrong.
That is the only way to rise above your competitors in the pool standings.
So if you pick Seattle to beat Cincinnati in Week 1, and you get that pick right — along with 96% of the rest of your pool that also picked Seattle — then whoop-dee-do. Sure, it’s better than getting the pick wrong. But your odds to beat everyone else have barely budged, since almost everyone else got it right too.
In short, your reward for picking a winner is directly proportional to the number of opponents who also made the same pick.
If you get a pick right that no one else in your pool happened to make, however, you can really shoot up the leaderboard.
This smarter, risk vs. reward mode of thinking also has a big impact on making upset picks in your NFL pick’em. In pick’em pools, some upset picks are much smarter gambles than others.
For instance, if you pick 4.5-point underdog Atlanta over Minnesota as your big upset pick of Week 1, from a risk/reward perspective, the joke is almost certainly on you.
Why? Because based on national picking trends, about 30% of the public is on Atlanta in pick’em pools. So if you’re lucky enough to be right, and your pool reflects the national averages, you’ll score points that about 70% of your opponents miss.
(FYI, you can find all this info in the Data Grid feature of our Football Pick’em Picks product.)
That may sound pretty good — until we tell you that Jacksonville is a 3.5-point underdog against Kansas City, and only 7% of the public is picking the Jaguars. In comparison to Atlanta, Jacksonville offers both less risk and a significantly higher reward if the pick is correct.
If you’re dead set on making an upset pick in Week 1, picking Jacksonville and not Atlanta is almost always going to be a better decision in a pick’em pool. Just don’t forget that not picking any upsets may be an even better decision, as we’ll demonstrate shortly.
The Atlanta/Jacksonville example above illustrates an important aspect of NFL pick’em strategy that many players don’t understand or apply: game theory.
In short, sharp NFL pick’em players don’t only try to figure out the most likely team to win. They also work hard to understand how their pool opponents are thinking.
This process typically involves reviewing weekly pick popularity data published by national pick’em contests, to help project how their opponents are likely to act. Then, the real pros also consider pool-specific biases they may be able to exploit (e.g. a pool full of Green Bay fans that refuse to pick against the Packers).
Applying this level of opponent reconnaissance to your pick making can greatly increase your expected pool profits.
In addition to applying game theory related concepts, you need to adapt your picking strategy for a number of contextual factors in order to maximize your edge. These include:
Pool Size. In general, the greater the number of entries in your pool, the less effective it will be to focus your picks on the more popular favorites. We explain this factor in more detail in our post on how pool size impacts pick strategy in football pick’ems.
Season Prizes vs. Weekly Prizes. The prize structure of an NFL pick’em pool can make a big impact on optimal picking strategy. For example, the picks that maximize your odds to have the pool’s highest score in a particular week will typically be riskier than the picks that give you the best chance to contend for a cumulative, end-of-season prize. We explain this concept more in our post on how to win season vs. weekly prizes in football office pools.
Early Season vs. Endgame Strategy. In most season-long NFL pick’em pools, it most often pays not to get aggressive too early, or to overreact to an especially bad week if you’re confident in the quality of your picking strategy. But you may need to adjust that strategy as your pool situation demands in the later weeks. Read more in our article on early vs. endgame strategy in season-long football pools.
Confidence Points. We often see pick’em players making multiple upset picks with low confidence points. That strategy can be self-defeating in bigger pools and single-week pools especially. In essence, you’re taking on a bunch of extra risk, but also not maximizing the possible rewards. (It also requires much more luck to get all your upset picks right, the more of them you make.) From an expected value perspective, it can be much better to consolidate your risk on your smartest upset pick or two, and make a more significant gamble in terms of confidence points.
Point Spread-Based Pools. It’s certainly harder to pick against a point spread, since you’ll rarely have more than a 55-60% chance of getting any given pick right. (If you think you can do better than that long term, you should become a professional sports bettor.) But point spreads are also the great equalizer in NFL pick’em pools, because even the dumbest player suddenly has a not-that-much-worse chance than the sharpest player in the pool to get a pick right. In general, players seem to greatly underestimate the impact of luck on winning a spread- based pick’em pool.
Pool Length / Total Number Of Picks. As we discuss in the season vs. weekly prize strategy article, the more games included in your NFL pick’em pool, the less likely it is that luck plays a major role in the outcome. If you think you have a skill advantage over your pool opponents, playing in a season-long, “pick every game every week” pool will likely give you a bigger edge than playing selectively in a “Pick Five” or “Pick Six” contest like the Westgate SuperContest. You’ve got a reasonable shot of beating the best NFL bettor in the world in a one-game picking contest; not so much in a 1,000-game contest.
If you’ve made it this far, you either have enjoyed what you’ve read or you have way too much free time on your hands. Thanks either way!
We hope this article has helped you think about NFL pick’em contest strategy in a more sophisticated manner, or at least shed some light on an aspect of picking strategy you may not have considered previously. Even if you just start consulting public picking trends data more often when making your weekly pick decisions, that’s a win.
Putting all of these strategies into action, of course, is not easy. At the end of the day, to make the best picks, you need to consider everything we’ve mentioned in this post, then somehow translate all these considerations into the optimal weekly pick sheet for your specific pool.
Doing that takes a whole lot of data and complex math. It’s pretty much impossible to it by hand or in your head, or with Excel for that matter.
As geeky engineer types, our solution to winning more pick’em pools was to build technology to do all the heavy lifting. We’ve developed a product that algorithmically optimizes your weekly NFL pick’em pool picks based on many different strategy dynamics.
It leverages betting market odds and objective game predictions, aggregates national pick popularity data and projects your opponents’ picks, and adjusts your weekly recommended picks for factors like your pool’s scoring system and format, prize structure, and your position in the standings.
It also covers game winner or spread-based contests; confidence pools; and pools with end-of-season prizes, weekly prizes, or both. In fact, it’s so advanced that we had to come up with an appropriately technical, massively creative name for it: Football Pick’em Picks.
If you learned something from this article, we encourage you to check it out.
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