Case Study: What Do Winning Football Pick’em Entries Actually Look Like?

We separate fact from fiction by looking at how our subscriber entries that finished first in pools performed through the season.

Winning Entries

Patrick Mahomes looks like a Super Bowl winner, but the 2019 season wasn't always smooth (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire)

Let’s lead off with a difficult truth: if you are expecting to lead your pool from wire-to-wire and blow out the competition, we will not meet your expectations. The truth about pick’em pools is that they are hard to win, even if you have an edge that increases your chances above the typical participant. The season is full of ups and downs, and even winning entries have bad weeks.

To separate unrealistic expectations from reality, we are going to take a look at how various eventual first-place entries have performed in their pools over the course of the season. We will look at things like how many weeks they were in first place, how long it took them to secure first place, and more.

This data is from the 2014 to 2019 seasons, and represents a small portion of the actual winning entries by TeamRankings’ subscribers over that span. To ensure the most reliable data, we looked only at pools where:

  • the subscriber responded to our end-of-year survey, saying they won the pool; and
  • the subscriber used our custom picks tool weekly, providing their place in standings and number of points behind the leader for every single week of the season; and
  • The subscriber only had one entry in the particular pool (to avoid confusion over which entry was in which place); and
  • The pool ended at the end of the regular season.

Winning Entries and Weekly Scoring Ups and Downs

First, we’ll go through what some winning entries looked like in terms of total wins or points.

Let’s start with Fixed Point NFL Game Winner Pools.

On average, winning entries got about 172 picks correctly out of 256 regular season games. But this fluctuated by year and by pool size. One year, the winners had on average 165 wins, and in another, the average was 177.

The distribution of weekly wins was not consistent. Some weeks, there were more upsets overall and some swing games didn’t go the way we needed. In others, things broke better.

To Illustrate how varied the path to a season-long win can be, here are the real weekly number of games won from three different winning entries, from three different years, all with exactly 30 entries competing in the pool.

WeekWinner AWinner BWinner C
1101012
2111311
38109
49138
5799
65117
714910
8111113
9988
101195
1112912
12141211
1311109
148912
1513812
16131212
17111211

In over one-third of the weeks, these winning entries scored fewer than 10 wins. Not only that, they each had streaks where they failed to get to 10 wins for several weeks in a row. Two of these three winning entries had a week where they scored only 5 points, yet they still won the pool.

As these three examples illustrate, a winning entry can have its ups and downs over the course of a season.

When Did Winning Entries Move Into the Lead for the Final Time?

Leading from start to finish rarely happens in real pick’em pools. Only 3% of eventual winning entries in our dataset captured first place at the end of NFL Week 1 and never fell below that point in the overall standings for the rest of the year.

Here are some highlights about when subscriber entries moved into first place in the overall standings for good:

  • The end of NFL Week 13 marked the point where at least half of all eventual winners moved into 1st and stayed there, across both game winner and spread pools.
  • Week 13 normally corresponds with the first weekend in December, which means that nearly half of all eventual pool winners were NOT in first place in their pool at some point in the month of December.
  • Just over 25% of all game winner pool winning entries, and 29% of spread pool winning entries, took over first place for good after NFL Week 15.
  • 16% of game winner pool winning entries, and 15% of spread pool winning entries, were not in 1st place entering NFL Week 17 and won the pool by moving into 1st place with the results of the final week.

Just so that’s clear, roughly 1 in every 6 pool winners among our subscribers moved into first place in the final week of the season.

So don’t give up just because you aren’t in first place in the latter half of the season. A large chunk of our past winning subscribers were chasing a leader at some point in the final month of the season as well.

How Many Total Weeks Were Winning Entries in First Place?

The above section discusses when entries moved into a lead they never relinquished, but our winning subscribers were often in first place, would drop out of first place, and regain that position later. How many total weeks were they in first place at the end of a NFL week? (This is different, by the way, than asking how many weeks did they post the top score for that week only).

  • On average, subscriber winning entries were in 1st place at the end of 8.2 weeks (including at the end of Week 17), so not quite half of the weeks in the season.
  • But there was plenty of variance on that, and as you might guess there was a relationship between pool size and the number of weeks a winning entry was in 1st place.
  • Winning entries in pools with 25 or fewer total entries were in 1st place 9.3 weeks on average.
  • Winning entries in pools with more than 100 total entries were in 1st place 5.3 weeks on average.
  • 7% of all winning entries had never been in 1st place prior to the final week of the season, and another 5% had only been in 1st place one other week before the final one.

How Many Weekly Wins Did Our Season-Winning Entries Have?

Some of the season winners played in pools that also gave out prizes for winning individual weeks. As we have discussed in some other articles, the strategy for winning weekly contests can be quite different than those for winning a season-long contest. Still, we thought we would show how many weekly wins our winning entries had.

On average, those subscribers playing in pools that had both weekly and season prizes who won 1st place overall averaged 2.0 weekly wins. Those results came in pools with an average entry size of 35.0. The highest number of weekly wins was 12, which came from an entry playing in a pool with 25 entries.

Meanwhile, about 20% of all season-winning entries reported winning zero weekly prizes, so it’s not unusual to be able to win the season-long contest without winning any individual week. This is particularly true as the pool size increases.

Comeback Kings: Winning Entries That Came Back From a Deficit

In this section, we are going to highlight some specific cases to show what sort of comebacks are possible in pick’em pools.

Fixed Point Winner Pools

  • In a 225-entry pool, a subscriber was in 84th place after Week 5, 9 wins behind the leader. By the end of Week 10, that entry had moved to 3rd place but still 4 wins back. It moved into 1st place for the first time at the end of Week 16.
  • Another eventual winner was in 35th out of 40 after Week 5, and 11 games behind. By the end of Week 13, that entry had improved but was still in 10th, 4 games back of the leader. Two weeks later, it took over 1st place for good.
  • In a 43-entry pool, one subscriber got off to a hot start and was in the lead after Week 6. But that entry fell 6 wins behind by the end of Week 12, and after Week 13 was in 7th place. Two weeks later, a surge put that entry back in the lead for good.
  • Another entry had never had the lead all year, and was in 5th place and 4 games back of the leader entering Week 17, and won the pool, marking the biggest final-week comeback in a fixed point winner pool among our data set.

Confidence Point Winner Pools

  • In a 100-entry pool, an eventual winner was 100 points behind the leader, and in 32nd place, after Week 6. That entry moved into the top 5 in the standings four weeks later, and took over 1st place for good by the end of Week 13.
  • Another entry in a 50-entry pool was in 41st place after Week 5, and 93 points behind the leader. That entry surged to 2nd place by the end of Week 10, and took over 1st place in the pool for the first time after Week 15.
  • An entry in a 14-entry pool was in 5th place by the end of Week 12, but still 63 points back of the leader, after being at least 40 points out of 1st in every week since Week 2. It took over 1st place in the final week of the season.
  • In a 35-entry pool, a subscriber had never had the lead, but got within 4 points with two weeks to go. But a tough Week 16 dropped that entry to 6th place and 24 points behind the leader with one week remaining. That final week comeback from 6th and 24 points back is the largest final-week comeback in our data set for a confidence pool (just ahead of another that was also in 6th and 21 points back).

Fixed Point Spread Pools

  • In a 31-entry pool, a subscriber was in 25th place and 10 games back after Week 5. That entry moved into the lead for good after Week 14.
  • Another entry was 6 back of the leader with 4 weeks remaining, closed the gap to 2 games entering the final week, and won the pool in Week 17.
  • One subscriber was 13 games back of the leader and in 12th place after Week 9. That same entry was still in 7th and 5 games back entering the final week and won the pool, the largest final week comeback in a spread pool in our dataset.

Winning Pools and How Close They Were to Leaders by Week

In this section, we take all the winner data from winner pools, both fixed and confidence point, and look at how close most of the eventual winners were.

The data in this table shows the place in the standings and number of wins or points behind the leader for at least 95% of the eventual winning entries. For example, if you look at the chart below, at the end of week 16, 95% of all the eventual fixed points winners were at least in 3rd place, and were at least within 3 wins of the leader (if not leading themselves).

 WINNER FIXED WINNER CONFIDENCE  
End of WeekPlaceWins BackPlacePoints Back
1633310
1533313
1443315
1355424
1255527
1165527
1086735
996839
897941
71281044
61991754
53592865

Let’s use a golf analogy here. Saturday in tournaments, after the cut, is often referred to as moving day. You don’t necessarily have to be in the lead entering Sunday, but you do want to move into position to win, not be too many strokes back, and not be behind too many other contenders.

Think of this chart as showing how winners were positioned to be able to eventually win.

Don’t Panic Early in a Season

Early in the season, you shouldn’t freak out too much over the ups and downs. Especially in large pools, it may take time to make a move up the standings. Plenty of entries that eventually won were several wins (or more than 50 points in confidence point pools) behind the leader at the one-third mark of the season.

By about Week 11 and Week 12, most eventual winners had moved to within the Top 5 in their pool standings, if they were not leading. In Fixed Points pools most were within 5 wins of the leader, and in Confidence Points pools, most were within 27 points.

By the end of Week 14, most eventual winners were inside the top 3, and within 3 games of the leader in fixed points pools, and within 15 points of the leader in Confidence Points pools.

Both distance back from the leader (in points or wins) and places back from the leader (thus, how many other entries you also must pass) are important considerations. Being 7 points back but in 2nd place with four weeks to go, though not ideal, is better than being 7 points back and in 7th place. You only need one entry to have a cold streak to rally if you are ahead of everyone else in the pool.

Closing Remarks

We want to be realistic when assessing chances in pools. Pools are high risk ventures that often have long odds. But hopefully this provided some perspective on what a winning entry does and does not look like.

Winning Season-long Entries Usually Do Not:

  • Consistently score near the top of their pool every single week;
  • Move into 1st place early in the season and hold that position the rest of the year;
  • Win a high rate of weekly prizes.

Winning Season-long Entries Usually (But Not Always):

  • Have multiple lower scoring weeks, sometimes for more than one week in a row;
  • Move Into 1st Place for good in the final few weeks of the season;
  • Get within striking range, inside the top 10 in the pool standings by around mid-season;
  • Move within the top 5 by the last month of the season.
  • Win a weekly prize or two, for pools that offer both season and weekly prizes.