Sports Betting 101: How to find the best value contrarian bets

April 14, 2020 10:02 PM

At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, President Reagan popularized the phrase "trust but verify" when discussing nuclear disarmament negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The idea is to not be naive and put blind faith into something. Instead, use data, proof and hard facts to verify that something is real. 

To be a successful contrarian bettor, you must adopt the same "trust but verify" mentality. On the one hand, you can trust that the public will likely be betting a favorite, a big-name team, a home team or an over. But that's not enough. You must verify this trust with hard data so you know it's 100% true. You must also find a way to quantify the confidence level of the public so that you can gauge the level of contrarian value. 

This means having access to accurate and reliable sports betting data, specifically sports betting analytics tools that provide public betting trends in the form of betting percentages. 

It's often been said that a good craftsman never blames his tools. In the same vein, a contrarian bettor is only as good as the data-driven tools he relies upon. However, data analytics isn't just for contrarian bettors. It's critically important for all bettors, regardless of their betting philosophy, because it provides verifiable data and insight into the betting market that can then help you to better interpret the action and make smarter, more informed bets. 

Before delving into the ins and outs of sports betting analytics tools, we must first outline why it's so important. In other words, we must be able to quantify contrarian value based on real numbers. 

By definition, going contrarian means going against what everyone else is doing. Technically, whichever side is receiving 49% or bets or less would be the contrarian side. However, a team getting 49% of bets is much different from a team getting 29% of bets or 19% of bets. All three would technically be on the contrarian side, but the 29% would be much more valuable than the 49%. And the 19% would be even more valuable than the 29%. The more lopsided you go, the far more contrarian value. 

Why is this the case? Because sportsbooks worry about lopsided action. If the bets are relatively 50/50, they can sit back and rake in the juice on both sides, guaranteeing a profit regardless of the outcome. However, if one side is being pounded and receiving 70% of bets or more, the sportsbooks pay attention and have a lot of liability on the line. Lopsided games raise red flags for the house. If the popular side wins or covers, the books could take a big hit and have to pay out big sums of money. 

However, books rarely put themselves in a position to take huge losses. They can predict which side will be the popular side and already set the odds with public bias in mind. Could books get cleaned out by a lopsided favorite winning? Of course. But over the long haul, they aren't in the business of losing. As a contrarian bettor, you always want to be on the side that the house "needs" because more often than not, they come out on top and beat the public in these situations.

The key with going contrarian isn't just locating the team receiving less than 50% of bets. It has to be a heavily bet game and you need to find out exactly where on the sub 50% spectrum that the team lies. The more lopsided the betting percentages are, the heavier the public bias and thus the more value there is to betting against the public. 

When going contrarian, a good universal benchmark is locating teams receiving 35% of bets or less. Consider 35% the magic number, similar to how 52.38% is the magic number to break even betting on sports considering standard -110 juice. If a team is receiving 35% or less of bets, that's a strong indication that the public is dismissing them. Therefore, they would be a smart bet because they are being undervalued and likely benefiting from a shaded or inflated line as well. 

To truly gauge contrarian value, sports bettors need access to public betting trends. This can be a loaded proposition because, following the 2018 Supreme Court decision to overturn the Federal Ban on Sports Betting, there are now dozens and dozens of web sites that purport to offer public betting percentages. However, you can't just take every single one at face value. You have to consult the source and make sure they are truly representative of the overall market. Just as there are touts and scamdicappers that can't be trusted, there are "data" percentage providers that can't be trusted either. 

For instance, if you're looking to bet tonight's Maryland vs Rutgers college basketball game, you might do a quick search on google or Twitter for betting breakdowns and percentages. One source might show 45% of spread bets on Maryland while the other shows 65% of spread bets on Maryland. Which one should you trust? 

One way to find the signal through the noise is to follow actual legal sportsbooks on Twitter. They will often tweet out screenshots of betting breakdowns that provide percentage of bets and percentage of dollars on each side. This is a good starting point but bettors should consider to dig deeper. 

You specifically want to seek out public betting percentages coming from popular sportsbooks like DraftKings and FanDuel. These books cater to recreational bettors, which means their betting percentages are a good barometer for where the public is. You can also ask your Average Joe friends where they place their bets and try to consult those sportsbooks as well. 

In addition, you have to be wary of sites that offer betting percentages simply from one sportsbook because it might be coming from a book that is an outlier and isn't truly reflective of the overall market. Also, many of the percentages could be delayed and aren't in real time, which means they are stale and no longer up to date. 

The best way to use sports analytics to your advantage is to seek live odds software that compiles public betting percentages from several sportsbooks, ideally five books or more. By pooling the data from a larger sample size you get a better feel for the overall market in terms of identifying where the public is. 

In conclusion, going contrarian means betting mostly underdogs, road teams and unders. However, bettors must trust but verify these assumptions through accurate, reliable data. By having access to public betting trends and live odds software, bettors can better gauge the level of public bias on a game, search out the most valuable betting against the public opportunities and make the smartest bets possible. 

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