Fading Trendy College Basketball Underdogs

The 2016-17 college basketball season tips off on Friday, meaning the annual countdown to March Madness begins anew. Although many casual fans wait until tournament time before regularly watching college hoops, the long duration of the regular season plus the copious number of Division 1 programs creates ample opportunities for contrarian sports bettors to extract value.

For anybody unfamiliar with Sports Insights, we track public betting percentages from seven major offshore sportsbooks: 5Dimes, BetDSI, BetUs, Carib, GTBets, SIA, and Sportsbook.com. These betting trends reflect real bets placed by real bettors, as opposed to other websites that use “consensus” numbers. By including both sharp and square sportsbooks, our betting percentages accurately reflect which teams the public is backing across the marketplace.

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We stress a contrarian approach to sports betting, which means whenever the public zigs, we zag. Before the start of every new season, we publish a series of “Betting Against the Public Reports” which utilize our public betting trends to highlight the sweet spots for contrarian betting. Past research has conclusively proven that betting against the public will produce a positive return on investment, but the optimal threshold varies from sport to sport.

Contrary to popular belief, oddsmakers do not attempt to balance their book by attracting 50 percent of the action on each side. Instead, they shade their opening lines to capitalize on public perception. Over the course of the day, market-setting sportsbooks allow their sharpest bettors to shape the line. It’s only in the most heavily bet games (where sportsbooks have high levels of potential liability) that public money can affect the spread.

Public bettors overwhelmingly take favorites and overs, which makes perfect sense from a psychological standpoint. It’s human nature to root for winners and scoring, and the media’s propensity to overhype these teams only exasperates this tendency. Sportsbooks understand this and shade their lines to exploit the tendencies of casual bettors.

Since the start of the 2005 season, the majority of public bettors have taken the underdog in just 22.65% of all college basketball games. That number is fairly consistent, regardless of how many bets are placed on each game. But what happens in the rare instances where the majority of public bettors are taking the underdog? Is there still value betting against the public?

The table below displays the performance of college basketball favorites based on their level of public support.

Public Betting Record (ATS) Win Rate ROI Units
All 20,898-20,935 50.0% -1,169.24 -2.8%
<50% 4,699-4,776 49.6% -327.64 -3.5%
<40% 1,779-1,822 49.4% -138.97 -3.9%
<35% 935-950 49.6% -65.41 -3.5%
<30% 412-380 52.0% +10.22 +1.3%
<25% 154-116 57.0% +29.72 +11.0%

My research found that taking contrarian favorites (or fading trendy underdogs) has proven to be an effective strategy for MLB, NBA and NCAAF bettors. Admittedly, it’s far more common to find the majority of public bettors taking an underdog during the playoffs when bettors view both teams as being talented and are increasingly willing to simply take the points and hope for a competitive game.

The value derived from betting against the public is directly correlated with the number of bets placed on the game so, naturally, it’s more lucrative to bet against the public when the volume of bets increases during the postseason. If more bets are being placed on a game, it’s more likely that oddsmakers will be forced to adjust their lines based on an influx of square money. These artificially inflated lines create value for anybody willing to take the unpopular side of a game.

The table below displays the performance of college basketball favorites when the number of bets is greater than or equal to the daily average. That means if there are 50 games on a given day and we tracked 250,000 total bets, we would only include games where we tracked at least 5,000 bets. Essentially, this eliminates most games from small conference teams.

Public Betting Record (ATS) Win Rate Units Won ROI
All 7,672-7,619 50.5% -364.58 -2.4%
<50% 1,705-1,718 49.8% -101.83 -3.0%
<40% 692-718 49.1% -62.30 -4.4%
<35% 356-378 48.5% -41.06 -5.6%
<30% 156-140 52.7% +7.80 +2.6%
<25% 64-32 66.7% +28.76 +30.0%

As you can see, there’s limited value on contrarian favorites in heavily bet games until we examine teams receiving less than 30% of spread bets. However, favorites receiving less than one-fourth of spread bets have gone 64-32 ATS (66.7%) in these major conference games. In order for contrarian favorites to have value, there needs to be a high volume of bets and extremely one-sided public betting. It’s only in those games that sportsbooks will adjust their number based on public money.

“One-sided square betting on the dog is rare, but it does happen,” said Scott Cooley, an Odds Consultant for Bookmaker.eu. “We may not initially shade the spread toward the favorite in a situation where we’re expecting a lot of dog money, but if it does start rolling in and it doesn’t look like we’re getting any takers on the other side, we will adjust quickly by moving the number, which is rare because we rarely move the odds based on public plays.”

In order to be a successful sports bettor over the long haul, it’s crucial to pick your spots. There’s definitely value taking these contrarian favorites, but you need to ensure that it’s a heavily bet game with public money causing oddsmakers to adjust the spread.

To elucidate on this subject, I decided to look into games where the number of bets tracked was at least three times the daily average. In these heavily bet games, the return on investment (ROI) improved significantly at every single data point. Although the waning sample size makes this information difficult to act on, it unveils a direct correlation between the number of bets and the value of fading trendy underdogs.

Public Betting Record (ATS) Win Rate Units Won ROI
All 457-474 49.1% -43.76 -4.7%
<50% 132-125 51.4% -0.52 -0.2%
<40% 76-65 53.9% +6.81 +4.8%
<35% 48-34 58.5% +11.48 +14.0%
<30% 23-13 63.9% +8.90 +24.7%
<25% 8-2 80.0% +5.53 +55.3%

There are relatively few casual college basketball bettors with the exception of marquee rivalries, nationally televised games and, of course, March Madness. That’s especially true early in the season since most bettors are focused on football.

Public betting has limited impact on the college basketball marketplace, and sportsbooks take most of their early season handle from sharper players. For that reason, bettors need to identify heavily bet games with extreme levels of public betting when backing contrarian favorites.

The number of bets statistic is proprietary Sports Insights information that is available exclusively to Sportsbook Insider subscribers. Sign up for a 4-day Pro trial and you will also receive real-time odds, public betting trends, money percentages, e-mail alerts, our in-house Best Bet picks and much more.

Have any questions for the staff at Sports Insights? Utilize our live chat to speak with a customer service representative or e-mail us at help@sportsinsights.com.

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David Solar

David Solar has been the Content Manager at Sports Insights for over four years. He specializes in sports betting analytics and has created several popular data-driven betting systems. He can be reached directly at david@sportsinsights.com or on twitter at @TheDavidSolar.

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