When it comes to bang for your buck, few wagers in a sportsbook give you the value that an NFL Pickem Contest can give you. Both public bettors as well as sharp bettors love handicapping contests. Sportsbooks love them as well. It’s a rare win/win/win for all involved. Taking a few minutes to educate yourself on the basic advantage play strategy of the different contests could greatly increase your probability of finishing with a profit at the end of the season. You may also be able to leverage some of Unabated’s tools to give you an extra edge in your process. In this article we’ll look specifically at NFL Pickem contests. In Part Two, we’ll devise a strategy for elimination style contests.
Why NFL Pickem Contests Work
The NFL is the king of sports when it comes to betting. From the made-for-TV schedule to the scarcity of games driving up the importance. Sportsbooks know the NFL will drive a large amount of their betting traffic. The struggle for sportsbooks is finding ways to keep the customer coming back and to keep them loyal to their book in the face of competition. An NFL Handicapping contest does that.
As the popularity of sports betting continues to boom, the allure of betting contests will continue to grow. Perhaps one day the winner of Superbook SuperContest or the Circa Millions will be as recognized just as much as the WSOP Main Event Champion. In many ways, winning a large handicapping contest is similar to winning a large poker tournament. It is a game of skill mixed together with a huge amount of chance.
Last year, the SuperContest champion took home $335,800 for first place. Meanwhile, the Circa Millions winner took home $1,000,000. Between the two marquee contests, 14 players took home giant checks with at least 6-figures on them.
The Types of NFL Handicapping Contests
There are two main types of handicapping contests that are commonly offered. A handicapping contest where you need to pick a certain number of teams against the spread each week. Or a contest where you only need to pick one team each week. However, if you lose, you’re out and you can’t use the same team twice. The latter type is typically called a “survivor contest” or “last man standing.” We’re going to discuss those elimination contests in Part Two of this article which will appear next week. For now, we’re just going to focus on “pick’em” contests where your handicapping skill is measured against others over the course of the entire season.
The Free-to-Play Picking Winners Contest
In a standard handicapping contest, you are tasked with selecting the winners of a set number of games each week over the entire NFL season. As mentioned, these drive engagement and encourage repeat business for a casino. Many casinos employ a free-to-play component of this type of contest if they don’t have legal sports betting. A common free-to-play approach involves picking the winners without a point spread factored in of every game on the schedule.
We’re not going to dwell too long on this type of contest other than to say they attract a large pool of participants. As a result, you would be best to go as contrarian as possible whenever possible. Play against the local teams in that jurisdiction. Play the underdog to win straight up against the favorite. The only chance you have to win this contest is for an improbable series of events to come through. If you play strictly the favorites, you’ll forever be in the middle of the pack.
Pay-to-Play NFL Pickem Contests
The contests which attract the most attention and prestige are the handicapping contests that can only take place where sports betting is legal. These contests require you to put up an entry fee to play. For most of the past 20 years, the Westgate Superbook SuperContest was the most popular contest. Around 2010, Nevada clarified its proxy regulations making it easier for out-of-town players to participate and the size of the SuperContest started increasing almost exponentially.
Along Comes Circa Sports
When Circa Sports opened for business in 2019 they announced their entry into the contest conversation, Circa Millions, which featured a $1 million dollar top prize and no rake. After a couple years of seeing Circa continue to grow in the market, Superbook was pressured into going to 0% house rake as well. The only thing better than no house rake is an overlay. An overlay is the term for when a contest pays out more money than the sum of the entry fees. If a contest has a guaranteed prize pool, it has a chance for an overlay.
The Allure Of The Contest Overlay
Circa has done a good job of advertising their potential overlays each year only to have those contests fill up at the last minute. That prospect of an overlay often draws in many players just looking for a good deal. When a sportsbook is willing to give out free money, there’s always a line of players waiting. Each year, Circa owner, Derek Stevens, pushes the envelope a little more in flirting with a massive overlay. In 2021, his contest just barely avoided an overlay. The threshold was 4,000 players, and they got 4,087 participants.
For 2022, he has increased the guarantee to $6 million, which means they need 6,000 entries. As of this writing, they are still short by over 3,400! You can track the progress of the overlay at circasports.com.
Meanwhile, a company which is no stranger to giving out free money, DraftKings, has run handicapping contests for the past 4 years. Each one going off with a small overlay in the end. Their NFL Pickem Contest has a $1 million guarantee but only costs $250 to enter. They’ll need 4,000 entries to avoid an overlay.
You typically pick 5 games each week against the spread. Some contests run the full 18 weeks of the NFL season. Others avoid the final week of the season due to the unpredictability of lines that final week. The contest lines are static and typically set on Wednesday or Thursday ahead of that weekend’s games. Savvy readers just spotted their first technique to gaining an edge. Some contests also avoid ties by listing all games on the half-point.
Entry Fees and Proxies
For a recreational bettor, these contests entry fees can be a non-trivial amount of money. Here’s a quick rundown of the entry fees for the major contests:
|Contest||Entry Fee (max entries)
|Circa Millions ||$1000 (5)
|Superbook SuperContest ||$1000 (3)
|Superbook SuperContest Gold ||$5000 (1)
|DraftKings $500k Pickem ||$500 (15)
As you see from the list, most of these contests run only in Nevada. If you’re not reading this from the Silver State you are going to have to use a proxy after you sign up in-person. Proxy fees run about $200-300 per contest entry. Some will give you a discount for multiple entries. Do your homework on picking out a proxy and I strongly suggest going with a popular one. Also make sure your proxy offers a money-back guarantee if they make a mistake. Mistakes are very rare though. It’s worth noting most will expect a “tip” if you win big.
It’s worth noting that proxy entries are unique to Nevada. No other state currently has regulations that permit proxy entries for handicapping contests. In fact, most state regulations prohibit placing a wager on behalf of another person. For now, you won’t find proxies into the DraftKings contest or other non-Nevada contests.
If the prospect of laying out $1000 or more (plus potential proxy costs) seems steep, I’m a big fan of partnering up with others in these contests. There’s definite value in group think when you approach these contest selections. I would encourage you to make sure you and your partners have the same strategy in your approach.
Strategy?!? Yes. The biggest misnomer in these handicapping contests is they are a test of your handicapping ability. They’re not. They are a test of your tournament strategy ability. If you’ve never approached these contests with a plan, it’s time to learn how to make one.
The Plan For Profiting In Pickem Contests
There are 4 key things to keep in mind when approaching an NFL Pickem Contest. (Un)fortunately for you, I’m a fan of alliteration:
- Prize Probability
Key Concept: Participation
The first key concept is to know all the rules surrounding your participation in the contest. We just talked about entry fees and proxies. However, when do your entries need to be placed? How is the scoring determined? What happens if a game is canceled? My advice is to read all the rules several times over so you fully understand how the contest works. Seriously, study those rules and make sure you understand them.
Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” You should know when contest lines are posted. How are Thursday and Saturday games handled? Do you need to have your entire entry in, or just that early game?
Also, be sure you are prepared to play the entire length of the contest. You would be shocked how many people sign up for these contests and then forget to play Week 1, essentially eliminating themselves from competition. In fact, I would contend that 10% of the entries are dead money due to either failing to get all their selections in or not understanding the rules. This adds value to the entries of everyone who puts in the effort to pay attention.
Key Concept: Prize Probability
Calculating your blanket EV in a contest is straightforward. You divide the total prize pool by the number of entrants. However, not all prize pools are the same. SuperContest pays 30 places, Circa Millions pays 100 places, and DraftKings Millionaire Pickem pays 135 places. Conversely, while the DraftKings contest is strictly season-long (Weeks 1-17), the Circa Millions and SuperContest have sub-contests. Circa gives you four quartlerly races, while SuperContest gives you nine different sub-contests. Three 6-week and six 3-week contests. These complicate the strategy somewhat and we’ll address that in our Path section.
In all contests the drop off from 1st place to 2nd place is always massive. The goal should always be to win the contest. This is the end-game strategy that most players get wrong. Just like a poker tournament, too many players often fixate on finishing in the money. My guess is they feel this season long effort was only worth it if they walk away with some sort of consolation prize. Fortunately, since you are playing against other players, knowing this weakness is now your strength.
It is also worth trying to project the approximate record it’ll take to win the contest. This varies based on the number of entrants and the relative skill level of all the entrants. There are a couple ways to approach this. You can play around with the binomial distribution function in Excel to get a probability that someone will exceed a certain win mark. Or you can look at previous years’ results.
In the SuperContest, which maintains a list of all past winning records, the winning record has averaged a 67.5% win rate over the past 20 years. The results in the first three years of Circa Millions and the DraftKings Millionaire Pickem have been similar. Aim for 70%.
Key Concept: Process
Those first two key concepts lay the groundwork for the real meat and potatoes of this article. Once you have those rough numbers of what will be needed, you can begin to focus on the process you need to get the edge on the competition. How you approach your handicapping is entirely up to you, but remember, you’re not playing against the house here. You are playing against other sports bettors in a sports betting tournament.
As such, being able to predict which games will be popular in the contest week to week is a key component to predicting your opponent’s next move. You will likely have a couple months to watch the weekly contest standings before you need to make tough decisions. By far, the most common strategy players utilize is to focus on the stale lines in the contest. As mentioned, contest lines are static, but outside the contest betting lines continue to move until kickoff.
Not all stale lines are the same in the NFL. Stale lines around key numbers like 3, 6, or 7 hold more value than stale lines that cross multiple dead numbers like 8 or 9. A good way to find the relative value of the lines that have moved is to utilize the Unabated Closing Line Value calculator. You can enter the contest line and then the current line to get a CLV percentage. Since the contest lines have no vig, enter +100 as the price of the contest line. Enter the vig-free price of the current market line as the “closing line.”
Many players will focus on which lines have moved the most points. A short underdog which becomes a short favorite by gameday will get a lot of play in these contests, but the actual CLV is low there. Instead of focusing on the games that have moved the most points, focus on which lines have created the most CLV.
Take Advantage of Bettor Behavior
Here are some other behaviors of the common handicapping contest player that you can take advantage of. Typically, contest players will gravitate towards marquee Sunday matchups for a variety of reasons. First, they avoid Thursday games because that game is happening too soon to think about adequately.
Second, they avoid Monday Night Football games because that game is too far into the future to think about. They’re drawn to the national Sunday games in the late window and the night game because they want to be able to watch the game.
Also, those marquee games often feature popular public teams, which recreational bettors tend to have opinions on. Speaking of bettor bias, if you’re in a contest where the majority of bettors are from the same region, expect heavy action on the local team. The major Las Vegas contests don’t qualify here as those draw a lot of out of state action. The smaller Las Vegas contests absolutely do though.
Lastly, putting your picks in as late as possible is the optimal approach. You have the most information available to you at that point. You won’t know your opponents picks until after the entry window has closed for the week. However, you gain against the overall market by waiting until closer to the deadline.
Putting Together Your Strategy Approach
Once you combine all these factors you can create your strategy approach to the contest. In a handicapping tournament you choose from two different speeds:
- Staying with the pace of traffic
- Trying to pass the traffic
Staying with the pace includes doing many of the same things most of the other entrants will be doing. Using stale line value to find a small edge. Positioning yourself so that you don’t fall behind the pack. Not taking undue risks.
Meanwhile, trying to pass the traffic is taking a contrarian approach. Go against the public teams and look for games that aren’t heavily played. Thursday games are almost always underplayed. Go against line moves. Take those risks.
How and when you utilize these speeds depends on the structure of the tournament. In a season-long tournament with no sub-contests you want to stay with the pace of traffic until it is time to shift into pass mode. In a tournament which includes a quarterly prize, it could be best to start out trying to pass to get ahead by the quarter pole. Then you can shift back into staying with the pace to maintain your overall position or stick with an aggressive style if there is ground to be made up.
It is also wise to keep an eye on your opponents down the stretch. Check out their picks and see if you can identify the strategy they are employing. With 3000+ entries in some of these tournaments it is pointless to try and do this exercise early in the season. However, late in the season it’s key to finding your endgame path.
Key Concept: Path
The final key concept is your endgame strategy. You need a path to win. The biggest flaw in how players approach these contests is they have very poor endgame strategy. As I mentioned before many players get transfixed on just holding on for a minimum cash to make their effort worth something. Instead, your goal should be to win or finish as high as possible. Your standings and the rules of the contest will dictate when you need to start thinking about the endgame path.
You will know from your Prize Probability research what record you need to shoot for to win. You can revise those projections at any time based on contest results up to that point. Always keep your eyes on how you need to perform going forward. Don’t wait too long to make your move. Everyone thinks about endgame strategy when there’s one week left. You need to think about it far before then.
If you know it’ll take 60 wins to have a shot to win an 18-week contest, yet you find yourself 30-30 after 12 weeks, you waited too long to make your move. However, if you are 36-24, that’s the ideal time to take some chances and pick games where people ahead of you might be on the opposite side. Conversely, if you are 40-20, your path is to keep just ahead of the players behind you. You want to play the percentages while keeping an eye on anyone behind you might have labeled as a sharp opponent.
My advice is to begin thinking about endgame strategy when your win percentage is below how much of the contest is already over. If you’re at 22-23 (49%) after week 9 (50%), it’s time to make a move. If you’re at 26-24 (52%) after week 10 (55%), it’s time.
In a contest with sub-contests, these can also be the times when you decide you’ve got no shot at winning or placing high in the season-long contest and your better course of action may be to shoot for a sub-contest. The strategy on a 3, 4, or 6 week sub-contest is very similar to the endgame path of someone looking to pass a lot of traffic.
If you are fortunate enough to get to the final week and find yourself in position to have a shot at a significant step up in payout you should spend as much time as possible devising a path. If you need to go 5-0 and hope others lose. You just have to find the path nobody else will have chosen. With 32 teams to pick from and 5 selections to make, there will always be a path available. You are essentially looking for a 5-team parlay, but instead of paying 20:1 it might be some life-changing money. It’s worth taking the shot.
- NFL Pickem Contests offer great season-long value to bettors
- Handicapping contests and elimination contests have different strategies
- Following some key concepts can help you get the edge against other players
- Know the rules explicitly
- Use Unabated’s CLV Calculator to calculate your edge
- Devise a process for attacking the contest
- Always be mindful of your endgame path
- Don’t be afraid to take risks when needed