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DFS 101 Lesson 5: How To Be ~Contrarian~

Posted {{post.formattedDate}} by Darryl Woodford

In DFS 101 Lesson 5, I want to talk a bit about contrarian strategies, and why they work so well in (tournament-based) DFS contests. While the examples here primarily relate to AFL and NRL contests, they really apply to any sport, and particularly where there is a contest which includes only a few (or even only 1) game, such as those big-dollar contests available during AFL Finals. If you are just joining DFS 101, you can start the series here or read the previous lesson here. 


So what does it mean to be contrarian? Basically, we’re trying to cut down the number of opponents we’re competing with for the prize. In the simplest form, being contrarian means betting against the oddsmakers and/or the public. The concept comes from the investment world, where the theory is that you should buy and sell against the ‘prevailing sentiment’ – i.e. ‘fade the public’.


So how does this apply in sport? Well, we want a lineup that both has players with low ownership percentage, and some logical connection as to why if one of those players do well, the others do also (we’ll talk about this a little more in a future discussion on covariance).

Let’s take an extreme example, a hypothetical AFL contest between Hawthorn and Essendon. In such a match, the bookmakers would likely have Hawthorn at around a 70 point favourite, and Hawthorn would be expected to win the match something like 120-50. If there were 1000 entries into a DFS contest, a very large proportion (perhaps 80%) would be entering line-ups that predominantly contain Hawthorn players, especially in key positions such as the forwards and forward-playing midfielders.

For the contrarian, that presents an opportunity. If Essendon do well (and ‘well’ in this context doesn’t necessarily mean they win, or even keep it within 30 points, it just means they do better than expected), then there are likely to be Essendon players in those key positions who are scoring higher than expected, and with lower ownership. And, given we know that there’s a significant covariance between a team’s forwards and those who supply them (as one scores more, so does the other), a team with a few Essendon players in key positions is now both unique, and competing against a small percentage of other line-ups that also have Essendon players for the big prizes. This would be a contrarian lineup.


This strategy is even more prevalent in sports with stronger correlations; for example, centres/fullbacks and wingers in the NRL, and Quarterbacks and Wide Recievers in the NFL. In the NRL, when the underdog wins, and you have the stack of centers/wingers that contribute the try assists and tries, you’re often competing against only a handful of other people for the win.


While the concept, as explained above, is applied to whole teams, the same logic applies to smaller subsets of players. Perhaps my favourite way to do this is to ‘fade the big name’. Whether that’s Jarryd Hayne in a comeback game, Lance Franklin the week after he scores 4 goals, or other similar circumstances, there often seems to be one or two players who are highly owned because television pundits have been singing their praises all week, or fans are hyped to have them on their team (this also goes for fading big-name teams with a lot of fans, casual fans just love to have Zlatan Ibrahmovic or Patrick Dangerfield on their team). With these players, when they’re owned at such a high level, they need to be substantially outperforming their salary to bring enough ‘value’ (vs points) to your team, that they’re better left out altogether. Remember: we’re trying to win the tournament, not get the most theoretical points on paper (this is the basis of DFS Game Theory, which we’ll come to another time), so value in this sense is their contribution to your chance of winning.

Note: This doesn’t apply for cash games. In those, if you think many of your opponents are going to have a player, it’s often the right game theory strategy to ‘cover’ them by selecting them yourself, making the competition between the rest of your teams, rather than on just whether that one player has a good game.


Being contrarian is to go against the odds, and so the same principles apply: more risk, more rewards. If you want to maximise your chances of at least finishing with your money back, use non-contrarian strategies. If you want to maximise your chances of winning a big prize, use contrarian ones.

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