TipsterLabs: Can Sports Betting be Crowdsourced?
Here at PartTimePoker, we get a fair number of people coming to us in the hopes that we’ll help promote their products. A lot of these are of questionable value, so it’s usually with a fair amount of skepticism that I read such emails. Thus, when I was asked to try out and review a website selling sports betting tips, my first instinct was to roll my eyes. After all, those who actually have the knowledge to beat the juice and make a profit at sports betting are presumably spending their time doing so, rather than building websites to sell their insight to others.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover that the website in question, called TipsterLabs, is not quite what I’d imagined. The owners themselves aren’t supplying the tips; rather, it’s a sort of social platform for crowd-sourcing betting tips.
Every TipsterLabs user is both a potential supplier and buyer of tips. That might sound like a terrible idea, because the average sports bettor, like the average poker player, must necessarily be a loser in order for the industry itself to be commercially viable. How, then, is it possible to crowd-source betting information effectively, when most of the information is coming from people whose “wisdom” is actually a recipe for long-term loss?
The answer happens to be one of my favorite words: transparency. Anyone interested in doing so can submit tips to TipsterLabs, but they’re effectively gambling with virtual money in doing so. The site then tracks their long-term performance, sample size and so forth, and makes that information readily available to would-be buyers, so everyone can decide who is and isn’t worth listening to, and what their advice is worth.
That said, the site is still in its infancy, which shows in terms of its design and also has implications for the reliability of the data. I’ll get to these problems in a bit, but first let me explain more exactly what services the site provides.
How it works
TipsterLabs is fundamentally a social media site. As such, individual user accounts are at the core of its functionality. You have to register for an account to use the site. Signing up is free, and you don’t have to decide in advance whether you’re primarily interested in buying tips, trying to sell your own, or both.
Once you have your account, you go through all the usual setup steps, filling out your info, providing a little bio, customizing an avatar, and so forth. You have a balance tied to your account, in Euros, which starts at zero of course. This, too, is used both for buying others’ tips and, if you turn out to be particularly clever or preternaturally lucky, eventually receiving payment for your own.
Once you’ve got your account set up, you can start browsing the site, which actually contains so much information as to be a bit overwhelming. You can search for events by sport and date, and see both the results of past matches and the odds being laid by all major online bookmakers for just about any type of bet you could be interested in, whether it’s the game result, total score, or something less conventional.
If you’re already making bets of your own, you’re encouraged to log these as tips with the site, so long as you believe you’re making a profitable bet. If you’re more confident of some bets than others, you can supply a weight between 1 and 10 to determine how heavily it will impact your overall results, or you can just leave it at the default value of 5.
Your long-term stats are then collected by the site, and displayed on your account page for anyone to see, including how many tips you’ve placed, your profits and losses (in abstract units), your ROI and strike rate, and so forth. To avoid would-be tipsters attempting to employ a “martingale” (double-down) strategy to feign short-term positive profitability, “even stake” results are also provided – that is, ignoring the above-mentioned 1-10 weighting.
At the same time, you can view the tips left by others, filtered however you want. You can find all the tips available for a given event, or pick a successful tipster and check out what active tips he or she has available for sale for events which haven’t yet started, as well as a chronological list of their previous tips for events which have now finished.
Past tips are fully transparent: you can see what the tipster suggested, whether the prediction came to pass, how much weight he or she gave it, and so forth. For active tips for upcoming events, on the other hand, you have to pay. After all, that’s the whole point.
Credits are €0.25 apiece, and the starting price for tips is 1 credit. Before you buy, all you’re told is who the tip is from (and all their relevant info), the match it’s for, how much it will cost, and whether the user has supplied a written justification for the tip (most don’t), or whether you’re only going to get the pick itself. Unfortunately, the type of bet (match result, total score, or other) is only revealed along with the tip itself once you’ve paid; I’m not sure what the rationale is for this decision, as it would seem more friendly to the buyer to let them know what they’re buying, in case a given user is only interested in betting on one thing or another.
When leaving a tip, you specify which site’s odds you’re looking at. As a buyer, when you click the “Buy Tip” button, you’ll get an Odds Warning if the odds being laid at any sites are over 10% worse for you than the odds at which the tipster placed the tip. You can see which sites the Odds Warning applies for, and decide whether or not you still want to buy the tip.
What’s in it for the tipsters?
For those who decide to offer tips, there’s a level-based system in place. At first, you’re quite limited in how many active tips you can have placed at any given time, and you can only charge one credit per tip. At level 1, the revenue share is 60/40 in the site’s favor, so you’ll only get €0.10 per tip you sell.
As you post more tips, and particularly if you achieve a positive ROI and your tips sell well, you’ll gradually level up. That allows you to post more tips at once, charge more for them, and receive a bigger cut from the site, up to a theoretical maximum of 84%.
There are also monthly leagues, with leaderboards that pay out prizes to the top-ranked tipsters of the month; these prizes are mostly donated by the site’s various sponsors.
Realistically, at this stage in the site’s life, the amount anyone is making from it is little more than beer money, but there are nonetheless several users who’ve made posting tips a daily part of their lives and have apparently sold enough to move up into the mid-range levels. If the site were to take off, these users would then be well-positioned to share in its success, much like those photographers who were early adopters of the online micro-stock trend.
A usability nightmare
Unfortunately, the site is to some extent a victim of its own cleverness and high degree of transparency. Aside from the buying and selling of tips, the site also provides tools for doing your own statistical analysis of players and game results, numerous articles on betting strategy, and more. There is a lot going on, and it’s apparent that not nearly as much attention has been paid to site design as to the underlying business model. You’d prefer this than the reverse, of course, but it still means there’s a significant barrier to entry. Just figuring out what the site was all about and how to get around took me a good 15 minutes on my first visit.
Even after a couple of weeks of using it on a trial basis, I still often find myself struggling to remember how to access a given piece of information or how to navigate between, say, looking at the results of past events in a league and placing or buying tips for upcoming events in that league.
I can’t be too harsh on the site owners, however, because again, it’s really a lot of information. Speaking as a designer myself, it’s going to be extremely challenging for them to figure out how to structure the information so as to streamline the user experience. That’s the sort of thing Facebook spends millions and millions of dollars researching, and what Facebook does is considerably simpler than what the people at TipsterLabs are trying to do; it’s unfair, then, to expect a Facebook-level user experience when they’re trying to fund the whole thing by splitting €0.25 micropayments between themselves and their users.
But does the concept work?
Assuming you can get past the mess of information facing you and figure out how to use the site, the really critical question is whether the basic premise is solid. Can one actually make profitable sports bets simply by following the advice of other profitable bettors? And if so, does it actually make sense for profitable bettors to sell their strategies this way?
Somewhat surprisingly, my experience is that the answer is a tentative yes. I was given a trial account with 100 credits (€25) for purposes of doing this review, and spent them over a period of about two weeks. I’m a recreational bettor at Bet365, and I decided that I’d deliberately seek out tips for sports I don’t enjoy or follow at all (like basketball) and obscure leagues (like 2nd Division Finnish soccer), and just blindly bet a few bucks on whatever was recommended. The only requirement I set for myself was that I’d buy only from people with at least 100 tips and a positive ROI of 3% or more. A few of the more regular tipsters have around 400 and 7% respectively; the site’s young, as I said, and it appears that sports betting edges run quite thin.
I was dubious about whether such small ROIs were credible over those sample sizes. In fact, they probably aren’t particularly reliable, and as the site’s population increases, you’d expect a certain number of users who would be long-term losers, but are running hot in the short term and managing to sell tips because of it. But again, everything is fully transparent, so it’s up to you to decide your degree of risk tolerance for trusting tips from users with small samples.
I haven’t bothered to compute an ROI for myself based on the 50 or so tips I followed. Partly, that decision was made from laziness, because I don’t want to have to sort out those bets from my other, personal bets I made in the same time period. But it’s also because I know for sure that the ROI I experienced was well in excess of that of the exact people whose tips I was buying; clearly, then, my results must have been at least partially due to luck. Still, it’s easier to get lucky when you’re playing at an advantage, so my feeling is that the advice was probably pretty good.
This is anecdotal evidence, of course, and should be taken with several grains of salt, but my opinion now is that yes, the top-ranked tipsters did seem to know what they were talking about. This was especially true for information on the less popular leagues, which is perhaps as you’d expect; if the odds-makers are devoting most of their attention to the games which generate the most action, then the little-viewed games should be where a careful observer can gain the maximum informational advantage.
There are a few problems with the site’s concept from a long-term sustainability perspective. This should be obvious even to anyone who can’t readily identify the specific problems, simply based on the principle that money doesn’t grow on trees. If the tipsters are making money, the tip-purchasers are making money and the site is making money, there’s obviously something missing from the equation.
Of course, what’s missing is the betting sites themselves, because if everything works according to plan, that’s where the money comes from. It comes down to semantics whether you want to say the money comes from the sites directly or from their users who are taking the other side of the bets in question, but either way, that’s how the money comes into the system.
So long as TipsterLabs remains a small operation, the number of people profiting from tips is small enough that the sites probably don’t care. Indeed, some are even sponsors. For the time being, it’s just another recruitment tool to get people signing up to gamble on their sites.
Hypothetically, though, a platform like this, if widely adopted and working as intended, could become the equivalent problem to the digital tools which plague the poker world. Fortunately, sports betting is self-correcting in that if too many people take one side of a bet, the odds are adjusted and the edge (real or perceived) disappears. In fact, if TipsterLabs ever became a real problem for them, the sites would probably just buy the top-ranked tips themselves and adjust the odds immediately in response.
That would then lead to a situation where only the fastest clickers and bet-placers would actually be able to capitalize on a bet before the line shifted. Worse, it would allow an unscrupulous but well-established tipster to occasionally slip in a deliberately bad tip in order to cause such a shift in the odds before putting a lot of money on the other side himself. For all the site’s transparency, the one thing it will never be able to offer is the ability to tell how much, if any, real money a tipster actually put on his own advice.
For all these reasons, I suspect that there’s a limit to how large the site can grow before it becomes a victim of its own success.
The sweet spot
In other words, the concept of TipsterLabs has merit, but breaks down at the extremes of low usage (due to poor samples sizes and unreliable data) and high usage (economic issues involving the sites themselves and dynamic odds). There should, however, be a sweet spot at which people who’ve discovered the site can make use of its services to turn a profit without disrupting the sports betting industry as a whole too much.
Assuming that you can manage, say, a 5% ROI by taking tips only from the most reliable tipsters, and you’re paying an average of 2 credits (€0.50) for these tips, then you need to be betting €10 on each tip to break even. Of course, to turn a profit, you’ll want to be betting several times this, but responsible bankroll management then means that you’ll need a bankroll of around €1000 to avoid the risk of going broke due to a bad streak: one piece of advice I got through a user on TipsterLabs itself and have seen elsewhere as well is not to put more than 3% of your roll on a given bet.
That said, if you’re already grinding deposit bonuses and other site promotions, then you may not even need a positive ROI to profit. Just getting enough benefit from the tips to pay for your TipsterLabs credits and the site juice would allow you to play through whatever amount of money you need to clear the bonuses or qualify for a promotion. Personally, I cleared a $200 reload bonus at Bet365 while doing my TipsterLabs experiment; that and the profit from the tips were more than enough to overcome the losses from my own idiotic bets placed during the same time period.
Overall, then, if you’re interested in branching out from poker into sports betting, or are already a casual punter, and are willing to take the time to figure out how to work the site, TipsterLabs is worth checking out. Or, if you’re already a profitable bettor, you might consider posting a few tips of your own; as long as you’ve made your own bet before posting a tip, there’s little downside for you, and whatever you earn from sales can be seen as offsetting the juice you’re paying. Despite the flaws, it’s a surprisingly interesting concept, and if you want to try before you buy, there’s always one tip from a high-ranked tipster available for free on the front page.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.