Even though the NFL season won’t get underway for another
3 months, the fantasy football community is already showing signs
of emerging from its annual hibernation. As early as the first week
of May, email notices from various fantasy think tanks began trickling
into my in-box. A number of self-proclaimed experts have already
assured me that if I subscribe to their fantasy-related websites
right now (at substantially reduced rates, of course!), I will gain
access to whatever insider information I need in order to give myself
a winning edge in my league.
What amuses me about most of these spam-vertisements is that they
so often demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the potential
customers to which they are directed. The ads invariably end with
the self-defeating point that the one true secret to success in
fantasy football is research, and that the more one knows about
the NFL, the better one’s chances of winning one’s fantasy
league will be. The irony, of course, is that the average person
in search of a fantasy-related website is not looking for a place
from which to start his research; he wants to delegate the task
of research to someone else.
See if this composite sounds about right: The average fantasy football
participant is a man in his 20s, 30s, or 40s. He works at a job
that consumes a good deal of his time. He has a family that expects
some of his attention, perhaps a yard to look after, and conceivably
a hobby or two other than fantasy football. He wants to be competitive
in his fantasy league, and he is looking for the kind of advice
that will make him competitive. He knows that any jackass with an
Internet connection can set up a fantasy football website, so he
would probably prefer to subscribe to a print magazine rather than
an Internet site for his fantasy-related information, but he has
been persuaded that print media simply cannot keep up with electronic
media in the world of last-minute benchings and late-breaking news
that is the NFL. So he reasons that the cost of a subscription to
a website is a reasonable investment if he wants to win the big
purse in his league.
But when he starts looking at websites, he encounters writers and
editors who believe (perhaps too much) in the product they are selling:
information. They would be lying if they said that their site was
set up to answer all conceivable questions about fantasy football,
so they end up presenting their site as a launch pad for the independent,
individualized research of their customers. Some have links to other
sites; others provide spreadsheets that can be arranged and rearranged
with the push of a button; all share the assumption that their subscribers
have come to be educated about the NFL, not simply to be told what
to do. But of course there are times in the season when fantasy
owners have a deadline at work or something else that distracts
them from their league. At such times, they don’t want an
education; they just want a list of players ranked from best to
worst so that they know who to start on Sunday or who to cut or
who to trade.
Virtually all websites will have such lists, but the only way to
know whether such lists are trustworthy is to have done some independent
research to confirm their value. For many fantasy participants,
that independent research is part of the fun of fantasy football.
For others, it is the very chore that they subscribed to a website
in order to avoid having to do for themselves. “If I have
to do research to check on my website’s rankings,” such
folks will end up asking themselves, “why did I subscribe
to a website to begin with?” A fair question—but one
that must be linked to other questions in order to produce a meaningful
Most folks involved in fantasy football already know which questions
to ask when it comes to figuring out what sort of a league we are
in. Is it a keeper or a redrafter league? How well do I have to
do to finish in the money? Is trading common enough in this league
to make it a real possibility for me to recover from a poor draft?
Is there a particular position that is the key to winning given
our particular scoring system? In my estimation, the simplest way
to get from asking those questions to finding the ideal league for
ourselves is to connect the questions to the amount of research
that we are interested in doing. Accordingly, I would like to break
research intensity into 4 categories (presumably already familiar
to you) and then link those categories to some familiar questions.
Category #1: The Completely Casual FF’er
This person may be a fan of the local NFL franchise, but is not
at all interested in thinking about how the coaching changes made
at the end of last season will impact player performances in 2004.
He has not considered subscribing to a fantasy-related website.
He will show up at the draft without having done any research
at all, and he has no interest in ranking players himself or in
projecting their performances. If he is instructed to do so, he
will go to a convenience store and buy the first magazine that
he sees that promotes itself as having “fantasy player rankings.”
But he would prefer to borrow such a magazine from someone else
at the draft.
Category #2: The NFL Fan
This person understands the basic seduction of fantasy football
as an opportunity to test his own perception against reality.
He will have a few opinions about NFL players, and he will not
simply accept the rankings of a single preseason magazine as authoritative.
He will probably not subscribe to a website in his first season,
as he will see his fantasy football involvement as an opportunity
to do a modest amount of research into the NFL on his own. He
may purchase 2 or more preseason rankings publications for his
draft in order to study their differences, but during the season
itself, he will rely primarily on the newspaper for staying up
to date. After a couple of seasons, he will subscribe to an Internet
service, but he will see the subscription primarily as a way of
replacing the preseason publications, not as an opportunity to
keep his finger on the pulse of the NFL.
Category #3: The Serious Competitor
This person may or may not like to do research on the NFL, but
he certainly understands the connection between being informed
and winning. FF’ers such as this are steeped in NFL lore—valuing
information that pertains to players on other rosters as much
as those on their own. Even if Marshall Faulk isn’t on their
team, they know the history of his knee injuries and have decided
who on their rosters they would trade for him (and perhaps where
he ranks for them in next year’s draft). They probably subscribe
to at least one fantasy website, though they may simply have bookmarked
a number of free sites concerning the NFL and/or fantasy football.
In any case, their primary source of NFL information is the computer
rather than the newspaper because the computer allows them to
rearrange the same data in all sorts of different ways. Their
preparation for the draft will be extensive, and they will probably
spend at least half an hour each day tracking down (not simply
browsing) specific NFL-related information via the Internet.
Category #4: The Expert
This is a person who is insatiably curious about the NFL. If he
does not subscribe to a fantasy-related website, it is probably
because he produces the content for one. Or at least he could
produce that content if he were called upon to do so. While others
do their research during the workweek in odd snatches of time
at their computers, he does most of his research on Saturday and
Sunday morning, tying his roster decisions to the critical 36
hours before the games start on Sunday afternoon. He doesn’t
just keep up with the ways in which Shaun Alexander’s wife’s
pregnancy will affect Alexander’s playing time; he knows
all about the individual defensive players responsible for stopping
the Seahawks’ running game each week. He knows what questions
to ask about his players and their opponents, and he gets those
questions answered each week before setting his roster.
Obviously, these categories are only useful to a point. Clearly,
there are FF’ers who would appear to belong to more than
one (or none at all). But they are useful when it comes to figuring
out whether the league that you participate in requires you to
be the sort of FF’er you want to be—and whether you
can be competitive in your league doing the sort of research that
you are willing to do.
Question 1: Redrafter or keeper league?
Without bogging down in the intricate distinctions between the
various sorts of leagues that there are (redrafters, keepers,
dynasties, and all sorts of combinations), the simple question
to ask here is whether teams are built entirely from scratch each
year (redrafter leagues) or whether there is holdover from one
year to the next (keeper leagues). If you aren’t interested
in committing yourself to a great deal of research, you will probably
feel more comfortable in a redrafter league than in a keeper league.
In most keeper leagues, the players that are added to the roster
last are the ones that can remain on a particular squad for the
longest period of time. Obviously, since rookies tend to go fairly
late, it is important to make good decisions about rookie additions.
That means knowing about college football and understanding the
difficulty of the transition from football at the college level
to football at the professional level. Those whose research interests
land them in categories 1 and 2 will probably be more comfortable
in redrafter leagues than in keeper leagues.
Question 2: What does it take to finish
in the money?
I can’t realistically scratch the surface of the ways used
by various leagues to divvy up their purses in fantasy football.
But it will be useful to sketch some extreme cases for comparison.
Of course, not all fantasy football leagues have any purse at
all. Many people compete simply for bragging rights. This may
sound like fun, but such leagues probably aren’t for FF’ers
in categories 2, 3 or 4. If you are at all interested in the NFL
(i.e. capable of changing your roster in response to bye weeks),
you will probably be frustrated by leagues in which nothing is
at stake because such leagues are a breeding ground for player
apathy. Teams that get off to a bad start generally end up being
ignored by their owners, creating an imbalance in play and a situation
in which those who do any research at all become resentful of
team owners who don’t even check on their teams after October.
That problem can certainly crop up in money leagues as well, but
is less likely when there is something at stake.
How much research you will have to do in order to remain competitive
in your league is primarily a function of how much research your
competitors do, but here are two key questions for you to ask:
Question 3: How frequently will trades occur
in my league?
1) Is the purse relatively large? If the prize for winning
your league is substantial in the estimate of most of those
involved, then obviously there is significant incentive for
research. If you belong to categories 1 or 2 (or even, in some
cases, 3), you will need a great deal of luck in order to remain
competitive in such leagues.
2) Will I win any money at all just for making the playoffs?
Many fantasy leagues provide a series of graduated pay-outs
to teams on the basis of how they finish. If finishing in the
money is important to you (as it is to most of us), then be
sure to think about whether a strong finish is likely based
on a sense of your competition and the research commitment you
are willing to make. If you belong to Category 2 and want a
fair shot at winning your money back, you should probably be
in a league that provides payoffs to the top 40-50% of finishers.
Those in Category 4 will probably want to be involved in leagues
that concentrate the cash in the hands of the top 20%. Of course,
the prize structure here is only half the equation. The other
half is knowing your competition. (Incidentally, you can’t
know your competitors simply by asking them about their level
of research interest. Never lose sight of the fact that your
opponents probably think of themselves as belonging to one research
category when in fact they belong to another. The challenge
is for you to figure out what kind of players they are—not
what sort they imagine themselves to be.)
For most FF’ers, leagues with a good deal of trading are
more fun than those that are static, but effective trading almost
always involves a good deal of research. It is easy to be taken
advantage of in a trade—i.e. to assume that a running
back has lost his wiggle simply because he has faced three of
the NFL’s top rush defenses in a row. The key to negotiating
a good trade comes from understanding the gap between perceived
and actual player value, and that understanding cannot come
simply from staring at the player’s stats over the past
few games or seasons. If you are the sort of FF’er who
wants to understand why Randy Moss’ production falls off
when it does, then you probably already do enough research to
warrant participation in a league with frequent trading. One
of the most frustrating scenarios for an active researcher in
fantasy football is to propose a trade that is mutually beneficial—one
that helps you at a position where you need help and an opponent
at a position where the opponent needs help—only to have
the trade rejected because the people in your league live in
fear of making poor trades. Those in categories 3 and 4 will
almost certainly want to seek out leagues in which trading is
the norm rather than the exception.
Question 4: Is the position that I am
most qualified to evaluate important to my league?
So you played linebacker back when you were in college, eh? What
was rotten for you then was that they kept changing the defensive
coordinator, so you played in 4 different defenses. But that works
for you as you watch the game now because you see how the defenses
in the NFL relate to what you used to do. In, fact, you can tell
me which linebacker in the NFC West is going to finish with the
most tackles just because those 4 teams are using defensive schemes
that you know inside and out. It’s too bad that your league
doesn’t award points for tackles (or even use individual
defensive players)—because you could produce some fairly
accurate projections for that category. The real shame is that
you would like to look into the matter because two of the coaches
you had in college are now working in the NFL, and you wish there
were some incentive for you to study their defenses more than
you already do. When the research that you want to do is the kind
that goes utterly unrewarded by your league, it’s pretty
clear that no matter what category you belong to, you are in the
wrong league. Shop around for one that corresponds more closely
to your interests. Or start your own.
The primary point here is not to end up in a situation in which
the research commitment that you are willing to make to your league
is insufficient to make you competitive. If you have been in the
same league for 5 years and have never made the playoffs or finished
in the money, it might be because you have been plagued by injuries
or have just had a protracted bout of bad luck. But it is probably
because the other people in your league are simply better informed
about the NFL than you are. Unfortunately, you probably can’t
become as informed as they are simply by subscribing to a fantasy-related
website. Such a subscription in only a step in the direction of
becoming competitive, as you will have to pay attention to what
the website tells you (which can involve several hours of reading
each week). What’s more, you will almost certainly end up
having to track down bits of information that the website won’t
provide. If you don’t mind being a loser, then by all means
stay where you are. But don’t delude yourself into thinking
that all it takes to become a better player is to write a check
to some Internet entrepreneur. However, you shouldn’t just
withdraw from the world of fantasy football either. The recipe
here is a simple 2-step process: 1) Don’t kid yourself about
how much research you are willing to do; and 2) Seek out a league
whose structure is such that a person as engaged as you are willing
to be can be successful. That may mean competing for smaller purses,
but such a situation is far more desirable than belonging to a
league that is out of your league.