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How Research Intensive Is Your League?

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 answer.

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:

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.)

Question 3: How frequently will trades occur in my league?
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.