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Sun Tzu and the Art of Trade Negotiation

I have often been accused of trading for the sake of trading and of this I stand justly accused. While this may work for me, it may not work for everyone. But if you are reading this, you are an experienced owner looking for additional pointers of which you may not have thought out loud, or you are a novice looking to dip your feet into the water. In either event, whether you are in a dynasty league, a re-draft, a limited keeper league or otherwise, these philosophies should prove at least remotely helpful.

The Art of Trading is much like the Art of War. In following just a few of Sun Tzu’s principles, any fantasy manager may reap a real joy of playing the game.


If you are in the right type of league, most of your “enemies” are already your friends, friends of friends, or other people with whom you are sufficiently well acquainted. Long gone is the moniker “rotisserie league” which connoted a tight group of friends who got together. It has since been replaced by the impersonal invention of Al Gore called “the Internet.” Modern technology has dispensed with human contact and many fantasy leagues are now comprised of autonomous individuals who may know only a couple of other people in their respective leagues.

Getting to know the people in your league will serve as the most lethal weapon in your trading arsenal. The more often you converse with other team managers, the better read you have on how they value players. In the Internet age, we rely far too much on sending a trade offer, often joined by a one sentence quip on how the trade would help the other team. That trade offer is then rejected by a simple push of a button, from which we learn nothing. Live communication is the most effective means in which we may ascertain whether the complexion of other managers is that of a risk taker, conservative, or even fearful of their own shadow.

Identifying another manager’s predispositions will assist you in determining how to approach him or her with a trade offer. For simplification, I identify only three basic groups which encompass a wide range of different philosophies.

  • Risk Takers: This is the rarest of breed, of which I would estimate you will find no more than ten percent (10%) of these people in your leagues. This manager is not averse to trading away a top 10 running back for two players who are nursing injuries. This manager will part with Larry Johnson in exchange for Brandon Jacobs and Andre Johnson, hoping that their team is solid enough to weather the injuries and anticipating a great surge of talent to pick from during the playoffs. With this type of manager there is no reason to negotiate or explain the strengths of the trade. He is generally savvy and will immediately recognize the value of the trade (assuming he didn’t make the offer in the first place). There is no need to go fishing with this guy - just throw out your best offer.

  • Risk Averse: On the other end of the spectrum is the skeptic who is so fearful of his own shadow that it does not matter what you offer. You will always meet with rejection from this manager and you will never receive a counter-offer. I often refer to this type of manager as the Slim Pickens of fantasy football. He is the guy who will sit on a top of an atomic bomb as it is being released from an airplane’s bomb bay and ride it down to his impending doom. The most prevailing example of this behavior in recent fantasy history would be the Shaun Alexander managers who never entertained a single trade offer, despite his foot injury, his age and his loss of offensive line. Do not waste your breath coming up with trade offers. Just realize that those players are in the dreaded “untouchable” class and move on.

  • Conservative: The most prevalent type of manager is the conservative manager. This manager is open to trading, but generally needs to be approached, for he will only consider trading on his own when pushed by factors such as injuries, bye weeks and continuous losing. Ultimately, if and when this manager makes an offer, in all likelihood the offer will be unrealistic. When everything is going well for this manager, he will most likely pull the trigger only when he obtains a decisive advantage in the trade. Nevertheless, he will be receptive to acceptable offers. It must be remembered that this class is a generalization for which there is no hard and fast rule.

    However, he will not transact in the same manner as the risk taker. No matter what your best offer may be, this manager’s mindset requires him to haggle for more. It is imperative that before approaching this manager, you determine the parameters of just how high you will go before making your initial offer. With these managers, make a “credible” but unacceptable offer to get the negotiations started. If they express interest but reject the offer, there is no need to wait for them to counter with their own offer - you may be waiting far too long. Instead, manipulate the terms upwards in their favor.

    Depending on the manager, you may have to think in two or three step trade processes to reach your ultimate goal. An example of this philosophy occurred in the 2006 season. I was deep at running back and I wanted to add a third stud wide receiver to my roster. I focused on Randy Moss (with the Oakland Raiders), who was putting up solid but not Moss-like mid-season numbers (270 yards and 2 touchdowns in his prior three games). Knowing that the other manager was looking towards next year and that he was eyeing keepers only, I was willing to trade away Laurence Maroney (100 yards and 0 touchdowns over the same period) to get Randy Moss.

    Had I offered this manager Maroney for Moss at the outset, he would have flatly rejected and attempted to squeeze me for more. Although I knew that Maroney was going to be the ultimate trading piece for Moss, I had to appear reluctant to get there. Accordingly, while I do not remember the specifics, my first offers involved two for one deals with my number three running back and my number three receiver. The other manager expressed he was not in love with Moss and that he was reluctant to make a 2 for 1 deal. I then made it appear that I was not that interested in Moss and switched gears to one of his better players for Maroney. Once he expressed interest in Maroney the final piece of the puzzle fell into place and the trade was done.

Live communication remains the primary tool for eliciting trades. It tends to discourage those from responding in anything but a courteous manner. Often, the Internet disguises tone of voice. How many times have we made an offer to which we received the response: “I would love to get some of that crack you are smoking.” This time worn response besides creating antagonism virtually shuts the door on further offers. While your offer may have been more than fair, do not lose sight of a cardinal rule of negotiation management: Fantasy Managers generally have man-crushes on the players they have selected. Another manager contacting them to obtain that player only fortifies this unhealthy obsession.

The first step in breaking down this barrier is communication. Starting off the communication with I want to make a trade immediately puts the other manager on guard and they become highly cautious. As obvious as this may seem, just talk football with the other managers. Talk about the players on your team, their team and even other teams. The longer people talk, the more they spill. Ask a detective, real life interrogations do not move as quickly as they do on television. It is all about wearing the suspect down. As they get tired or more comfortable, they talk more. In this case, when your opponent finally puts his guard down, he will confide in you what excites him about certain players and what he perceives to be the true weakness on his own team. Such information is far more valuable than who you believe to be the best players or what you believe to be the other team’s weakness.

By way of example, last year I made a post draft day trade which was highly criticized. The trade was this: Frank Gore to me for Maurice Jones Drew and the Chargers defense. This trade transpired because I had often spoke with the other manager and learned of that manager’s fear of Gore’s hand injury, lack of offense around him and that the manager felt pressured into obtaining Gore despite a lack of excitement. The other manager also recognized a glaring weakness in their fantasy squad’s defense. It was clear that the other manager agreed with me that MJD was undervalued (again, there is no accounting for my inability to accurately assess talent). Accordingly, while this trade appeared lopsided when made, the value was in the fact that both managers addressed their weaknesses and their perceived fears, and as such, while the rest of the league griped about the trade, both managers recognized a sense of trade satisfaction. Neither manager looked back with regret on the trade at any time during the season.


This factor cannot be over stressed. If you have played fantasy football long enough, you have likely come across that rare breed of manager who can think three, four or sometimes five steps ahead. You will often see this manager throw out blue chip players like LT2 or Adrian Peterson or Steven Jackson or Brian Westbrook, not because he is looking at the trade he is about to make, but because he is looking two to three trades ahead, at which time he will end up with a pairing of two blue chip players in that same category. His mastery is so proficient that he is brokering deals between other teams in order to get a player he covets onto a team with whom he can make a trade.

Most of us will likely never reach this level of mastery and to emulate this manager could be not only daunting, but destructive as well. However, other tools do exist for all of us to at least recognize what may not be directly in front of us when considering a trade.

Filling the Void

Recognizing free agent value plays can help you make a trade offer that looks lopsided in the other owner’s favor, but through the waiver wire you can balance out. It just takes some forethought to do. Here’s a hypothetical example. All I ask is suspend your expectations on the named players and simply follow the bouncing ball of the concept:

 Team A
Player Avg Fpts/Gm
Steven Jackson 15.0
Edgerrin James 10.0
T.J. Houshmandzadeh 11.0
Greg Jennings 10.0
Santonio Holmes 9.5
Total: 55.5

 Team B
Player Avg  Fpts/Gm
Joseph Addai 14.0
Maurice Jones Drew 13.0
Julius Jones 8.5
Anquan Boldin 10.0
Laveranues Coles 8.0
Total: 53.5

Team A observes on the free agent list, Ted Ginn, Jr. who has had two straight games where he has put up respectable numbers, but is not causing peoples’ heads to turn just yet (i.e. he is averaging 6.0 ppg). Something in his gut says that Ginn is on the rise and he will be expecting Ginn’s average to increase 2-3 points as he is rapidly becoming a centerpiece in the Miami offense. Team A wants to boost his power at running back and he feels stacked at receiver. The average conventional trader will look at making an even deal and may make the following offer:

 Team B
Team A FPts/G Team B FPts/G
T.J. Houshmandzadeh 11 Maurice Jones Drew 13
Edgerrin James 10 Laveranues Coles 8
Total 21.0 Total 21.0

On the surface, this deal makes sense. Team A strengthens his running backs, but loses at wide receiver, while Team B strengthens at wide receiver and loses at running back. The net point differential is zero points.

The problem with this trade offer is that quite often Team B will see little benefit in the trade and view it as much ado about nothing. If Team A instead offers Edgerrin James and Greg Jennings straight up for MJD, Team B may be more inclined to accept such an offer. Team B would be vastly improving a suspect receiving corps while imperceptibly weakening his running backs, as he still has three. Team A, already having a strong receiving corps, strengthens its running backs and if he has analyzed Ginn’s potential accurately, he has benefited his team.

 Team A
Player Fpts/Gm
Steven Jackson 15
Maurice Jones Drew 13
T.J. Houshmandzadeh 11
Santonio Holmes 9.5
Ted Ginn 8.5 ?
Total: 57.0

 Team B
Player  Fpts/Gm
Joseph Addai 14.0
Edgerrin James 10.0
Julius Jones 8.5
Anquan Boldin 10.0
Greg Jennings 10.0
Total: 52.5

Team A’s belief in Ginn turns out to be accurate and as suspected has lost little at wide receiver while he gained significantly at running back. On paper, Team B’s starting five appears to have downgraded by a point, but in reality Team B has not been harmed at all, as it still retains Laveranues Coles, greater depth and vastly greater opportunity. The difference between Coles and the player he will likely drop to balance out his roster will be far greater than the 1 ppg loss in his starting five players.

Axiomatic to this line of thinking is keeping an eye on the PUP list and suspensions. Players like Kevin Jones and Chris Henry have been known to remain free agents while they are on PUP or suspension. If your team is capable of tolerating players on reserve, an eye on the PUP list or suspensions may permit you to pull the trigger on a trade of your existing players, with the expectation that you may once again fill the void with a player who has yet to appear on other teams’ radars.

The RBFTA - (AKA The Reggie Bush Fair Trade Act)

Pay close attention to the managers in your league (mock drafts are a great way to read how they value players - but be leery as they will often hold back on some and push others early). Inevitably you will find at least one or two players who are overvalued by your standards. You will even utter the following mantra – “I will never draft fill in the blank.” We have all uttered these words at one time or another. In fact such threads run rampant on fantasy football boards. By dismissing such preconceived notions, you may add yet another weapon to your arsenal. The most overrated fantasy player of recent history in my book was Reggie Bush during his rookie year.

Threads ran rampant as to where he should go in a draft and the common theme was “let some one else grab him early.” To the average fantasy manager, these seemed to be words of wisdom. To a trade junkie such words have a sound more akin to the warnings of Charlie Brown’s teacher. While I valued Bush as a third round draft pick, I knew several people in my league contemplated taking him in the first round but opted to wait until the second round to get him. Having the last selection of the first round I made Reggie Bush my number one pick (I didn’t even wait until my next pick on the turn to proudly assert his name).

In so doing, two events occurred: (1) a collective gasp followed by muttered expletives permeated the air; and (2) the mystique of Reggie Bush intensified. While I was motivated by a bad draft position and a dearth of great second round running backs, I was confident that as the season approached, I would be capable of unloading Reggie Bush for better players then I would have been able to select at that position. When you hear that expletive on draft date, make a mental note from whence it came as your trade partner has likely just identified himself.

Players are not the only thing to target in your trade arsenal. If you are a few weeks ahead of the game, you may be able to offer a trade that would otherwise be difficult to consummate simply because your trade partner has looked ahead (at your urging or on his own) at his week six bye nightmare and his inter-division rivalry game. This is not the place to take advantage, since most managers do not react well to extortion. Rather it is the time to offer a well thought out and fair trade which gets them through their bye week without destroying their team.


Although it should go without stating, unfortunately, I have seen the converse all too often. The only way you should be the winner on all sides of a trade is when the unexpected happens to the players involved in the trade. It is imperative that you give value to get value. This is not to state that you may expect something your opponent does not (i.e. Ryan Grant’s success). The best trades tend to be the ones which you wish you could take back right before it is accepted.

If you are established as a fair trader you gain an additional, often undetected advantage. Others in the league will often come to you before they make a trade and ask for your opinion. This reputation you have earned allows you to step in and offer a better deal or otherwise hang back and offer a deal of your own when there trade offer is rejected

This brings me to the most difficult subject for a fantasy football manager to get their arms around. CURB YOUR EGO! When you pull off a trade, no matter how crafty you were in getting it accomplished, no matter how much you believe you got the better end, act as magnanimous as you are able. If the other person walks away from the trade with the belief that he or she prevailed, you have won the greatest battle. You have a satisfied trading partner who will gladly deal with you again. Two months later, you’ll be at much greater ease when you are in the championship game and sitting in the catbird’s seat with Steve Smith, Marques Colston and Randy Moss to choose from, while your opponent is putting up his best 9-man roster, worrying about several factors now out of his control.

Never concern yourself with the fact that you are making other teams strong. Let the rest of your league whine and moan. If you are making your team stronger that should be all that matters. Get your team to the play-offs before worrying about winning them.


No player should be deemed “untouchable” on yours or anyone else’s roster. When you can declare that you are willing to trade LaDanian Tomlinson, Barry Sanders, Priest Holmes or Marshall Faulk during their prime, you have truly eclipsed the horizon of the Art of Trading and you have reached fantasy football satori. Do not mistake this as an endorsement of trading Steven Jackson for Aaron Stecker and Wes Welker, but keep in mind where your stud is playing during the play-offs. Thirty mph winds, snow flurries, tough defenses or even locked in play-off positions may each derail your winning season. I cannot even begin to count the number of eggs laid by fantasy studs at the all important championship games.

When you are not professing man-love for any one player, your horizons open wide.


Determine your strengths; analyze your weaknesses; and most important listen to what other managers perceive to be their own. When you learn how to make those around you stronger, you will be able to actively engage in trading and experience the one true joy of fantasy football, which is lodged only underneath winning it all.