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Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League

by Sheldon Curtis | @sheldon__curtis | Featured Writer
Feb 10, 2020

If you’ve ever dreamed of running an NFL franchise, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is you probably have a better chance of walking on the moon, but the good news is that being an owner of a fantasy football team is a pretty cool consolation prize. The growth in fantasy sports has been exponential the last two decades, and for good reason. I can’t think of any other hobby that gives me the year-round passion I get from my leagues. If you’re thinking of starting your own, I have some advice based on more than 30 seasons of managing or co-managing a few different leagues. While there are many options and formats to choose from, most of my comments will be based on my own experiences (12-team keeper leagues), and what has worked for me (and what hasn’t).

Starting and running a fantasy football league is a big commitment. You may think it’s easy to find 10-12 cool guys or girls that have the knowledge to manage their teams, the personality to coexist with each other and the desire to continue on year after year, but this can be your biggest challenge. This is an excellent method of uncovering how lame, conniving and emotionally unbalanced your buddies can be. Choose wisely! You may be stuck with these owners for the next decade or two. Other than vetting as much as possible, the most important advice I can give is to draw up a constitution that covers as much as possible. Make sure everyone is okay with the rules and that each owner understands them. You need to anticipate as many scenarios as possible and have rulings in place so you are not dragged into disputes.

The third point to consider when creating your league is to agree on the competitive level you desire. Do you want your own version of the NFL, or simply a beer league that is just for fun?  Do you have owners that will do their research, prep for the draft and watch teams besides the one they cheer for? This factor will play into many of the rules you set up for your league. Here are the main decisions to make:

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Number of Owners

I recommend having 10-12 owners. Anything below eight, and there’s not much point, and with more than 14, you may not have enough warm bodies for each team.

Cost/Fees

This is entirely subjective, but I will make two suggestions: the higher the fees, the more seriously your owners tend to take the league; and, have a strict payment policy in place. Personally, chasing money was the most soul-crushing task I’ve had as a commissioner, and we now have three deadlines (in writing) with increasing consequences. Fees are due at the draft, and it’s pretty rare to have someone punk out in front of everyone. If they do, a second deadline missed means their transactions (waivers and trades) are frozen. A final deadline missed means they forfeit their team.

If that seems harsh and you just want a friendly league with your buddies, that’s fine, but I doubt if it will last long if some guys are paying and some aren’t. I’m comfortable with the penalties as I feel that anyone that misses all three deadlines either doesn’t respect the league or simply can’t afford to be in it. Occasionally an owner will let me know of an unexpected expense (new roof, vehicle repair, etc.) and I’ll cut them as much slack as they need.

If it does come to banishing an owner and you don’t have process in writing, there’s an extremely good chance it will be taken personally. If it is in writing and the exiled owner still blames you, you’ve simply exposed their lack of accountability. Good riddance.

Seasonal vs. Dynasty

The rubber hits the road here. Do you throw everyone back in the pot each year, keep four, keep eight, keep 12? I personally prefer keeper or dynasty leagues as they separate themselves from the football pool mentality. They put more pressure on owners to draft well, as you may miss on a guy and watch him destroy your team for the next ten years. Teams may also take on the identity of their players, much like an NFL franchise.

On the other hand, seasonal leagues may be better for owner retention, since you all have a shot at the biggest stars next year. With a couple of bad drafts and/or trades, owners in a dynasty league may feel that the next four years of pain are not worth it, and abandon their teams. This decision will really define your league so get as much input as possible from all of your owners.

Some leagues will have limits on the number of keepers at certain positions or will institute salary caps to help maintain parity. You may also have keepers tied to next year’s draft (keeping your top running back may cost you your first-round pick for instance). I would only consider these types of rules with seasoned owners, but you can also look at incorporating them down the road.

Serpentine vs. Auction Drafts

Serpentine drafts are the standard – each owner picks a player in the order of his draft position, and typically the draft snakes around (in a 12-team league the owner picking 12th would also pick 13th, the owner picking 11th would pick 14th, etc.). This type of draft is less daunting for new owners – you can simply check out some rankings and cross the names off as you go.

The auction draft is a different beast and is quickly gaining popularity. Unless you’re smuggling drugs through Bangkok’s airport, or giving bad news to Kim Jong-un, it may be your most intense day of the year. Unlike serpentine drafts, every owner has a shot at every player. A name is thrown out, and the bidding begins until the highest bid wins that player and those points are deducted from that owner’s total.

The action is fast and furious and you can quickly realize the sleeper you’ve been counting on stealing is also at the top of someone else’s list. You can also realize after the smoke settles that you’ve just paid 60 points for a guy you really didn’t want. Many owners will bid on players just to drive the price up only to realize they’re the last one to bid. There are many strategies involved, and you will likely have to adjust your plan on the fly, possibly several times.

In my league, every owner starts the year with a set number of draft points (usually 200). They can be traded, and we add points to each team at the end of the year based on the final standings (5 for first, 10 for second, etc.) to give the struggling teams more ammo at the upcoming draft. We have a provision in case an owner uses up all of his points during the draft before he has finished filling out his roster – he must wait until the end of the draft and choose from the players still available. If two or more owners are in this situation you have a short serpentine draft.

Whichever format you choose, drafts are one of the highlights of the year – a time to meet up, talk some trash and demonstrate your brilliance. One factor which favors serpentine drafts is the issue of getting 12 guys in the same room at the same time. If an owner cannot make a draft, it is easier to have a buddy pick for him without the chaos of an auction. We get around this issue using Skype and FaceTime, but if you have owners all over the country an auction draft may not be that feasible. Online drafts (some sites offer both serpentine and auction) are another option but take the fun out of mocking each other’s picks in person. You can also set time limits online (such as 24 hours) to give each owner plenty of time to draft.

Waivers

If you blew it on draft day, all is not lost. Each season, you can typically find a few breakout players available on waivers. We use a blind bid system with Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB) each week with the highest total winning that player. Another player from your roster must be dropped, and you lose the waiver points (each team starts with 100 points). We set it at once a week (Wednesday night), as you may have a player you’d like to add for the Thursday night game. Some leagues have more than one waiver deadline so this is another key decision to make.

I prefer FAAB to systems that simply reward the bad teams with priority picks, as there is some strategy and competition involved. I’m not a fan of allowing owners to pick up free agents on the fly, but if you feel it increases the competitiveness of your league, go nuts.

Trades

Trades are especially fun. More than any other aspect of fantasy football, this makes you feel like an actual GM and can be the quickest way to build a powerhouse team. You can include draft picks (or points), and there is typically no limit on the number of players involved. Nothing gets a league fired up like a big deal, especially with teams scrambling to make the playoffs. We use a fairly late deadline (end of the regular season) and have found that this inspires more action, as there are more owners who realize they won’t make the playoffs and are therefore sellers. Some trades end up being pretty even for both owners, but this is probably rare. I’ve won trades and I’ve lost them, and it’s no big deal if you learn from your mistakes. You will most likely see trades at some point that are just grossly unfair though, so what do you do? If you decide to go with a redraft league this is not nearly as important an issue, but still needs to be discussed. My following comments pertain to keeper leagues where a lopsided trade or two can tip the scales for years.

I wouldn’t recommend letting owners veto any deal they don’t like, but I strongly urge you to have some mechanism in place to overturn an obvious crime. Here’s why: if you have an uninformed and gullible owner, he won’t likely be ripped off just once. The sharks in your league may go on a feeding frenzy until there’s nothing left on the carcass that was once a legitimate team. Even a gullible owner will eventually realize they’re never going to win and in my experience, most of them will quit the league. Now the fun part begins where you are tasked with trying to entice a new owner to take over a 1-13 team. If you have a large pool of potential owners, this might not be a big issue for you, but those potential owners may have more than one league to choose from. I find recruiting to be a pain in the endzone, so here’s what we do.

If an owner calls for a trade to be vetoed, we have nine owners vote (we exclude the owner that called the veto and the two owners involved in the trade). If overturned, so be it, but if the league votes to uphold the trade, the owner that called for the veto loses 10 draft points. It’s not a huge penalty but it makes an owner think twice about calling a veto, and we haven’t had a vote in the last 15 seasons. Every league will have its own vibe, so this may not appeal to you. I’m just saying what works for us. You could also limit the number of vetoes per year to make sure they are not used as a weapon. I could not handle being in a league where trades were regularly overturned, so I understand this is a contentious issue but one that you need to address up front. Other than fees, the number-one reason I’ve seen a few leagues implode is continuous unfair trading.

Whether it’s predation or collusion (two buddies work together to make a lopsided trade so one of them wins and they split the prize money), you will most likely get dragged into disputes whether you have rules in place or not. If you want a league to last (one of mine is going into its 23rd year), you need to be ready to face potential issues. If everyone understands they won’t get away with a felony, you’ll probably avoid a few headaches.

Lineups/Roster

The size of your roster will also play a large role in determining the type of league you have. With deep rosters, you don’t have to scramble as much and can red-shirt rookies and injured players. You may prefer to have more waiver action that a smaller roster ensures, where you are all streaming certain positions and competing for those players on a weekly basis. Some leagues will have flex positions where you can start either a running back, wide receiver or tight end in that spot. This makes your roster management much easier during bye weeks in particular or if your team has suffered some injuries. Superflex leagues will also allow the option of starting a second quarterback in that flex position, greatly enhancing the value of signal callers. Put a lot of thought into these decisions if you are starting a dynasty league. It will be tough to change your format going forward as there will always be owners that will either benefit or be punished by a major rule change.

Schedule/Playoffs

We use a head-to-head format, with one owner squaring off against another for the week. Other options can include implementing total weighted points for the week, but it’s not as personal as crushing your buddy. This inspires trash talk and screaming at the TV, and who can argue with that? Your playoff format is another very important issue to discuss before you start your league. Do you run the post season for two weeks or three? Do any teams get a bye? Do the non-playoff teams get to play for any consolation prize or is their season over?

Scoring/Tiebreakers

Most sites have many different category options, typically revolving around yardage and touchdowns. The main decision will be to either use standard scoring (no points for a reception), half point-per-reception or a full point-per-reception. The value of wide receivers is obviously affected by this decision as are running backs that are involved in the passing game. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be clear on your tiebreakers. Imagine a scenario where four teams are tied for the final playoff spot at the end of the regular season. This has happened several times in my leagues and can really bring out the viking in someone. I recommend having at least three levels for your tiebreaker – total points, head-to-head record, etc – and again, make sure everyone understands how it works.

Hurry Up!

There you have it – most of the information you need to know to get your league up and running. It will take some real effort to get everything and everyone organized, so now is the time to get started. If this is your thing, you’ll be amazed at how much time you devote to fantasy football and how much fun it can be. Enjoy!

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Sheldon Curtis is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Sheldon, check out his archive and follow him @sheldon_curtis.

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