Bucking the system

One of the most frequently recurring complaints from fantasy leaguers is that of deadbeat owners, those who cease to improve their team, or even regularly rotate their players, once it becomes clear that he/she has no shot at winning the league. We know that the best way to prevent such a situation is to carefully vet and select participants in your league before it begins. However, we also know that sometimes it’s not so easy to find 10 to 14 committed players with a proven track record of taking fantasy sports seriously. Further, sometimes an otherwise reliable league mate with a good track record goes rogue and inexplicably becomes a deadbeat. In one of my leagues last year, a participant who had been reliable for several seasons inexplicably went deadbeat on the group. In one of my football leagues this past year, one of my league mates (and one of the best players) went deadbeat out of spite to protest what he felt was insufficient communication surrounding a last-minute change to the scoring system. The point is, these situations can arise even when there is sufficient foresight when populating the league.

If selecting quality participants is the first line of defense against deadbeat-ing, the actual league rules, settings, and, in some cases, keeper structure, comprise the second line. I’ve read several subtle wrinkles in league structures to dissuade deadbeat-ing, but few radical fixes. For the sake of discussion, I’d like to propose a radical alternative league structure that will do more to dissuade a potential deadbeat than the most common tweaks to the current system.

Let’s just be honest about things; most leagues are played for stakes. And it is participants in those leagues who are much more resentful of deadbeats. I find it relatively strange that there aren’t more popular alternative payout structures to fantasy leagues, especially when opening up the door to tweaking such structures creates myriad opportunities to build incentives for players to remain competitive throughout the season. Allow me to theorize one example.

For the sake of simplicity, presume you are organizing a five-by-five rotisserie style league consisting of 10 teams, with each participant throwing 100 units in the pot. This is not an uncommon structure (though 12-team leagues are probably the standard). It’s also not uncommon for the payouts to be structured something like 600/300/100 for first, second, and third place respectively. This traditional model rewards the top two finishers with profit and the third-place finisher with what is ostensibly a mulligan. The problem is that by midseason, it becomes clear for nearly half the league that they are out of contention for first place, and for some out of contending for any of the “money” spots. Without substantial disincentive for finishing last, and no meaningful difference, beyond pride, for finishing fourth over ninth, it’s tempting for some participants to de-prioritize even the minimum standard of team maintenance. We all know how this story plays out, and we all know how deadbeat teams and owners affect the entire dynamic of the league. They skew point distribution in roto leagues and win totals in head-to-head leagues (especially if the schedule is imbalanced), they cut large chunks of players out of the trade market, and not only do they make the league less competitive, but they make the league less fun too!

When analyzing the motivation to deadbeat, three dynamics of the traditional league (compensation) model seem to enable a potential deadbeat: lack of sufficient penalty for finishing last, no meaningful distinction between “non-money” finishes, and seemingly insurmountable climbs from the bottom of the league to “the money.” Well, can’t we easily fix this by manipulating a league’s pay structure? What if you set up a model, in which you cut the base entry fee in half and then instituted a secondary tiered payout scale based on the final standings?

Hypothetically speaking, let’s slash the base entry fee of our ten team, five-by-five, league, from 100 units to 50, and pay out the first, second, and third place winners, 300/150/50. Then, in addition let’s institute a secondary payout model based on point differential that matches teams up directly and becomes arithmetically more punitive down each level of the standings, starting from the bottom half. So, sixth place pays out fifth place one unit per each point he is behind in the standings. From there we match 7-4, 8-3, 9-2, and 10-1, while increasing the factor by which they pay per point differential by a half.

Let’s take a look at hypothetical final standings for this league. (I’m totally picking these numbers out of my fanny [Keith Hernandez™], but they seem fairly reflective of a normal league.)

1st place: 76
2nd place: 68
3rd place: 58
4th place: 54
5th place: 51
6th place: 43
7th place: 41
8th place: 40
9th place: 37
10th place: 32

So, in this case:

Six owes five 8 units (8 point difference at a factor of 1)
Seven owes four 19.5 units (13 point difference at a factor of 1.5)
Eight owes three 36 units (18 point difference at a factor of 2)
Nine owes two 78.5 units (31 point difference at a factor of 2.5)
Ten owes one 132 units (44 point difference at a factor of 3)

When combined with the base contributions, the final profits look like this:

1st place: 432 (350 + 132) – 50
2nd place: 128.5 (100 + 78.5) -50
3rd place: 36 (50 + 36) -50
4th place: -30.5 (19.5 – 50)
5th place: -42 (8 – 50)
6th place: -58 (-8 + -50)
7th place: -69.5 (-19.5 + -50)
8th place: -86 (-36 + -50)
9th place: -128.5 (-78.5 + -50)
10th place: – 182 (-132.5 + -50)
Total pot: 774 (500 base + 274 secondary)

In this model, the total pot isn’t fixed. We know that there will be five hundred total points among a ten-team, ten-category league, but the differentials between the teams determine the overall size of the secondary pot. The differential between teams gets more costly when middle of the pack is more tightly clustered while the extremes are further apart (because of the increasing multiplier of the point differential as we approach the outliers).

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at our hypothetical in comparison to an extrapolation of the traditional model. A traditional pot with a total value of 774 would mean that each participant contributes 77.4 units, and the first, second and third finishers take a 60/30/10 split, respectively (464.4, 232.2, 77.4, or profit after entry fee: 386.6/154.8/0). So, the top three finishers all profit more from this model because they aren’t even contributing to the secondary pot, and therefore their entry fees don’t cut into their shares of those profits.

The fourth through seventh place teams pay less than their “fair share” (10%) of the total pot either because their winnings mitigate some of their entry fee, or their debts on the secondary pot are minimal enough that they fail to represent 10% of the total pot even when combined with the base entry fee.

The bottom three teams in the league pay out more than 10% of the total pot each, in this hypothetical. Here, the eighth-place team ostensibly breaks even versus the traditional model, being on the hook for 8.6 extra units, while the true cellar dwellers really get punished, coughing up 51.1 and 104.6 extra units respectively.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Philosophically, this model addresses all the would-be motivations to deadbeat. There is a clear disincentive to finishing in last place as well as clear relative rewards/punishments for each successive position outside the top three, and to “climb” into the money spot of the secondary pot, a team must only catapult itself to the top half of the standings, a much more realistic leap for a team sitting at the bottom of the league 40% through the season.

It should be mentioned that as you add more teams and/or additional categories to the league, there are more points available. Usually those points aren’t spread out evenly. It seems like a fair estimate that in most roto leagues, the champ acquires 75-80% of the points available to a single team, while the last place team acquires in the 25–30% range. Adding two extra categories to our league, and using a 75-25 model for the first- and last-place teams, you would increase the point differential between these teams from 50 (75-25) to 60 (90-30). It is these extremes who also face the highest multipliers, which means that adding categories could “run up the bill” pretty quickly. Adding teams also adds points and could add levels of multipliers—though it’s not necessary to add another level for every two teams.

Expanding the model above to 12 teams, you could either tweak the escalation of the factors (1, 1.4, 1.8, 2.2, 2.6, 3), group the factors 7/6 and 8/5 at 1, 9/4 and 10/3 at 2, 11/2 and 12/1 at 3), or simply cut the 7/6 out of the secondary market, keeping them neutral and starting the secondary market payouts at the 8/5 level. Really, there are infinite ways to tweak the model to make it more or less aggressive and to alter the proportionate profits between each level (you can make the system more top heavy or more balanced if you so choose).

You could also adapt this model for head-to-head leagues, using “games behind” as a substitute for point differential.

This is just one alternative model for structuring a league. I’ve toyed with other ideas that center on paying out each category by performance within it, and I’m sure there are viable structures down that path as well. I presume this would actually affect the way teams strategize more than the model proposed at length in this column, though I’m not sure whether that’s something that should be considered a demerit of the system simply for its own sake.

There are probably some who would think any of these alternative models are blasphemous, but I’m not sure I see it that way. While I love fantasy baseball in its conservative, traditional form—deadbeat-inducing shortcomings and all—I also see the game, on a broader level, somewhat similarly to how I see poker. There are lots of different kinds of poker games and lots of different betting structure options, sometimes even relative to a single game (no limit, pot limit, etc.). I’m sure there are those who think that, say, five-card stud with nothing wild is the only true, pure, form of poker as well. That would be their opinion, but they are certainly in the minority with it. And, since I’m postmodern and iconoclastic in so many other areas of my thinking, I can’t possibly reject any of these other models on the basis that they would be “weird,” “too complicated,” or “(non-fundamentally) alter the premise of the game.”

As always, when it comes to determining rules and league structures, the idea is to work to develop a model that works best for the group it will be governing. Some groups prefer a more equitable distribution of the spoils and more spots that “place,” while others prefer more of a winner-take-all paradigm. While I do think this proposed model has some very attractive merits, I’m not endorsing it as, per se, superior to the conventional system. Above all, I encourage people to take a needs-based approach to developing their league structures and seek to maximize the fun factor and competitiveness of their leagues by tweaking set-ups, and even thinking outside of the box when doing so, if necessary.

Here’s an example of an experiment I recently tried. In fantasy football, I often run into the problem that people get angry and dejected when they have a very good week, outscoring all the teams in the league except the one they were matched up against. So, in a couple of my football leagues, we’ve paid out most total points in addition to regular season champ, and playoff winner and runner-up. This year in one league we experimented with a further tweak to that model. Instead of most total points, we paid out small weekly prizes to the team with the highest point total of the week, in addition to the regular season winner, and playoff champ and runner-up. In an endeavor like fantasy football, where there’s much more randomness than fantasy baseball, people seemed to like that there were more ways to win something and that every week they had a chance to win something even if they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Sometimes you may have to sacrifice the weight of the grand prize to create additional incentives to keep the league as engaged and competitive (and “pure”) as possible throughout the course of the season.

There are some dynamics likely to be present in each group of participants. Usually a first and second division emerges among the owners in a specific league and it influences preferences regarding league settings. For example, in my main league we operate in four-year cycles with escalating entry fees and in increasing number of keepers each year before starting from scratch (full redraft after each cycle). When we negotiate entry fees, the more historically successful owners are more likely to endorse higher entry fees and larger year-to-year jumps, while the less successful owners usually vote for lower fees and often stipulate when fees hit a certain level, it trigger an additional “money spot.”

One of the attractive features of the model proposed in this article is that it can appeal to owners in both groups. As you saw, the overall champ and runner-up took a greater share of the pot than a traditional model of the same pot would offer. Additionally, finishing in the top 70% was softer on the wallet in this model. Only the lowest performing teams get soaked in this model, and there is still incentive to fight for every last point because everything counts, from place of finish to margin of victory.


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Jake in Columbus
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Jake in Columbus
The past couple years I’ve instituted weekly awards in my head to head leagues. Most Dominating Win and Most Points Scored In A Loss each take $2 every week in baseball, whereas in football we add Most Single Player Points and they each take $1. There are also bigger, season-long awards for the same categories at the end of the year so a last place team can win a chunk if they manage a big game at the end. Even when you lose close, you are rewarded for trying. They’re low stakes, but there is always something to play for… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
I’m in 12-team roto league which allows up to 15 keepers from a roster of 40 (23 active, 17 reserve) with upward salary adjustments beginning in year three of a contract. With such a large keeper list, it becomes possible to really build a team for future years and an incentive to do so if your aspirations (finishing first or in the money) aren’t likely. That dynamic leads to trades that I frankly enjoy in which one team trades away talent more useful for the current season for talent more useful in future season. In my two years in the… Read more »
Millsy
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Millsy

Jonathan,

I’d argue the exact opposite.  Once the trade deadline goes away, the owners that traded all their talent for ‘next year’ tend to be even more deadbeat than those no in keeper leagues.

If the cash involved isn’t a huge part of the income of those in the league, then it shouldn’t scare people away TOO much from dump trades, but enough that the league remains competitive for longer.  But I’m skeptical that losing $200 vs. losing $60 is a relatively large incentive to not neglect your team.

Millsy
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Millsy

Correction:

“But I’m skeptical of the idea that losing $200 vs. losing $60 ISN’T a relatively large incentive to not neglect your team.  I imagine it is a fairly strong incentive for most.”

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
Millsy, In my league I can say empirically that your hypothesis isn’t supported. One league is a ridiculously small sample size, of course, but here are my observations: (1) In my league there is no trading allowed after the ML trade deadline except for teams that are contiguous in the standings at the end of a scoring week. This doesn’t eliminate trades but it does severely limit them and changing the payout wouldn’t alter that a bit—in fact it would do the opposite—why would anyone trade with the team just beneath his team and risk a financial penalty at the… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher

Corrections:
“(2) In the absence of trading there are FREE AGENT AUCTIONS

Millsy – Even if we disagree on this issue, we share a need for proof-readers.

Millsy
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Millsy
As for #1, #2 and #3, it depends on the league structure.  You seem to have a LOT of restrictions with trading and player pickups.  I tend to like less of that.  I also play in daily leagues, which I think run into more of a ‘paying attention’ problem than weekly lineup changes. I’m talking about teams well out of contention at that point, where it’s beneficial for them to trade Albert Pujols and Hanley Ramirez in 2009 for some combination of non-contributors like Bumgarner-Posey-Borbon, but which have future value.  I don’t want to limit their ability to do so,… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
I agree a lot depends on the structure and rules of a league. Just to be clear, there aren’t trade restrictions before the ML trade deadline in our league, just afterwards. In our 12 team league, there are typically two or three owners who trade early for next year, which still leaves nine or 10 teams contending. The reason so few teams trade for next year is that there is a shortage of truly high-value, low-priced talent; no one is trading two superstars for prospects and low-level cheap talent. In my circumstance last year, for example, I found myself in… Read more »
Millsy
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Millsy
I suppose a lot of the problem lies in H2H leagues.  For example, I was an almost sure lock into the playoffs going into our last session of a 10 session regular season (2 weeks each).  I had a 3 game lead, and won my final matchup 12-4 (8×8 categories).  The guy behind me in the standings ended up winning 16-0.  I didn’t make the playoffs.  The real kicker was that if we had played one another, I’d have beat the WINNING team of the 16-0 game…12-4. These are the types of things that do diminish my fun.  Though, I… Read more »
Matt
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Matt

Our Dynasty League uses the following structure…..

1st-3rd ($$ spots) pay 50 the following year, the 4th-7th finishers pay 75 and the 8th-10th pay 100.  The top teams actually “win” a little bit more, which comes from the bottom teams pockets. 

We also then structure the draft portion of the following year as 8,9,10,4,5,6,7,3,2,1 (same order each round), so there is also incentive to finish as high as possible within each grouping.

So we have financial incentive not to finish in the bottom 3, and future talent incentive to move up from 10th and 7th.

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher

John K – In my roto league it’s easy to see who has traded away the current season, to forecast what effect that will have in each category and quite possible to adjust for that effect, either through trades or free agent signings. The same effect happens when one team suffers a rash of injuries—that team drops and other teams benefit.

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Brian M., Trying to collect at the end of the season can be another problem. Unfortunately, I’ve heard horror stories, and even been involved in a few myself. To a certain extent, it’s hard to avoid; if somebody’s gonna be a scumbag, he’s gonna be scumbag. I do realize that this model makes it impossible to accurately pre-pay, thereby increasing the potential for problems of this sort. I guess for every action there’s an equal an opposite reaction. It would be best to collect “security deposits” up front, but the same people who most likely to welch are most likely… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Jonathan, This model most likely would not work for your league. Certainly, this model is no panacea. It is probably most fitting for non-keeper, draft, roto leagues. It’s good to hear that people do take the initiative to develop alternate models that fit their own leagues though. On a side note, it always strikes me as somewhat unbelievable when I hear stories of people deadbeating leagues with extremely advanced structures/rules. Why would you enter a league with so many extra wrinkles if you’re not unconditionally committed to preserving the dignity of the game? Most importantly though, what you are describing… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Millsy, One possible way to avoid teams getting rebuild happy, and just poking their heads out every few seasons to make a big run (the Florida Marlins model) is to have a multiyear dynasty payout, where you pay a separate pot to the team with the best overall record/highest cumulative point total over a predetermined number of seasons. You’d have to make it worth competing every year for though. Just something I’m just throwing out there. But, you’d figure that if you won year one, you’d be hesitant to forfeit the inside track the dynasty pot, knowing a 1st 3rd… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino

Matt,

I think that’s a cool wrinkle for the draft order. We determine our draft order NBA lottery style with the money finishers set in their draft order (like the NBA). That way, finishing at any particular place in the standings – outside the money – won’t guarantee you any specific pick. But, your method is a more aggressive version of the same theme.

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino

John K.,

Yes, that really the biggest problem. Not only do deadbeats cast a virus on the entire standings, that virus almost always works in one direction. It lets mediocre teams back into contention. The deadbeat’s team sinks in the standings, but that team was likely never very high in any of the categories (otherwise they’d be contending). The elite teams usually don’t have points to gain because they are already ahead of the deadbeat, but the middle of the pack eventually earns free points, “just for showing up.”

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
All, Thank you. I like seeing these kinds of discussions being had. It seems like there is endless analysis of whether you should take Ryan Howard over Prince Fielder (really, who cares, there’s very little chance that determines whether you win your league – blasphemy from a fantasy writer I know, but it’s the truth… unless one gets injured). However, there isn’t much discussion of these sorts of larger, more important, macro issues. I have friends who a teachers and I often tell them, if you don’t understand how to write a proper test and ask structurally sound questions, then… Read more »
Chris
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Chris

One idea I’ve kicked around for my H2H league is a split season.  We have 22 regular season weeks, two matchups per week.  Much like the ‘81 MLB strike year, I’ve considered playing 11 weeks, then week at the start of week 12 all teams are 0-0 again.  Possibly give prizes to the division winners of each half, something along those lines.  Just another idea.

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
Hi Derek, First, I admire your effort and ingenuity in trying to improve the enjoyment in your leagues and those with similar rules and circumstances. I have been fighting a lonely battle to change a rule in my league (A.L.) only which enables an owner, in the event of an inter-league trade, to claim a player going to the A.L. for the same salary as the player on his roster leaving the A.L. While that rule might make sense if most inter-league trades involved players of similar talent, most trades instead involve one superior talent being traded for many smaller… Read more »
Nutlaw
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Nutlaw

Yeah, the end of the season payments due seems like it would lead to trouble.

Why not simply do something simple, like pay every team except last place? Let teams 4-9 fight it out over some smaller amounts of money.

Pochucker
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Pochucker
I would like to share parameters for my league. I have played FB since 80s in all kinds of formats with all kinds of rules. Last 8yrs have been in 12t h2h league. Ugh you say h2h has to much luck—wrong. I would rather be in h2h league with all players active to end than roto with lot of deadbeats especially since our playoff format and prize structure reduces luck priniple even more. League settings our simple 5×5 weekly changes trade deadline 7/31. 12teams h2h two divisions Top 3 from each div make playoffs and following year one div made… Read more »
Scott
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Scott
One of the ideas I’m looking at using in one league is partly to stem off deadbeats, and partly to give non-contending teams a reason to compete hard until the end of the season. Using Yahoo, we’re going to track the point totals of every team from September 1st, through the end of the season. At the end, we’re going to cross out the teams that all placed in the top 4 and were rewarded with… “units”, leaving the other 8. Whichever of the top 8 teams increased their point total the most, from September 1st, gets to choose their… Read more »
Matt
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Matt
Re: Chris’s Comment Here’s a “split-season” format I use for a H2H league (Points Scoring) which could be tweaked depending on # of teams and other preferences. It’s 12 teams (split into 2 divisions, based on draft order / high bid) and the Regular Season is 16 weeks long (with no games during All-Star week), consisting of 5 division games, then 6 cross-div., and finishing with 5 more divisional.  There is then a 4-team playoff with the top 2 teams from each division. Then, we begin a tournament for the remainder of the season (7 weeks total).  The first week,… Read more »
Andrew P
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Andrew P
Your jib is still well-cut, and I like the entire discussion. Fortunately, in the one league I’m most invested in, we’ve got 12 guys that are highly committed.  It’s far and away the best league I’ve ever been in, and there are even people lined up to take over on the off chance someone drops out (we essentially replaced 2 owners after the first year, one being a traditional deadbeat, the other being a deadbeat welch).  These possible replacements want in despite the disadvantage they’d have taking over what would presumably be team at the bottom of the standings in… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Jonathan, Great point regarding the “job security” issue; that’s a tremendous advantage to running a fantasy team. No jerkoffs calling WFAN suggesting I go out and blow my free agent budget on Joel Piniero and no overnight drive-thru managers fronting as beat reporters cosigning that drivel. I’m a Mets fan too, and while Minaya has made his fair share of questionable moves/non-moves, he’s truly in a no-win situation with the fans. They cry about adding anybody they think can help at all, and after mgmt overpays to placate them, they bash the same player as being worthless. They act like… Read more »
Millsy
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Millsy
I think you’re probably right, John.  I’m sure it has some effect in Roto leagues as well, just more difficult to see.  On the other hand, in a league with lots of rate stats, it might do the opposite when no pitchers are being put in, or batters aren’t in there to ruin the batting average. I think you make a good point with the ‘something to play for’ when you’re rebuilding.  My plan essentially builds that revenue structure into winning games, just like you would in MLB.  The worse your team does during rebuilding, the less money you make… Read more »
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