How to Choose a Fantasy Football League

Back in the late-1990’s, I was amazed to learn that one of the owners in my local fantasy football league was in 9 different leagues. That seemed excessive to me, but as the years went on and I met more fantasy football owners, I got invited into more leagues. It wasn’t long before I was nearly matching my obsessive friend’s league totals, and I knew several guys who easily exceeded that total almost yearly. By 2005, it took whopping numbers to give me pause, though my friend who joined 40 ESPN leagues, back in the days before corporate policy limited the total to a mere 15, still seemed crazy. Since you might have similar problems managing your fantasy football activity, I decided to write a guide for how to choose a fantasy football league.

Money Leagues – Quality or Quantity?

What I want to discuss is selecting high quality leagues for the sake of competition, but I want to make one exception. Let me start by saying that it’s perfectly legitimate to feed your fantasy sports habit by joining high rollers and money leagues with lousy competition, as long as you don’t brag about it. If you pick up some enough prize money playing against part-time owners and guys who mainly bet on college football, that’s okay, if it covers the entry fees to most or all of your real leagues. That helps keep the wife off your back and might help pay for Christmas, so I’m not going to beat you up too much in that case. The problem with owners in these leagues is they tend to boast about their mountain of victories and strings of titles, not mentioning they’re playing against the fantasy football equivalent of their little sisters.

You’ve probably seen these guys who post their team rosters in their sigline (a form of boasting, by the way), consisting of Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Andre Johnson. It makes you want to say, “Boy, it would sure be nice if my league let me pick four times in round 1, too.”

Winning the high roller league full of guys who don’t start full lineups a month into the season and guys drafting Reggie Bush in the first round is nothing to be proud of. You should treat it like a dirty little secret that would shame your whole family if the public learned about it. Pocket the money, go take a shower, and go about your life.

Choosing a Good Fantasy league

When choosing a real fantasy football league with real fantasy competition, knowing as much as you can about the other fantasy football owners is important. When someone is trying to recruit you to their league and you hear the following statements, here’s what you should be thinking.

  • See if the Price is Right
  • Learn a Few Anecdotes
  • See a List of Champions
  • Get a Copy of the Full Scoring System
  • Get a List of the Rules
  • Talk to the Commissioner

Know the Entry Fee and Prize Money

The first question most people to know is about how much the entry fee is. Then they want to know about the prize money. Some leagues have winner-take-all, while many of them give out prize money to the Top 3 finishers in a 50-30-20 split. Other leagues offer small weakly prizes for top points or single-play top points. You’ll find many options, but the important thing is to make sure the league isn’t too rich for you and the prize money is handed out fairly (whatever you think is fair) and on-time.

Listen to Stories about the League

Pretend to be a journalist for a few minutes and try to draw some stories out of the league member or members who invited you to join. Most fantasy football owners love to talk about years past, so this shouldn’t be hard. Find out which stories stick out the most to this person.

Most of the time, you’ll get stories of the brilliant picks they made or the trades they pulled off. If they’re a rueful owner, they might complain about the awful picks they made or the disastrous trades that ruined their season. Or they might talk about brilliant playoff runs.

Sometimes, league owners prefer to talk about the funny stuff that happened at the draft or after the after-draft party, or the funny photoshopped pictures they posted on the website. You might learn that these are a bunch of old married men who only get to enjoy one another’s company and have guy-talk a few times a year, so the league is an excuse to hang out with the guys and have some childish fun. That’s never a bad league to join.

But sometimes, you’ll hear stories of fights and arguments, or controversies and rules scandals, and you’ll start to figure out this league has a lot of shenanigans in it. Leagues have recurring storylines and themes that emerge as you hear their stories and anecdotes. Key personalities emerge from the tales of a fantasy league.

Learn Who Wins Every Year

Seeing a list of the league champions tells you a lot about a league. First, it shows how competitive the league is. Have two or three people won the league title every year the last 10 years? That’s a sign the league isn’t competitive or is incredibly corrupt (see “Choose a Good Commissioner” below). Be especially wary if the commissioner seems to win most of the time. While the head of the league often cares more and tries harder and is going to do well most of the time, that doesn’t mean he’s going to win every year. Fantasy football usually doesn’t work that way.

The list of winners also shows you how much turnover there is in a league. If some of the champions of yesteryear are nowhere to be seen anymore, that shows this group of guys probably has a lot of controversies. While those who left might be jerks or misanthropes, it’s just as likely that the jerks stayed in the league. Ask questions about the former title holders no longer around. You’ll find out they either took a job on the other side of the country, got married and retired from fantasy football, or left in the midst of a dramatic scandal or controversy.

Learn the Scoring System

Make sure you have a copy of the entire scoring system, to make sure you have no surprises. Look over the entire scoring rules and ask questions about rules that don’t seem clear, almost like you would a contract. If the scoring system is unbalanced or illogical, don’t join the league. If you really want to join for the social aspect, ask about how often rules changes are made and see if they’re open to suggestions.

Know the League Rules

On that subject, never join a league unless you know the complete set of rules for that league. If they aren’t willing to put it in writing somewhere before the season begins, they’re likely to change the rules to suit their needs as the season develops. The thing I hate most in fantasy football is to have a league controversy over some rules in Week 6 (for example), have enough of a stink that the commissioner decides to have a vote, then suddenly have rules changed in the middle of the year based on that poll. By its very nature, such rules changes are corrupt, because everyone is (crassly) self-interested. Their vote would be completely different, if the shoe was on the other foot.

The rules should cover whether it’s a redraft, keeper, or dynasty league. On a similar note, you should know whether it’s a draft or auction league. You need to know how free agency is transacted, and who decided what’s a fair trade. As mentioned before, you need to know how questions and controversies are handled during the season. Most important of all, you need to know how much power the commissioner has. That brings me to my next point.

Choose a Good Commissioner

If the fantasy football league commissioner has any degree of power besides making changes to the league site and holding the money, then having a good commissioner is synonymous with having a good league. The more power a commissioner has, the more important it is that he’s fair, he’s efficient (takes care of business on time), and he understands the spirit of the game. If your commissioner is rigging things to help him and his friends, then your fantasy football experience is going to be unsatisfying and negative. You might as well not play.