Before the beginning, think of the ending

In my previous article, I wrote about choosing fantasy league rules that increase the happiness (broadly defined) of the players in your league. In particular, I warned against using rules that were drawn from Major League Baseball rules without first thinking about the effects that they would have on your league’s competitiveness. This week, I want to pick up on this theme and discuss a particular problem that many leagues have: How to keep the last half of the season interesting.

To make things easy, let’s take a simple 12-team rotisserie league, where the winner takes all. By August, there will likely be several teams that do not have a realistic shot at winning, perhaps due to a key injury or a poor trade. Football season is starting, so some of the cellar-dwellers may stop updating their roster, leaving injured or inactive players on their active roster, and so on. Steadily, the inactive teams become less and less competitive. So while a team that starts the All-Star break in last-place in your league is probably still competitive in a few scoring categories, an inactive team will likely be at the bottom of most categories by the end of August.

What are the effects of inactive teams on the rest of the league? Inactive teams generally drop out of competition faster in the counting stats (like home runs) than in the average stats (like WHIP), since injured players don’t get strikeouts (for instance) but have a neutral effect on WHIP. Competitive teams with mediocre counting stats are rewarded, since they will move up in the standing. It is like you’re competing against 12 teams in the batting average category, but only eight in home runs. It can also make it a lot harder for teams to move up in the standings, as the last place teams are unlikely to overtake a top team in any particular category.

What rules can a commissioner use to try to prevent this fall in league attention? The key, of course, is to give something for the lower tier teams to compete for, that is, give them a reason to want to be in, say 10th place instead of 11th (and so on). For instance, keeper rules, which let teams keep some players for next season, may give a team a reason to remain active, searching for undervalued talent. But the best rules will be the ones that encourage competition without distorting other aspects of the league.

A much simpler incentive scheme than keepers is to make the reward system contingent on the place of finish. For example, instead of having a 10-team league where each manager puts in $10 and the winner gets $100, imagine each team putting in $55. Then let the first place price still be $100, but give the second place $90, third $80, and so on. The idea is to spread the difference in prizes enough so that no team will want to drop out.

Alas, this also means that each manager could lose a lot more money (4.5 times more in the example above). Many leagues may not want to have so much money (if there is any to begin with) at stake. Fortunately, there are other ways to incentivize.

A common rule in multi-year draft leagues is to set the draft order in reverse order of finish from the previous year. Last year’s stinker team gets this year’s number one draft pick. Most professional leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.) have a version of this for their draft.

Using this rule is a terrible idea for most fantasy leagues. The fewer keepers your league allows, the worse the reverse draft order rule is. It is a good example of sacrificing fantasy competitiveness for the sake of verisimilitude. If it was hard to incentivize the lower tier teams to compete before, with a reverse draft order in place, you’d actually be encouraging teams to tank! Indeed, two years ago, I was in a league where I was one of the tankers-in-chief. In a league with no keepers, all teams start the next season with a blank slate and on completely even footing, so there’s no reason to give the worst team from the previous year the first pick the following year—except perhaps out of pity.

I would encourage most draft leagues to get rid of the reverse draft order. Your league could revert to the same scheme that you probably used in the league’s first year, determining the draft order by random lottery.

But why not use draft order to reward competitive teams? This past year, one of my leagues decided to adopt a more complicated NBA-style lottery to determine draft order. Instead of giving the teams that finished at the bottom the highest probabilities of getting the top draft picks, we gave the higher probabilities to the teams that finished near the top. Of course, you don’t need something this elaborate; for instance, just make draft order follow the order of last year’s finish rather than the reverse order.

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