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.
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.