Making the leap up

I’ve been asked a number of times to provide advice for those who play in public leagues who want to graduate to more competitive leagues and possibly increase the stakes of the leagues in which they participate. I don’t have any earth-shattering wisdom to impart on the matter, but I’ll offer up some thoughts and perhaps others will be able to offer their experiences in the comments section as well.

For the most part, those looking to graduate into more competitive, higher stakes (and those two dynamics are often, though not always, tied together) leagues have three general paths to pursue: create your own league, find an existing league, or join a league through a third-party provider that offers fantasy sports for stakes. Let’s briefly discuss each of these options.

Start your own league

All things being equal, this is the best option if it is feasible. By creating your league, you get to set out the initial league structure, rules, stakes, etc. There are many advantages to doing this, most of which are intuitive. It is best if you can start this league with friends, or mostly friends and maybe a few friends of friends. This is important because you want to have a rapport with the league.

You have to collect dues, and most likely you’ll run into some situations early on where you’ll have to make some commissioner decisions, and all that works much more smoothly if you have a pre-existing, cordial and respectful relationship with most of the league. It gets easy to vilify a commissioner who is a stranger.

Sometimes these leagues take a while to grow in competitiveness and enthusiasm, but be patient. If you can put a league together, I think it’s a good option to do so. Even if you also want to try for a quicker fix to satiate your competitive jones at the same time, plant this seed as well.

I enjoy my home leagues so much that I basically don’t even accept the invites to the expert leagues I get. While that sentiment right there may be worthy of a #humblebrag, it also reflects the origin of rotisserie baseball. At its best, it’s a social activity, and who better to be social with than your own friends and associates?

Join an existing league

A second way to get into a more serious league is to seek out existing leagues looking for owners. Many baseball discussion boards have fantasy baseball forums, and there are always people in there looking to fill out their leagues with more teams. Here, you can do a bit of vetting of the other participants, though you’re still entering at least a partial unknown.

Best practices here are to try to build some level of communication with the other league members before committing to anything. Get a sense of the history of the league. Many times there are generally established leagues that retain a core of participants, but that core isn’t enough to complete a league and so the established players take to the message boards to try to recruit the last few teams, which may change owners frequently.

This approach gives you at least a chance to get into an already established, fairly healthy league. You’re also not necessarily committed to return if you don’t enjoy yourself (unless it’s a keeper league).

When you start your own league, sometimes it can be hard to get out of it if your friends enjoyed it because they’ll pressure you into re-upping. I was part of a league with some old co-workers, and I told myself I would quit three straight seasons before actually doing so. I kept falling for the guilt trip of them telling me they might not be able to fill out the league if I left. Who knew people would be so anxious to bring back somebody who won the league four out of five seasons? (#notsohumblebrag tag for that one!)

All in all, this can be risky because you are kind of going the third-party route without the “protections” offered by the third party. You really have no recourse if others are shady with money or act collusively, etc., and that’s why it’s incumbent to do your homework. But it’s important to also keep an open mind and be willing to take a chance if it feels right.

In addition to fantasy baseball, I’m active in I guess what most people would call the “sneaker collecting” hobby, another area that forces me to deal with many people over the internet and broker deals with people I don’t really know. The codes I live my there are protect yourself, trust your instincts, but keep and open mind. Anybody—no matter how reputable—can be a scammer, and anybody—no matter how unknown or obscure—can be a stellar, honest person.

Joining third-party for-stakes leagues

A third option for stepping your game up is to enter leagues through sites like Fantasy Sports are Us (FSRU) or National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC). I’ve personally never joined a league through sites like this, but both FSRU and NFBC are well-established in the industry.

For those with really heavy pockets or who are just supremely confident in their skills, there’s the NFBC league that costs $1,400 per team and includes 300 total teams that compete for divisional and overall prizes. Fellow THT author Dave Shovein shares a team in this league.

I contemplated joining this league last year and discussed it with an associate of some note in this industry who also has achieved success in this league, and he encouraged me to do it. There are plenty of experts involved in this league, but there are also well-to-do average joes with money to blow, or at least that’s the impression I was given. I wimped out anyway, though.

Another variation of the idea of joining third-party leagues is to get into daily fantasy gaming. Daily fantasy sports gaming allows you to draft (auction) a whole new team every day. You can also play for smaller stakes. The dynamics of chance and skill are different than seasonal leagues, but the contained excitement can be fun. Fanduel is a leading daily fantasy gaming site provider and a friend of The Hardball Times, but there are other providers, as well.

Here are a few resources for those looking to take the plunge on something new from former THT writer and daily fantasy gaming expert, Alex Zelvin.

An introduction to daily fantasy baseball contests

Keys to winning daily fantasy baseball contests

Finally, a cautionary tale. The World Championship of Fantasy Football was a mega-institution in the fantasy gaming world, organizing huge-money competitions with the appearance of plenty of funding behind it. The organization recently folded, and many recent winners are unlikely to receive their entry fees back, let alone the jackpots they were guaranteed.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines ran a story about this for those who want more information on this scandal. I include this piece of information not to scare anybody off, but moreso to underline the point I made earlier; it’s not always so easy to determine what people/outfits are reliable. Of course, that internet problem is not unique to searching for fantasy baseball leagues.

At the end of the day, you have to both be willing to walk away and willing to take a few chances, depending on what your research and your gut tell you. In that way, seeking a league is not really all that different from building a fantasy team.

I was lucky enough to start my fantasy gaming with friends, but for those of you who may have started by joining public leagues but have since elevated your game and league experiences, please share your insights below.

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  1. Dave Shovein said...

    I encourage anyone who is interested in option 3 that Derek has outlined to explore the NFBC.

    These leagues put you up against the best competition in the world, and have available leagues for many different budgets. You can start with satellite leagues as low as $125, try your luck at an overall competition in the $350 Online Championship, or go all the way up to the $1500 Main Event. There are even leagues higher than the $1500 price point.

    The people who run the NFBC are among the best in the industry, and they truly run the best game in town.

  2. Hunter fan said...

    Id like to play some pay leagues, but at lower stakes than $125.  Something like $20-30.  Any recommendations on that level?

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...


    I think your best bet there is to try to establish a league of your own. For that kind of budget, you can often get friends who are mildly interested to throw down, since it’s not that much of a financial risk, relatively speaking.

    It’s going to be hard to find a third-party provider at that price point because the sites that administer the leagues take a cut of the pool for their services, and at that level, there’s not much to skim off the top for them.

    Daily gaming is an option though – certainly it can get very expensive if you play often and regularly, but you can join competitions for a couple of bucks, and if you win, you can build a bankroll. I’d also suspect that this is an area where fewer of the “best and brightest” have devoted themselves, so perhaps there is opportunity there. If I had to guess, because I don’t really actively participate in that world, I’d guess that it is heavily stratified between high-level quants using advanced modeling at one end, and gamblers looking to have some fun and bet a few bucks on the other.

    Theoretically, daily fantasy should be beatable long term – like sports betting – and if done right and consistently, it would be more profitable than most seasonal fantasy endeavors. …But, now I’m meandering into a whole other subject matter.

  4. BobbyRoberto said...

    I’ve found a couple reliable and competitive leagues through the Fantasy Baseball Cafe.  One is a $250 league, another is $150, but they have leagues in the $20-$30 range also.

  5. AtomicDumpling said...

    I only play in leagues with people I know in some manner. It is so much more fun to play with and against friends than it is to beat up on a bunch of clueless strangers on the Internet. Most public leagues are boring and the other players are rude if they even interact at all. It is not much fun to play in leagues where half the players quit as soon as they fall behind in the standings.

    Leagues among friends are more competitive and more interesting. Winning those leagues gives you bragging rights for a year. If you don’t have friends that play fantasy baseball then join an online community of baseball fans and play in a league that is organized there. Make sure all owners use their real names or community username as their team name, that helps to minimize anonymity even further and keeps owners on their best behavior.

  6. Bob Royster said...

    I kinda agree with each of your points.
    The in-home on-site draft with friends is the best option. I have had two bad experiences with joining existing leagues on the net and would never do that again. When it comes to public leagues, I think FSRU does it the best and I am still playing 3 leagues with them, the drawback to them being they only do keeper leagues.

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