Designing League Incentives

I’m no artist, but as we enter August let me paint a picture of what I see happening in many fantasy leagues:

“My team started fast and I was optimistic in May, but since then I’ve fallen out of the race and am now looking only towards next season.”

“My league’s title chase appeared to be close in June, but just a month or so later it now looks like it’s really over – it’s a one (maybe two) horse race.”

“Our league trade deadline is still 30 days away but no one is really buying at this point.  It makes for a tough sell.”

“A lot of the owners in my league seem like they’ve checked out for the summer.  There’s just not a lot of activity from those teams lower in the standings.”

Familiar? Of course I’m using very broad brush strokes here but you get the point: it’s rare to find a fantasy league that has a hot race involving half your league’s teams in August (and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in September).  But this isn’t really surprising, is it? Still, if you’ve ever won a fantasy league then you know the only thing better than winning is winning a competitive fantasy league.  We all want to win among the best, don’t we? That’s what bragging rights are all about.

My original intent for this article was to debate whether or not it’s possible to legislate competitiveness within your fantasy league, but we’ll just skip to the conclusion and say “it’s not”. This fact is probably obvious to you but in 20 years of being a fantasy commissioner I can tell you I’ve tried many times to drive competition up and down the standings each season, but in the end there’s no secret sauce.  Instead, I’ve come to the conclusion that attempting to build an active league is far better than trying to manufacture a competitive one, so today I’ll leave you with a few ideas that might help increase engagement in your league, and also ask for your feedback on what else might be working for you.

Like many points leagues, regardless of platform (you might argue this for H2H leagues, too), a typical fantasy season for keeper leagues is a marathon to October that awards the “rich” (in talent) with a chance at victory and the “poor” with little more than hope (often in prospects).  In other words, a natural consequence of any “winner takes all” system is that it is likely to leave a large handful of owners disengaged from, disinterested in, and maybe even disgruntled with their current season the second they realize they can no longer compete.  That may be hyperbole if you find yourself in a league with a full slate of excellent owners, but that ideal is nearly as elusive as the quest for competitiveness itself.

The “Brinksmanship” league was formed this past February by a savvy group of experienced Ottoneu owners looking to solve a simple question: “How do we keep the last place team fully engaged in the current season without preventing them from preparing for the next one?”  What follows are the three “carrots” we implemented and have really come to enjoy:

Money Money Money

No matter how you slice it, money is a motivator.  The common assumption that the higher the stakes, the higher the engagement level (and probably the better the competition), and we bought into that belief full tilt this spring by making Brinksmanhip a $50 buy-in league.  Ottoneu money leagues are well managed, with payouts awarded each October, and in the case of Brinkmanship the top three teams (out of 12) will receive $300, $100, and $50, respectively.  My takeaway here is that the payout not only makes the season more meaningful (and probably helps recruit better owners), but it does an excellent job of keeping teams 4-6 engaged all season long, too.  Not every fantasy league is setup to put money on the table, but if you’ve got a long time league that is looking to up the engagement level, there are few simpler ideas to implement.

Prospect Draft

Money is a motivator, but it’s not the only one, and obviously the team that finds itself in last place by mid-May is probably not looking at a windfall come October.  So in addition to cold hard cash, we also implemented a pre-season prospect draft, with the draft order awarded by final placement in the standings.  A quick read of Joe’s “5MiLB” system may be helpful before you move on, but the assumption here is that if I find my way to the bottom of the standings mid-season without any chance of earning a payout, my focus in a dynasty league is now squarely on the future.  What is most valuable to a team looking to the future? The answer is “profit”, or a return on investment high enough to justify the risk of selling off present value for the potential of future surplus.  What is better than a young, cheap player that carries the hope of a breakout? A young, cheap player that costs me almost nothing, which is the biggest benefit of the 5MiLB system.  Under this system owners are allowed to draft and hold minor league players “off roster” at a cost of $0 until they debut in MLB (they are also shielded from arbitration).  Because the 5MiLB draft occurs prior to the regular league auction, the quality of players available makes the draft order quite valuable.  I want the earliest pick I can get, which functions as a clear incentive to finish as high in the standings as I can, even if I’m clearly “out of the money”.

The result? Teams lower in the Brinksmanship standings are not only “buying” regularly even in July (which has naturally enhanced owner-to-owner communication throughout the league), they are playing the waiver wire with a vengeance, making the “churn” of player transactions one of the most active I’ve seen.  This added activity has also made it somewhat more difficult for all owners to keep pace with maximum games played and innings pitched limits – a positive consequence in this case.

Arbitration “Coupons”

Arbitration is somewhat unique to Ottoneu but essentially plays the same role as inflation in other types of dynasty leagues, though in a more market-driven way.  This system allows each owner the opportunity to allocate up to $3 to as many as three players on every owners’ roster (excluding their own), for a total increase of up to $33 per team (salary cap of $400 per team).  These allocations take place just after the regular season and often land on young and/or cheap “breakout” players as a way of forcing financial pressure on an owner as they prepare for the January 31st keeper deadline.  It’s a good system that makes for an active off season, another hallmark of great fantasy leagues.

In Brinksmanship, we decided to hijack the arbitration system by creating “coupons”, which are earned by owners based on standings and used to offset these allocations (by player), thereby helping to slow the overall inflation rate of their roster salary.  These coupons have been discussed at length within the Ottoneu community, and though we won’t be able to fully evaluate the impact of the coupon carrot until this winter, I can confirm that they’ve had a positive influence on the activity of the league and seem to be a very real target for many teams because their relevance has come up often in trade talks which, for the first time, appears to give some extra leverage to “sellers” in negotiations.

Brinksmanship has been a lot of fun this season because it’s been heavily active.  Here’s a summary of the three incentives noted above, and if you’re interested in reviewing a full template of the league to generate your own ideas, you can check it out here.

Brinksmanship (649) Incentive System

If you’re looking to up the activity level of your league, there’s no substitute for filling it with great owners.  But if you’re searching for ideas to rekindle the flame of engagement and are open to thinking outside the box, these incentives seem to be working in Brinksmanship this year. What is working in your league?

We hoped you liked reading Designing League Incentives by Trey Baughn!

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Trey is a 20+ year fantasy veteran and an early adopter of Ottoneu fantasy sports. He currently administers the Ottoneu community, a network of ~1,200 fantasy baseball and football fans talking sports daily. More resources here:

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Justin Vibber

The fact that Brinksmanship has these competition incentives is a large part of why they were the #1 league in the June Power Rankings ( ).