Help Design These League Incentives

A few years ago I posted an article about designing fantasy league incentives.  While the popularity of customized, add-on incentives is hard to measure across the fantasy community, it’s clear that leagues conceptually understand the potential value of features and rewards that attempt to keep owners engaged over the course of a long baseball season.  In the standard winner-takes-all format of many points leagues, commissioners are often left to mitigate the wreckage of AWOL owners that sell off and check out early, so carrots, even small ones, can help in cross-checking drastic, standings-shaking transactions if designed thoughtfully. But designing the right league incentives is easier said than done because owners are motivated by different values.

The purpose of this article is for you, the reader, to help me design the right incentive structure for the very first 20 team Ottoneu league (more on this soon), an exciting experiment that will dramatically alter the traditional economic model that serves as the foundation of standard 12 team Ottoneu leagues. Your feedback will be critical to building a league that lasts, but the discussion will hopefully be a helpful reference for others attempting to structure leagues that are as engaging as possible.

A few details to help provide context as we discuss design together:

  • 20 team auction points league where teams can keep as many players as they like as long as stay under budget (40/$400)
  • 800 players will be owned; starting lineups include five OF, five SP, and five RP; offense is weighted towards wOBA
  • Roster salary inflation is crowd-sourced through the standard Ottoneu annual arbitration allocation process (a great feature)
  • Our goal of introducing incentives is not to improve competition; instead it is to keep owners engaged and active all season long

One other important note: For various reasons, we’ve decided not to make this league a monetary prize league, so we’ll essentially need to remove cash from any possible incentive structure.  With cash money off the table, let’s consider some of the other high concept categories of incentives that might be a starting point.

Increasing Contract Value (Economic)

Though Ottoneu doesn’t specifically use player contracts, the ability to keep any player you own over time gives you maximum flexibility over your roster.  The idea here is that owners will be motivated to keep their better players longer, so increasing the value of a player owned by reducing his salary periodically would be attractive to any team, regardless of where you place in the final standings.  One way to do this would be to create a pool of “virtual” cash that could be earned throughout the season based on specific thresholds achieved (like hitting certain games played or innings pitched targets), or awarded based on your place in the standings at a point in the season (say September 1st).  This “cash” could then be applied to players of the owner’s choice to reduce their salary, helping them hold onto their favorite/most valuable players longer.  This economic incentive model is in line with giving owners ultimate flexibility over the long term formation of their roster.

Reducing Inflation (Economic)

Similar to above, this idea differs in that it provides a reward system that offsets natural salary increases that are controlled by the league’s arbitration process (occurs after each season).  While still designed to reduce a player’s salary, this “coupon“-type process gives a little less control to the owner since they would only be allowed to reduce the salary of those players who have received arbitration allocations (salary increases applied by each of the league’s owners).  The amount of money available to be used as offsets would change depending on the standings, for example.  There are variations, of course: the league could also modify this approach to provide an incentive for some teams to select or “tag” players who are ineligible (immune) to receive arbitration increases.

Improving Player Access (Lottery)

While any type of incentive will have some economic impact on the league dynamic, this idea is less direct and is designed to restrict ownership access of certain players (most likely prospects) until they are earned through a lottery system.  The best example setting aside the top 20 summer draft signees and holding them in reserve until a separate lottery system awards them to owners through a draft based on their position in the standings.  While any prospect can fail, the incentive here is a shot at owning a highly talented young player that could form the foundation of your franchise for several seasons – at a bargain salary. Similar to the “5MiLB” structure, the unique aspect of the restricted lottery incentive is that it still requires each owner to combine a bit of skill (scouting) and luck to make good on this reward, which won’t automatically punish those owners who find themselves lower in the standings due to superstar injuries or ineffectiveness.

These incentive categories above are examples only.  There are many other options (playoffs, relegation, social badges/trophies, etc.).  The best incentive structure is simple in design, and any reward system must be designed to answer two important questions: 1) is the value of the incentive motivating (action), and 2) how do owners qualify for the opportunity to earn that incentive (equity)?

I don’t have all the answers, and though our new league has not yet settled this debate, it seems pretty clear to us that we’re likely to need some type of incentive structure that helps us sustain a great league for the long term.  What ideas have worked for your fantasy leagues?


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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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Check out “The Gold Plan” as a means of earning top draft picks and keeping teams engaged and competitive (tanking prevention).

My league implemented this a few years ago and it actually can make non-contenders into buyers at the deadline, and keeps them invested in fielding a competitive lineup throughout the season. Here’s how we phrased the rule:

Once you’re mathematically eliminated from contention, you start accumulating gold points, and draft order is determined by a ranking of most points earned. You earn points in the following ways:

1) You automatically earn one gold point each week of the regular season starting with the week you are eliminated, as long as you make an effort to field the best lineup you can with what you have available to you that week (in other words, don’t leave your three OF spots open while three active OF sit on your bench). You earn your first Gold Point the week you are eliminated.

2) You earn one point for every category that you win after being eliminated (not including the week of elimination). If you win a week 7-5, you get 7 points. If you lose 10-2, you get 2 points.

The team with the most points at the end of the regular season drafts first, followed by the team with the second most, etc. Ties are broken by looking at record (lower record picks first). If still tied, we’ll look at the previous year’s record and keep going back until the tie is broken.