Dictionary.com defines the word commission as “the act of committing or entrusting a person, group, etc. with supervisory power or authority.” I’ve been playing and commissioning fantasy baseball for almost 25 years now and have on occasion abused that authority to influence change within my leagues. Always with the long-term good of the league in mind, I have encouraged owners to adopt a wide variety of incentive structures that have included elaborate prize payouts, keeper contract systems, supplemental minor league drafts, arbitration and inflation offsets, and a few other random gimmicks. Furthermore, as a regular member of an active, daily fantasy baseball community, I’ve seen countless other versions of these ideas and have had all the common debates about incentives vs. penalties, owner competitiveness vs. engagement, and all the nuances that make for good, healthy ownership and game play. In short, I’ve kind of seen it all.
I’m now ready to admit defeat. Despite my best efforts, there are no universals when it comes to motivating every type of owner to engage fully over the course of a long 162 game baseball schedule. This revelation should be obvious, and perhaps only fellow commissioners will sympathize with this drive to create the perfect league, but it has taken me some time to finally come to grips with this truth. To be clear, it’s not that some of these ideas haven’t worked (I have years of anecdotal evidence that they can and do), it’s just that they are usually designed to address the symptoms that plague poor leagues rather than the core issue.
What is the core issue putting your league at risk? Let me first address some of the common symptoms I’ve seen in unhealthy leagues.
If you’ve been playing fantasy baseball (or any sport) for more than a few years, you’ve no doubt experienced the owner that disappears into oblivion half way through the season. These owners begin every season with great intentions and expectations, but life gets in the way. By June these owners no longer respond to trade talks, miss out on easy opportunities to improve their rosters, and sometimes even fail to set regular lineups. Again, this slow, quiet disappearance is rarely intentional, but it happens in almost every league and hurts the overall experience of everyone else. Whatever the reason (there are many), these owners usually do not have the special attention span needed to commit themselves to a full season of baseball.
Often related to the AWOL issue above, most leagues have also experienced the unexpected announcement of an owner leaving, sometimes mid-season. Owners have their reasons and it would be unrealistic to expect perfect attendance for decades, but turnover hurts, regardless of the details. Turnover hurts worse when good owners leave, and in leagues with rich history, it can often take a couple of seasons or more for replacement owners to make a smooth transition into the existing “family” that has been built over time (assuming you can find a qualified replacement). Consistent turnover frustrates everyone involved.
Few issues wreak more havoc on the psyche of a healthy league than the regular occurrence of lopsided trades. Watching a one-sided blockbuster come across your message board can have a devastating impact on the enjoyment of a league, and watching the same owners fall victim to these type of trades over and over again has completely derailed more than a league or two. Every owner values players a little differently (this is good), and while every owner is entitled to a few mistakes over the years (I’ve made several), the inability of repeat offenders to learn from their miscalculations is what often crushes the spirit of even the best leagues. We know earth-shatteringly bad trades when we see them, and no league wants to survive on the hope of saving face via the veto button.
These examples are among the most painful symptoms plaguing fantasy leagues, and despite my years-long endeavor to eradicate these issues and protect a fully functioning, healthy experience for everyone, I’ve never come up with an incentive structure that accurately addresses the real issue. The real issue is bad owners.
Bad owners will ruin your fantasy league. I’ve bucked this obvious truth for years thinking I could just build in the right motivations and everything would run smoothly, like clockwork. I was wrong, and I’ve now come around on this issue and recognize that poor ownership is the root problem.
I could write several more articles on identifying bad owners, but it wouldn’t really help you. You know a bad owner when you see one. The problem is they usually take a while to identify, at which point it might be too late.
What if there was a way to automatically weed out bad owners?
As stated above, there are no universal fixes, but relegation has become my favorite tool for uprooting bad ownership over time. At worst it forces owners into making critical decisions much earlier in the process of joining and participating in a league, but it works best when it serves as a constant check on in-season gamesmanship, too.
The Ottoneu Champions League adopted a relegation clause several years ago and it has become my healthiest, most interactive league. In the standard winner-takes-all Ottoneu format, we chose to relegate the 11th and 12th place owners from League A at the end of each season, replacing them with the top two finishers of a secondary, “feeder” League B that also brings in new ownership annually. Owners relegated from League A swap places with the top teams from League B and can then rejoin the primary league only when they place high enough in the secondary league. The relegation dynamic has forced all owners in A to constantly measure the risk/reward impact of every transaction, and the present vs. future value calculation embedded in every trade negotiation has made for rich discussion that prevents teams from tanking completely. Relegation has forced owners to remain fully engaged for much longer into the season, has created late season buyers of teams lowest in the standings, and we tend to have far fewer arguments about player value than other leagues because we trust the process that owners will pay a steep price if their tactics are wrong.
Relegation does not have to be this complicated. In another league, we adopted a softer, modified version of relegation where every owner votes for each co-owner to stay or go at the end of every season, for any reason. This form of relegation creates the necessary check and balance that gives owners pause before making decisions that may have serious repercussions on the entire league.
In my experience leagues have generally stayed away from relegation for two major reasons. First, they believe it is too harsh. Second, and more likely, leagues are worried it will be too difficult to find replacement owners each season. The first objection must be weighed against the damage done by poor owners – it is often worse for the long term health of the league to keep bad owners than to create a mechanism that puts real pressure on them to leave. The second is a legitimate objection that can be mitigated by becoming involved in a larger fantasy baseball community from which to pull new ownership from on a regular basis.
Relegation is not a perfect solution. Relegated owners are not always the bad owners, and even AWOL owners can sometimes survive for a few seasons if they get lucky drafting a good team or hitting big on a few prospects. One alternative option is a relegation clause that requires all owners to vote ejected owners back into the league each season (I’ve found owners are more reluctant to vote owners out of a league than back into one). Another option might be to average the standings every two years so that good owners have the ability to bounce back from an outlier year of poor performance.
I’ve tried just about every trick in the book to build a great fantasy league, and relegation has become my favorite mechanism because it gets at the heart of the bad ownership that tends to break so many fantasy leagues. Is your league breaking? Relegation may be the fix you need to keep things together for the future.
Trey is a 20 year fantasy veteran and a five time Ottoneu champion, including the 2015 winner of the Ottoneu Champions League. He currently administers the Ottoneu community, a network of ~1,200 fantasy baseball and football fans talking trash daily. More resources here: http://community.ottoneu.com