Popping the Question
When it comes to fantasy baseball, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, proclivities, and aversions. Some players are excellent at drafting but shy away from making trades. Others might be proficient wheelers and dealers, but make poor decisions at the draft table, or cut players early and populate the waiver wire with worthwhile additions. But when it comes to commissioning leagues, almost everyone could use help in one aspect. It’s a question we see pop up in the Friday AMAs often, with increasing frequency as the season wears on: How do you keep the players in your league engaged over the course the year?
It’s entirely understandable that some players miss setting their rosters occasionally. People have jobs, lives, take vacations and do plenty of stuff that should take precedence over fantasy baseball. That kind of thing is unavoidable. But players giving up part way through the year, ignoring their team, and letting trade offers languish can be a death knell to a fantasy league. No one appreciates seeing a team they need to leap in the standings facing off against a ghost ship of a roster with a lineup full of IL players and Pirates.
Nowadays, however, there are so many options when creating a rule set for your league that fantasy commissioners have tons of tools at their disposal to foster an engaging experience and a really fun, competitive league.
League Structure and Size
There are a few big questions that need to be asked and answered when creating a new league. Rotisserie or Head to Head? Points or Categories? Auction or Draft? Keeper, Dynasty, Redraft? The options seem endless but the goal, in this case, is to create a league that keeps your managers’ attention for 20+ weeks of regular season baseball. And the primary way of keeping people engaged is to make sure that everyone is playing for something for as long as possible.
In this regard I think H2H is generally more engaging than roto since teams can fall out of contention far earlier in roto leagues, giving those managers little reason to remain active. In theory, it’s possible to increase roto parity with a greater variety of scoring categories, but without an end of season playoffs, fewer teams will usually be in a position where victory is possible as the season progresses than would be in a typical head-to-head league. Therefore the rest of this piece will focus on hypothetical leagues with head-to-head weekly scoring.
Also, while I personally love auctions to open the season, I think drafts create a more even distribution of talent and foster greater parity. Getting everyone at the draft table together is extremely important. Drafting your team manually creates a greater bond between team and manager, more camaraderie amongst league members, and helps assure that each manager rosters players they like and can root for. I think starting early and running a slow draft that allows managers to take hours on a pick is a great way to ensure that everyone is able to actively participate and is generally just a ton of fun.
Size matters when constructing a league, but maybe not in the ways you would expect. First, it affects recruiting, which is both a separate beast and intricately entwined with league construction. Secondly, along with roster size and positions used, it affects the player pool. Lastly, it can affect engagement directly if a large number of teams are out of playoff contention.
An Ode to Big Leagues
I love big leagues and I cannot lie. You other players can’t deny. That when a league starts up with no one on the wire batting Mendoza or higher you get sprung. You wanna pull off deals, cause you noticed that team has steals. Deep on that bench they rostered, you might make a lowball offer.
90’s song parodies aside, it can both be difficult to find 16, 20, or even 30 good managers. It also makes the player pool very large. Standard Yahoo! 12 team mixers had 23 roster spots and four IL spots last year which maxes out at 324 players if every team had a full IL. A 20-teamer with the same rosters would hit 540 rostered players with full IL slots. That can scare off managers that don’t want the 24th-ranked third baseman to be an important part of a championship team or even managers that just don’t have that much knowledge of the MLB. In the end it’s much easier to keep 12 people engaged than 14, 20, etc.
This is perhaps the part of the rule set that can make the most difference. After all, teams making the playoffs obviously have something to play for that should keep them engaged. Teams that don’t make the dance but are close will hopefully be fighting for that final spot till the last possible game, even in free leagues. But it’s definitely possible to incentivize teams to remain engaged even if there is no money to be won or if they are not playing for the championship.
If the league allows managers to keep players on their roster from season to season, even last-place teams have reason to remain active. They can and should be looking to move players that can not be kept in deals that could land them draft capital or possibly younger, better long-term options for the future. There are nearly endless ways to gently push players towards this kind of play style. Dynasty or keeper leagues that increase the cost of rostering kept players year over create a class of players that become priced out in the same way that any quality MLB player becomes too expensive for the Buccos or Athletics as soon his rookie contract expires. Those players become perfect “rentals” for playoff-bound fantasy teams and give non-playoff teams something to focus on at least up until the trade deadline.
With regard to the trade deadline, the earlier it is, the more difficult the decision to buy or sell may become. The more time left, the more ground can be made up or lost. Therefore an earlier trade deadline should increase the number of buyers, and create a market in which poorly performing teams can make some deals to improve their future chances. On the flip side, an earlier trade deadline can also mean an earlier end to the season for sellers, whose depleted roster is even less able to compete against teams that added deadline talent. The managers of the losing teams have little to focus on other than grabbing late-season waiver wire breakouts, but even that can lead to finding the Randy Arozarenas, Joe Ryans, or Jake McCarthys of the world.
More Games with Meaning
There is also still some room to work with in regard to playoff formatting to encourage season-long engagement. The ratio of teams to playoff teams matters. If your league has 20 teams, but only six or eight in the playoffs, it’s quite possible to have twice as many teams with nothing to play for as teams still fighting for the championship. This isn’t awful, as making the playoffs should be every team’s goal from the beginning, and doing so ought to feel like an accomplishment, but a smaller league, like a standard 12-teamer with six playoff spots, presents an easy and fun option for maximum engagement. Make the consolation bracket matter.
The NBA, NHL, and now the MLB (yay Buccos!) all use a lottery system to determine which team gets the first overall draft pick rather than simply giving it to the last-place team. This serves both to deter tanking to some degree and if you’re a conspiracy theorist, allow leagues to determine which cities get generational talents. Of course, MLB would never do anything to erode confidence in the integrity of the game… However, I am not suggesting a draft lottery because it’s too likely to lead to anger, frustration, and quitting in fantasy sports, and discouraging tanking is not the same as encouraging engagement.
What I am suggesting is awarding the top overall pick to the winner of the consolation bracket with the 2nd overall pick going to the team with the worst record and progressing from that point. This gives non-playoff teams something non-trivial to play for and can work for keeper or dynasty leagues as well as redrafts as long the managers are returning for the following year. I won the Ohtani tournament in a pay league last season and was probably more excited about that than the actual champion.
As any fan of the perpetual bottom-feeding teams can tell you, it’s difficult to maintain your love for your hometown club when they haven’t won a playoff series for decades. Letting teams languish at the bottom of standings year after leads to waning interest and dead teams. I’m sure there are commissioners out there who understand the pain of trying to find someone to take over a team whose most valuable assets are a couple 35-year-old former stars. This is not really an issue with redraft leagues, but keeper and dynasty leagues will almost certainly run into this issue at some point and those leagues need longevity and engagement to thrive.
I have two suggestions to increase levels of parity and therefore promote engagement. The first is to include some sort of keeper cost increase year over year as we mentioned earlier. This can be literal if your league uses an auction/salary cap format, or can be draft round cost if your league uses a draft. Either way, it encourages player movement and can eventually even force big names back into the player pool. The second suggestion is specific to dynasty/keeper draft leagues. Stop snake drafting after year one. With a snake draft, everyone’s overall picks average out to have essentially the same value over the course of the draft. With a non-snaking draft, the team with first overall would pick 11 spots before the defending champ 23 times during a standard draft (less with keepers taking up spots) which can go a long way to elevating teams coming off of poor seasons.
Communication is likely the most important engagement-boosting commissioner tool. Take time to talk to recruits before bringing them in. Ask about past fantasy experience, or what they might be looking for in a league. Get to know your players and league mates. I first began playing fantasy baseball in the late 90s and my opponents were all high school friends. We saw each other often during the season because we were friends who all lived within 20 minutes of one another.
Today I play with people of all different ages in several states and multiple countries. I’ve never met the majority of people I play with, but we are able to keep in touch and even host live drafts with league message boards. Slack, Discord, and Zoom are all great examples of programs that can be used to improve communication. Use these tools to reach out to managers who have been less engaged. Find out what’s going on and get ahead of potential problems. If it comes down to worst-case scenarios, it’s better to replace a team manager before the roster suffers from a lack of quality management.
There are likely as many tips and ideas to offer to boost engagement as there are types of leagues or styles of managers. But the most important and final piece of advice I’m going to leave you with is this: If you want to foster a league with strong player engagement, be engaged in it yourself. It’s your league. Even if you take votes on important aspects or rule changes or trade vetoes, you are the commish and the buck stops with you.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)