By Commissioner Matt O’Neill
Fall is the best time of year. Gorgeous weather, savory food, crackling fires, colorful leaves. And football: the greatest of all professional sports.
If you are lucky, you, like 59 million of us, play fantasy football. To an outsider it sounds juvenile – picking teams of players and competing based upon how many touchdowns and yards and catches the players have. To an insider, however, it is the gift that never stops giving. You get to be an owner, draft a team, choose a clever team name, compete with friends, suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous statistical fortune, make trades, talk smack, cheer for random guys, and possibly win a trophy.
If you are not in a league, you should be. If you are in a league, you should make sure it is the best league it can be.
I’ve been playing fantasy football since 1994. My first draft was in a Chicago bar. I had the first pick. When I excitedly took Brett Favre, I was mocked, mercilessly. Emmitt Smith was the obvious-to-everyone-but-me top pick. If you had Emmitt back then, you won. Plain and simple. I ended up losing, the Emmitt owner won, but I had Favre all year and he was great, so I was happy.
The following year I started my own league, Milwaukee FFL, and never looked back. It is the best league in the world, as far as I can tell. Here are my tips for running your own best league in the world.
ALWAYS DRAFT IN PERSON
Never conduct an online draft. Get your group together. The camaraderie is remarkable and becomes more important as the decades roll by. I can say without any doubt that FFL keeps me close to dozens of guys I might not otherwise see much.
The reigning Champion in our league hosts the following year’s draft at a place of his choosing. We have drafted in bars, at golf courses, on a Door County deck, at a Northwoods cottage, in Buffalo (my brother lives there so we RV’d across the country), on pontoon boats, and in a Vegas cabana. This year we will gather at a huge Airbnb in Green Lake, to golf and draft and bond.
My Chicago league now drafts in Las Vegas on the first weekend of the NFL season. The Commissioner and I meet at the Sportsbook early on Sunday (the exact time is a trade secret) to save prime seats. At 10:00am PST we see all 10 kickoffs at the same time. We cry with joy. It is Christmas morning all over again.
MAKE A TROPHY (OR TWO)
It’s not about the money. Yes, there should be an entry fee, and yes, the winner should make some cash. But the true reward is pride and a place in history. We bought a life-size bronze football on eBay and my friend Tom Keyes found a beautiful block of wood and fashioned it into the best traveling FFL trophy in the world. The Champion’s name is etched onto the trophy every year, and the Champ keeps the trophy for the year.
During our pontoon draft, we broke the boat’s propeller (Todd was driving). When the rental folks demanded we pay for the propeller, we said OK, but that we get to keep the propeller. We took it and made a consolation trophy. Even the non-playoff teams have something to play for.
In another league, I made a Champions Cup out of an antique sugar bowl, complete with 12 hanging spoons. The champion gets his or her face on a spoon. The worst team in the league is immortalized on a “Worst in Show” trophy featuring the backside of a bowler.
CHOOSE GOOD TEAM NAMES
Make each team pick a new name each year. Keep it fresh. I do my part by naming new divisions. In 2017, for example, the predictive divisions were Build the Wall, Obamacare Repeal, and Unite the Country. Last year’s Champion was Fake Gnus. The year before that was There are Diamonds on Uranus (which is true; it literally rains diamonds on Uranus).
USE A GOOD WEBSITE
Many websites are devoted to fantasy football. Some are great, some are terrible. The rule of thumb, is you get what you pay for. Free sites are jammed with ads and low on useful features. Pay sites have superior features and even archive your league’s history.
We’ve used CBS Sports since 2003. It costs $150 but is worth every penny. I can customize scoring, change lineups, post stories, polls and photos, keep a League Constitution, and track payments. We can also look up every game in the past 16 years and view aggregated stats across the entire league history.
SET EASY SCORING RULES
Nothing kills a good buzz like a 30 to 25 fantasy game. Be generous with your scoring – 6-point TDs, 1 point per 10 yards, 1 point per reception (PPR baby!), and bonuses for 100-yard rushing/receiving or 300-yard passing are musts. Make the scoreboard sing like an old-fashioned pinball machine.
USE A QUALITY CHEATSHEET
In the pre-internet era, picking teams was complicated. Today, there are scores of sites that will customize a cheatsheet based upon your league’s scoring system. Choose one that looks good and delivers a sheet you like.
I prefer “tiered” cheatsheets that let you know which RBs, WRs and QBs are first, second and third tier. It allows you to assess the relative value of the players available when your pick comes up. If there is only one top-tier WR left but multiple top-tier QBs, take the WR and get a QB the next round.
Encourage trades, all year. Everyone gets a thrill when a trade comes over the wire – the bigger the better. Last year I traded Kareem Hunt to my brother Miles for LeVeon Bell. I thought LeVeon would end his holdout and guide me to glory. LeVeon had other ideas and ruined my season. He has since apologized. I do not regret the trade for one second, as the risk was worth it. This year take it from me – be careful with Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott.
TAKE SOME FAVORITES
Some purists say you should never take your favorite players. I say phooey. Always get at least one or two Packers on your team if you can. It makes the games just a bit more satisfying to watch.
NEVER DRAFT A BEAR
You aren’t missing much, and you will sleep better at night.