The Strategies, Tips and How-tos of Auction Leagues

  Guest Submission posted 8/28 by Joe Vusich, Exclusive to

If your local league uses a traditional serpentine draft and you're looking to liven things up this season, consider switching to a live player auction. Serpentine drafts are fun, and are arguably the preferred format for Internet-only leagues, but when getting together live with your friends, nothing beats the jazz of a player auction.

What makes live auctions so fun?

  • Every player is yours for the taking. Want LT? You got him. Steven Jackson? No problem. All you have to do is pay $1 more than everyone else. You might even be able to corral both players, if you're willing to settle on flotsam for the rest of your roster.

  • More excitement. Serpentine drafts are fun, but they can get somewhat routine, especially if your league has been doing them for years. Switching to a player auction will breathe new life into your annual draft party. It's hard to describe the excitement you'll experience--like combining your traditional draft with a giant poker game. I have yet to meet someone who switched from a serpentine to auction format and regretted it!

  • Different strategies. If you're sitting in a serpentine draft with the 9th pick, you're probably debating whether to take Travis Henry, Reggie Bush, or Rudi Johnson. Throw that thinking out in an auction. Every player is fair game, and the main question you'll have to consider is whether to spend your wad on a few superstars or aim for balance.

  • Less luck. You know how it goes in a traditional draft. The guy with the 12th pick whines about having no chance at getting one of the top players. The owner with the 1st pick wins the league, but his accomplishment is cheapened in the eyes of others. (After all, how hard is it to win with LT?) In an auction draft, there is none of that. No more whining about not having LT, no more dissing the guy who does have LT, simply because everyone has an equal shot at getting LT. The players you end up with are the players you choose, not the players who "fall to you."

Perhaps you're intrigued. Good! I hope to have you completely hooked by the end of this article. My intent is 1) to show you how to set up an auction league; and 2) to discuss various auction strategies and tips for success.

How auctions work

In a traditional serpentine draft, franchise owners draw numbers at random to determine the draft order. Everyone chooses in the 1st round according to the luck (or non-luck) of the draw, and the order is then reversed in each succeeding round. Routine and predictable.

In an auction draft, each owner starts with a specified amount of imaginary dollars--typically $100 (though many prefer $200). The first owner (chosen at random) submits an initial bid for the player of his choice (e.g., "$1 for Shaun Alexander"), and the bidding continues from there until no one is willing to go $1 higher. Getting to the winning bid, however, is anything but routine and predictable. As the price increases, the pulse rate jumps, sweat beads form on the brow, and the mind begins to race. "How high should I go for this guy? Is now the time to duck out and wait for Joseph Addai instead? But what if the bidding goes even higher on Addai? Maybe I should keep bidding to push the price up, even though I don't want this guy at such a high price. But then what if the other guy suddenly stops and I'm stuck with him?!" It doesn't help that the other owners are goading you on while all these thoughts are racing through your head!

Ah, the joys of the free market. Having the ability to buy any player is both the blessing and the curse of the auction format, and it's up to you, dear fantasy owner, to make your choices. Maybe you don't like the idea of sweating out such decisions. Maybe you prefer having a narrower range of choices when picking your players. If so, you're probably better off sticking with a traditional draft where everything is safer and more predictable. But if you like the thrills and spills and absolute delight of filling your roster with players of your own choosing at the prices you want to pay, a player auction is the only way to go.

Setting up your league

The following is intended as a general guide to help you set up an auction league. If you are already an experienced auction player and are reading this article more for the strategy tips, you can skip to the next section.

Define the rules. As in all fantasy leagues, having the rules already in place will simplify the owner recruiting process and make less work for you in the long run. (It's all right to tweak things once everyone is on board, though.) When putting together your league rules, try to take into account every possible scenario, and provide as much clarity as possible, especially in your auction, scoring, roster, waiver and trade requirements. The basic idea is to sweat the details now and avoid potential conflicts later. (At the end of this article, I've attached the rules we use in my local 10-team auction league, slightly modified. These rules are included merely as one example of how an auction league might be set up.)

Choose owners who like to have fun. If you're converting an existing league to an auction format, this point is moot, but if you're starting from scratch, try to pick owners who enjoy being the life of the party. Live player auctions are very interactive, and you want to have people there who enjoy getting into the spirit of the thing.

Use a redraft rather than a keeper format. This is more of a personal preference, but if you're not experienced with auction leagues, it's probably best to start with a redraft (no keepers) format. You can add keepers later, of course, or even switch to a dynasty format, but I have found from experience that 1) the issue of carryover salaries can be a sticky problem; and 2) redraft auctions are more fun than keeper auctions.

Don't appoint one of the owners as the auctioneer. It's difficult enough to buy your own team, but the problems multiply when you have to oversee the purchase of every other team. I've found that appointing the spouse or girlfriend of one of the owners as the auctioneer works pretty well. My wife serves as the auctioneer of our local league, and she enjoys banging the gavel as much as I enjoy putting my team together.

Don't use the Internet to conduct your auction. The Internet is a great place to do a traditional draft, but in my opinion, it's a lousy place to conduct an auction. The primary advantage of an auction league is the increased personal interaction between the owners. The action is fast and furious, and the spontaneity of the event is what makes it exciting. Most if not all of that spontaneity and excitement is lost when conducting an auction on the (silent) Internet. I've participated in a few on-line auctions, and I have personally found the experience to be extremely dull (not to mention frustrating) compared to a live auction. If you absolutely must do your auction on-line, I suppose conducting it in a chat room is the way to go.

Don't use a predetermined order to nominate players at auction. A big part of the excitement of a live auction is not knowing when a player you're really gunning for will be nominated. "Should I spend more money on this RB, and hope that the QB I covet will be put on the table later, when money is tighter and bargains more plentiful?" That's just one of the juicy, unpredictable little intrigues that make auctions so much fun. More complicated, perhaps, but definitely more fun, and that's the point of the thing, after all, to have fun. Keep things as random as possible, and don't listen to the voices who want to make your auction more orderly and "safe."

Let the bidding be a free for all. Once a player is nominated, there should be no rules regarding when an owner gets in or gets out of the bidding. Auctions should not be like poker, where you bid around the table, and if you decline to bid you're out for good. Again, the idea here is to avoid the "safe" approach and keep things random to maximize the fun. One of the coolest things to do in an auction is to sit silently while a player is bid up, and then jump into the bidding at the last minute, just when the process seems to have concluded. You'll undoubtedly aggravate the guy who thought he had won his man, but hey, that's part of the jazz that makes auctions such a blast.

Have one or two people standing by on auction night in case one or more of your owners can't make it. I know it's not always possible to find someone willing to jump into your auction at the last minute, but it's best to be prepared for the unexpected if at all possible. There are few things more disappointing than having to cancel your annual auction because someone's kid got sick and had to go to the hospital.

Preparing for the auction

Okay, you've got your owners lined up and your rules ironed out. Now what? Here's a suggested plan of attack as you prepare for your auction:

Choose your overall bidding strategy. There are two basic auction strategies: 1) load up on a few superstars and fill out your roster with low budget guys who have good upside; 2) aim for balance up and down your roster. Owners using the former strategy typically spend 70-85% of their salary cap on 2-3 players; owners using the latter approach look for value and aim for proven quality at every position. Both approaches work at times, and both approaches fail at times, so pick the strategy you're most comfortable with and stick with it. Keep in mind that aiming for balance will keep you more involved in the auction from beginning to end, while the superstar approach may leave you sitting for long stretches during the auction with little to do since you'll have less money than the other owners.

Based on your projections, put together a draft list that contains the prices you're willing to pay for every draftable player. I know this sounds like a lot of work, and it will take some time. But you'll be better prepared for your auction and much more likely to succeed if you try to figure out the relative value of the available players ahead of time. You want randomness and excitement and unpredictability to be in play at your auction, but not when it comes to your own preparation! You should go into battle having already thought through pricing issues very carefully. You should know (at least roughly) how much you want to spend at the various positions, and how much you are willing to spend for each of the draftable players at those positions (be sure to use the combined salary cap of all the owners when computing your pricing estimates). A good general goal during auctions is not to spend more than 85% of the estimated value of a player. If you end up with a roster full of players that were purchased at a discount, your chances of success are very high. Keep in mind, though, that the 85% goal goes out the window with the top studs. Elite players almost never sell at bargain prices, so if you want them, be prepared to pay the full market value, or even a little bit more. Bottom line: do your pricing homework ahead of time so that you'll have greater confidence when to stop bidding on a player and when to keep going. Don't wait until your heart is racing and the other owners are pressuring you before trying to figure out whether Terrell Owens is worth $23 of your total cap!

Auction tips and strategies

You have your basic strategy and pricing figured out, and now it's time to put all that knowledge into action. Here are some basic strategies to use during the bidding:

It's all about poker. Player auctions have more in common with a game of poker than a traditional draft. Among your league owners, there will be sharks and there will be fish. If you're typically a fish when your buddies gather for a night of beer and a game of poker (if you do such things), you'll need to bone up on your skills quickly. If you don't, you'll be devoured by the other owners. After playing in a league with the same group of people for a few years, you'll have an easier time with this. Over the years, your fellow owners will demonstrate their hot buttons, home-team biases, and affinities for certain players or teams. File these tendencies away in your memory bank, and during your auction you'll be able to exploit them. For example, if one of your rivals has drafted Joey Galloway for the past three years, you'll know to bid him up when Galloway's name is thrown out. Similarly, some owners may exhibit certain discernible body language characteristics as the auction progresses. Take note of these signals. The ability to read other owners and notice their idiosyncrasies is a critical component to ensuring your success on auction night.

Get into the game. It's vital for you to get into the bidding action early. What exactly do I mean by this? If marquee players are being tossed out at the beginning of the auction, it's advisable that you get involved in the bidding process even for the guys you don't really want. You can drop out of the bidding for such players before their closing price approaches, but the point is to disguise your bidding tendencies by showing interest in players you want and in those you don't want. Also, when the action gets hot and heavy, it's critical that you identify those owners who bid only on players they want (and ultimately get). This is equivalent to a poker player who raises only when he or she has a winning hand. File that info away! Recognizing a trend like this greatly improves your odds of driving up the cost of players that owner covets. Bottom line: when you participate in an auction, it's equally important not only to bid on the players that you want, but also to drain the other owners' salary caps (and not to telegraph info about yourself that other owners might use to drain your cap).

Watch for the ebbs and flows. Generally, each auction will have phases, and it pays to be alert to these phases in order to spend your dollars wisely. For example, the first round of players submitted for bidding will often (but not always) sell for more than they are worth. This is because some owners are eager to get into the action right away, and become very aggressive with their bidding. I'm not saying it's wrong to buy players during this part of the auction, but unless you feel compelled to do otherwise, it's generally a good idea to sit out this portion of the bidding since bargains will be scarce. (On the other hand, don't sit out too long if doing so means that you miss out on all the top players at an important position, particularly at RB.) After everyone has a player or two on his roster, another phase will typically begin in which some bargains can be had. (Owners are thinking, "I spent a lot of cash on player so-and-so, so I'd better sit out for a bit.") This can often be a good time to pick up one of the lower top tier RBs for a good price, or perhaps a 2nd tier QB like Donovan McNabb. Then at some point, several owners may become worried that only a few of the top players are left and will begin to drive up the prices. Finally comes the "mop up" phase, when most of the owners have about 5-7 roster spots left but are close to being tapped out. This concluding part of the auction is a great time to find bargains, since $1 will often win the bid.

Spend your money on quality players. This sounds like an obvious point, but when striving to get good value for your auction dollars, it's a mistake to overemphasize value over quality. Don't fall into that trap. Your goal is to build a powerhouse fantasy team, so spend every dollar that you have on as many quality players as you can get. Money left over at the end of the auction will serve only as a reminder of your failure to buy valuable players early in the auction, when you had money and they were still available. For example, if you've estimated LT's value at $45 and the bidding reaches that level, it's not necessarily the right thing to drop out of the bidding automatically when for a few dollars more he might be yours. Value for your dollars is a good goal, but value should not trump common sense.

Be flexible. Each auction is unique, but the tenor and direction will be established early, based primarily on the order that players are submitted for bidding and the manner (conservative or free wheeling) in which the bidding proceeds. It's best to have a flexible attitude and go with the flow of the auction. Bargains are often scarce at the beginning of an auction, but on occasion the opposite will be true. If the owners have read this article (!) and are bidding conservatively in the early stages, seize the opportunity and start filling your roster. If the bidding is wild and woolly early on, hold off and wait to make your killing later during the bargain phase of the auction. Again, learn how to go with the flow. Another critical point: keep track of what the other owners have spent and what positions they have filled. Knowing how much money your competitors have available and who still needs what are critical to your success.

When bidding, use the proven tricks of the trade. The first is called "Third Man In," a surefire if somewhat dangerous way to ensure that a player sells at a price above his actual value. Here's how it works: when a two-man bidding war erupts on a good player, jump into the fray. Adding yourself into the mix should quickly increase the bidding and will sabotage your competitors' salary caps. One caveat: whenever you jump into the bidding simply to drive up the price of a player, you need to be prepared for the possibility of getting stuck with said player if the bidding stalls on you. And, yes, that does happen occasionally, just don't panic if it does. The next trick is called the "Two-Third's Principle." It's an easy concept. Your goal is to have the largest remaining bankroll when the auction is approximately two thirds complete. There is a clear advantage to having the most money at this point because it will typically enable you to outbid the other owners for the last few remaining topnotch players. Finally, there is the "Throwing Them to the Dogs" strategy. The idea is to throw out players that you can't realistically afford but who will eat up other owners' caps and bring them back closer to you. Ideally, you should offer up over-hyped players that you believe will go for more than they should.

It's never over until it's over. As the auction wanes, it's critical for you to know each owner's maximum bid allowed, in case you get into a bidding war. To determine the maximum bid you or anyone else can make, subtract the number of open roster spots from the available cap dollars, and then add $1. For example, if you have $28 available and six roster spots to fill, your max bid is $23 ($28 - $6 + $1). One other final bit of advice: when you have only $2 left and one roster spot available, you may have to act quickly when you bid. If another owner brings out a player you were intending to nominate, it's imperative that you quickly shout out your $2 bid. Stay alert and don't miss out when opportunity knocks.

Now go out and have some fun!

Below are the rules we use in my local 10-team auction league, slightly modified. These rules are included merely as one example of how an auction league might be set up. Note that we use a modified auction format for weekly waivers, which is not only fun, but a fairer way of divvying up the hot free agents.

Auction League Rules

League Setup and Overview

  • The league will be comprised of 10 fantasy team owners.
  • Each owner will select a roster of NFL players via an annual player auction and then choose a starting lineup for each game of a 13-week regular season, matching up in weekly, head-to-head competition.
  • During the season, each owner will have the option of releasing players, signing free agent replacements, and making trades.
  • At the end of the regular season, a playoff tournament will determine the league champion.


  • For the annual player auction, each owner will have an imaginary $200 payroll, to be used to sign exactly 17 players: 2 quarterbacks, 4 running backs, 4 wide receivers, 2 tight ends, 2 kickers, 2 defenses, plus 1 "wild card" (the "wild card" slot may be filled with any position). Defenses consist of entire NFL teams.
  • The commissioner will serve as the auctioneer, though he may appoint a substitute.
  • The order for nominating players will be determined randomly prior to the auction and will remain constant throughout.
  • The owners will take turns opening the bidding on players and defenses that they select. All bids will be made in even dollar amounts ($1 minimum), with the highest bidder "signing" the player to his roster.
  • An owner will be required to cease bidding for a player if a higher bid would leave him with less than $1 auction money for each remaining empty spot on his roster.
  • Trades are permitted during the auction but may involve players only--auction dollars cannot be traded. The final bid price for a player traded at auction transfers with the player and is deducted from the new owner's auction bankroll; the bid price for the traded player is also added back to the original owner's auction bankroll.
  • At no time during the auction may an owner possess players with total auction values exceeding $200; however, after the auction is concluded, auction prices have no bearing on owner rosters (there is no "salary cap" during the regular season).


  • Owners may carry on their rosters no more than a total of 17 players at any time.
  • Every week, each owner will select a starting lineup of 8 players--1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 2 wide receivers, 1 tight end, 1 kicker, and 1 defense--by entering/updating the lineup information on the league web site no later than one hour before kickoff of the first NFL game of the week. The remaining players on each owner's roster will be considered inactive for that week.
  • If an owner does not change his starting lineup on-line before the weekly deadline, it will remain unchanged from the previous week.
  • The commissioner is not responsible to inform owners when their players are on bye weeks.


  • For each fantasy game, starting offensive players generate points in the following ways:
    • 6 points for touchdowns (rushing, receiving, and kick returns)
    • 4 points for touchdown passes
    • 3 points for field goals
    • 2 points for any participation in a 2-point conversion (passing, rushing, or receiving)
    • 1 point for a point-after-touchdown
    • 1 point for each 10 yards rushing
    • 1 point for each 10 yards receiving
    • 1 point for each 20 yards passing
  • Starting defenses generate points in the following ways:
    • 1 points for each sack
    • 1 points for each interception
    • 1 points for each defensive fumble recovery
    • 2 points for each blocked punt
    • 2 points for each blocked FG
    • 2 points for each safety
    • 6 points for all defensive and special teams TDs (interception returns, fumble returns, blocked kick returns, and all kickoff and punt returns)

    • Points surrendered (all points given up, however they are scored):
      • 0 points surrendered = 10 points
      • 2-6 points surrendered = 7 points
      • 7-9 points surrendered = 5 points
      • 10-13 points surrendered = 3 points
      • 14-17 points surrendered = 2 points
      • 18-21 points surrendered = 1 point
      • 22+ points surrendered = 0 points

  • Note the following scoring exceptions:
    • A fantasy team does not receive fractional points for yardage totals of less than 10; e.g., if a starting offensive player rushes for 55 yards and gains 19 yards receiving, the fantasy team that started the player scores 6 points--5 for the rushing yards and 1 for the receiving yards.
    • Starting offensive players do not score points for returning a teammate's or an opponent's fumble for a touchdown (such as stripping a defensive back after an interception, or recovering a teammate's fumble in the end zone).
    • Starting kickers receive credit for throwing, rushing, and receiving yards and for touchdown passes and scoring touchdowns. Kickers also receive credit for any participation in a 2-point conversion (passing, rushing, or receiving).
    • A touchdown scored on a fake or botched field goal attempt will count as an offensive touchdown only, not as a defensive/special teams score.

Adding and Dropping Players

  • Each owner will have an imaginary $100 bankroll to sign free agents during the season, including the playoffs (note: unused auction money cannot be added to this amount).
  • Any NFL player or team defense not on a fantasy league roster will be considered an unrestricted free agent.
  • Owners may submit bids for unrestricted free agents (all bids must be in even dollar amounts) by e-mailing the commissioner between 7:00 p.m. Sunday and 5:00 p.m. Friday each week. Only e-mail bids postmarked no later than 5:00 p.m. Friday will be considered valid--no exceptions.
  • After the Friday deadline, the commissioner will award the free agents to the highest bidders. (Note: on weeks when the first NFL game is played on a Thursday, the free agent bidding deadline will be 5:00 p.m. Wednesday.)
  • If two owners bid the same amount for the same free agent, the free agent will go to the lesser team (see Tiebreakers).
  • Simple conditional bids are allowed (example: "I want to bid $2 for a kicker, and my choices are. . . .").
  • Complex bids are not allowed (example: "I want to bid $1 more than owner Harold for player X.")
  • When an owner bids on a free agent, he must indicate with his bid which player on his current roster he wants to drop if adding the free agent will put his roster numbers over their legal limits. If an owner submits a winning bid for a free agent but does not indicate which player he wants the free agent to replace on his roster, and adding the free agent puts his roster numbers over their legal limits, the owner's bid will be considered invalid, and the free agent will be awarded to the next highest bidder (if no other owner has bid for the free agent, the player remains a free agent and becomes available for bidding again the following week).
  • Owners may drop players from their rosters at any time by e-mailing the commissioner. Any player dropped from an owner's roster will immediately become an unrestricted free agent, but if the player is dropped after 7:00 p.m. Sunday, he will not be available for bidding until the following week.
  • If an owner wins a bid on a free agent, he is obligated to add the free agent to his roster for that week and drop a player if necessary.
  • If an owner uses up his entire $100 free agent allotment, he is ineligible to bid for any more free agents.
  • Owners may not trade free agent bankroll dollars.

Injury Lists

  • There will be no separate lists for injured players.
  • If a player on a league roster is injured, the owner of the player may keep him on his inactive list or drop him from his roster altogether.
  • If an injured player is dropped, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and may be bid upon during the next free agent bidding period.
  • The commissioner is not responsible to inform owners when their players are injured.


  • During the regular season, two or more owners may exchange players and/or defenses any time between 11 p.m. each Monday and 5 p.m. the night before the first NFL game of the week.
  • If a trade is completed on-line, at least one of the parties involved must e-mail the commissioner to verify the terms of the deal; if a trade is completed off-line, all parties involved must e-mail the commissioner.
  • Each team involved in a trade must stay within the league roster limit guidelines for the deal to be valid.
  • Trades including contingencies for following weeks are not allowed.
  • Once a player has been traded, he cannot be traded back to the original owner for at least four weeks.
  • The commissioner has the authority to veto any trade he considers contrary to the spirit of fair play.
  • If an owner believes a trade is collusive, and the commissioner does not agree, the owner who suspects foul play can protest the trade by sending an e-mail to the commissioner no later than 48 hours after the completion of the trade. The commissioner will then be required to take an immediate vote. If 5 of the 8 owners who did not participate in the trade agree that the trade is collusive, the trade will be overturned.
  • As long as a trade is under protest, the original owners of the players may continue to use them on their fantasy teams until the protest is officially resolved.
  • The final regular season trading deadline is 5 p.m. Saturday the night before Week 11 of the NFL season; no trades will be permitted after that time.


The following tiebreaking scheme will be used if two or more teams finish the regular season with identical records:

  1. Winning percentage against all other teams involved in the tie.
  2. Most points scored for the entire season.
  3. Point differential in games involving all other teams in the tie.
  4. On-line dice roll.

Note that tied games count as half wins (e.g., a 7-4-2 record is the same as an 8-5 record).

Regular Season Schedule

  • The regular season schedule will be determined by random drawing on the night of the auction after all player rosters have been filled.
  • Each week of the fantasy regular season, owners will be matched up in head-to-head competition.

Divisional Setup and Fantasy Bowl Playoffs

  • The league will be comprised of a single 10-team division.
  • The regular season will last 13 weeks, corresponding to the first 13 weeks of the NFL season.
  • The teams with the six best regular season records will advance to the Fantasy Bowl playoffs, which begin on week 14. The teams with the best two regular season records receive a first-round playoff bye and automatically advance to the second round (played on week 15) to face the winners of the two first-round games. The winners of the two second-round games advance to the Fantasy Bowl on week 16; the losers of the two second-round games play for 3rd-place.
  • During the Fantasy Bowl playoffs, the highest-seeded remaining team always plays the lowest-seeded remaining team; this rule also applies in the Toilet Bowl playoffs (see Toilet Bowl Playoffs).

Toilet Bowl Playoffs

  • The teams with the four worst regular season records will be matched against each other in the Toilet Bowl playoffs, which begin week 14.
  • The two losing teams (the teams that score the least points in each first-round Toilet Bowl playoff game) advance to the Toilet Bowl on week 15.
  • The owner of the team that loses the Toilet Bowl receives last-place "honors."

Playoff Rules

  • All regular season rules continue to apply in the playoffs, though trades are not permitted.
  • No free agent transactions will be permitted after week 13, unless injuries force a team's starting lineup to be shorthanded. In such cases, the shorthanded team will be allowed to drop injured players and add replacement players from the unrestricted free agent pool (provided that the owner still has sufficient free agent dollars) until his starting lineup is complete. (Note: the injured players being replaced must be listed on the official NFL injury report as having no better than a 50% chance of playing.)
  • If two teams tie in a Fantasy Bowl or Toilet Bowl playoff game, the team that finished with the better regular season record will be declared the winner; if both teams had identical regular season records, the tiebreaker rules will determine the winner (see Tiebreakers).