Running a successful league is as much about experience as anything else. Over the course of a season, owners develop patterns of behavior and interactions. Owners find gaps in the rules or figure out how to beat the system and use it to their advantage. That's okay as long as it doesn't harm the league overall. As a commissioner, it's your job to recognize these things and try to implement rules to prevent it next season. In some cases, everything will be great, and you may just be looking to shake things up a bit. Either way, a couple rule changes/additions may be exactly what you need.
This article will focus on how to implement general league changes, regardless of your format. If you're looking specifically for scoring changes, check out this article, and if you want to completely change the format of your league, this article can give you some ideas.
When and How to Implement
Changing or adding rules to your fantasy league is a straight forward process, but there are a few general things you should think about before making changes. For starters, think about the goal of making the rule change. Are you looking to stop a particular behavior by certain owners, or is your goal to create a more balanced league where everyone can win? Maybe you're looking to encourage more trades in your league, or create more waiver wire opportunities. Whatever your reason, make sure that it improves the league overall. Implementing rules that only benefit two teams may actually hurt your league rather than help it. You should always consider the good of the league before making any changes.
Always make sure to implement a rule change between seasons. Unless someone is clearly pulling a shot and you need to close a loop hole, it is better to wait until the offseason when everyone is on the same footing. Owners build their teams each year with different strategies in mind. Some draft starters and backups while others play the waiver wire fast and often. Some target specific players because of bye weeks and others draft players from their favorite division. Whatever the case, implementing a rule change mid-season is going to impact someone in a way that they were not expecting when the season began. Even if you think it will impact everyone the same way, do not implement it until after the playoffs. Your standard position should be "This is how the rules were when we started the season." Owners might complain, but they can't say it was unfair or that they didn't know.
League rule changes don't always need a consensus, but unlike scoring rules, these type of changes may impact different owners in different ways. Often, league owners will suggest these type of changes based on certain things that other owners are doing. Ultimately you are the commissioner, and it's your job to decide what is needed and what is not. Owners will always complain, especially if they are losing a lot. That doesn't mean you need to implement 10 new rules to keep them happy. In any case, you won't be able to keep every owner happy with every rule. This is another reason to implement a rule change during the offseason – if someone doesn't like the rule, they have time to adjust or in an extreme case, they can drop out and you can find a replacement. That's not going to happen 99.9% of the time if you are implementing changes for the good of the league during the offseason. If you choose to let the league vote on new rules, as commissioner you should abstain unless there is a tie.
General League Changes
There are a variety of rules that you can implement in your league that carry some specific purposes. The ideas listed below range from almost standard to very exotic, depending on the goal of the rule.
Rosters and Positions
- Lineup Changes - In smaller leagues, you might want to expand your lineups to include more players at different positions. Some leagues require two starting quarterbacks or tight ends, while others expand to three or four wide receivers. Some allow for one or two flex positions where a running back, wide receiver, or tight end can be inserted, depending on what the owner wants. Some leagues allow specific formations such as two running backs, two wide receivers, and one tight end or one running back and four wide receivers. In general, the bigger the lineup, the more flexibility each owner has to field a starting lineup. As with scoring changes though, make sure to test how an expanded lineup will play out. Allowing two flex positions might give owners the option to start four running backs each week. Make sure to keep the overall league balance in mind. Allowing for flexible lineups can also help in larger leagues where it might be more difficult to field starter-quality players at all positions each week. Allowing guys to start a third or fourth receiver in place of a back can keep a team competitive during those bye weeks where you might lose a stud or two from your regular lineup. Finally, if you expand the starting lineup, also consider:
- Roster Changes - Expanding the roster will allow owners to draft more players, keeping them on the bench and out of the starting lineup of their opponents. It also allows an owner to protect their starters in case of an injury. With larger rosters, you will see more competitive moves like one owner taking the backup quarterback from his division rival, leaving him vulnerable if the starter goes down to injury. Larger rosters also favor the knowledgeable fantasy players, because they can fill their roster slots with sleeper picks in the hope that they will break out as the season wears on. Guys who know the rookies inside and out can load up on these plays and be miles ahead of the guys who just pick up a magazine on the day of the draft. However, also remember that having larger rosters means a smaller free agent pool. This hurts the weaker teams or the teams struck by serious injuries because they don't have many options to recover. Deeper rosters also mean a longer draft. It may be cool to say your 12-team league has a 30-man roster, but when your draft hits the five-hour mark and guys don't care about who to take in the 26th round, you run the risk of ruining the best single night of the season.
- Roster Position Limits - In general, it's better to let owners build their teams however they want. If one guy thinks that drafting five quarterbacks is the key victory, let him do it and see how it plays out. However, in some cases a position limit may make sense. In a bigger league with deeper rosters, an owner can screw up your season by drafting a bunch of guys from the same position. In most cases, this strategy fails but if an owner insists on doing this year after year, a position limit might be needed. In leagues that allow a flex position or two, guys may load up on four or five running backs early and dominate the league based on their flex. Keeper leagues may have protection limits by position to prevent guys from carrying forward four stud running backs year after year. Approach these type of limits with caution. In most cases, if the strategy is weak, the owner won't use it the following season and if the strategy creates a dominant team, the other teams in the league adjust the following season to give themselves the same advantage. If normal year over year play doesn't correct these situations, a position limit may be needed.
Drafting and Free Agency
- Straight Draft - In redraft leagues this doesn't make as much sense, but in leagues that allow owners to carry forward players from last year, the stronger teams create a huge advantage by keeping the top players from ever getting back into the draft pool. You can restore balance to the league by implementing a straight draft based on where teams finish from the previous season. The teams that win it all usually have the strongest players, and can carry them forward to next season. By making them draft near the bottom of every round, it gives the weaker teams a chance to shake off a bad season and be competitive in a shorter time period. Straight drafts will slow down your drafting time though, because you'll lose the speed you typically pick on on the ends of a serpentine draft when guys have two picks very close together.
- Third Round Reversal [3RR] - I won't go into the specifics of it here, but many experts believe that having one of the top three picks in a redraft league creates such an advantage, that even a normal serpentine draft (first pick in round one gets last pick in round two), the top picks still have an advantage because of the back to back picks at the end of round two and the beginning of round three. By reversing the third round draft order to match the second round draft order, you further reduce this advantage. In a 12-team league, the team with the first pick in the first round normally has pick 1.01, 2.12, 3.01, 4.12, 5.01 and so on. In a 3RR draft, the team with the first pick in the first round has pick 1.01, 2.12, 3.12, 4.01, 5.12 and so on. The normal serpentine draft will reverse in the third round and then continue as normal from that point forward.
- Select Your Own Slot - From year to year, owners develop a sense of where they are most comfortable drafting. Some guys like the power that a top three pick gives them. Others like to draft on the turn because they like building a team based on the best available players and can start and kill trends with back to back picks. Select your own works the same as a normal draft league, but owners get to pick where they want to draft based on the number that they draw and the positions that are left. Instead of automatically getting No. 1 overall, the guy who draws the first selection can decide to pick ninth (or any other spot) if he wants and so on until the last guy gets whatever draft position is left.
- Power Based vs. FCFS Free Agency - Many leagues have a power-based free agency, meaning the weaker teams get first crack at the free agent pool each week while the power teams need to wait for their turn. This approach sacrifices fairness in favor of league balance and competitiveness. Most league software will allow you to set up a custom waiver wire order based on various things, including overall winning percentage and division winning percentage, so this will help with a power based waiver wire priority. Other leagues have a first-come, first-served (FCFS) free agency, where free agency begins at a certain time (usually Tuesday morning) and whoever gets there first gets who they want. The FCFS approach requires minimal involvement from the commissioner and gives the most flexibility to the league. If you choose to go FCFS though, make sure to disable it during the games and on Sunday after the first game starts. Only a couple owners will watch the NFL with their computer handy, and it's best to let injured players be evaluated by the team doctor before making a final determination on if you want to pick up their backup or not. A Tuesday morning waiver wire start is probably the earliest you would want. A nice way to balance power based, and FCFS waivers is to create a blended approach. Have one or two rounds of free agency drafting on Tuesday based on your power ranking then open up the league to FCFS free agency. This way, the weaker teams still get their first crack at the hot waiver wire pickup, and then owners can add and drop players as they like until game time.
- Auction / Blind Bidding Free Agency - Another way to run free agency is to allow for blind bidding on free agents. In this model, every team is given a waiver wire cap, and they must bid on each free agent that they wish to acquire. Blind bidding puts everyone on the same page because you can bid as much of your cap as you like to acquire any player. Once your cap is spent, you can't pick up any more free agents, so owners need to manage their cap throughout the season. Again, most league software systems allow for this type of process. You can also do a blended model where the blind bidding happens on Tuesday and Wednesday and FCFS after that to help those guys who forget that they have a bye for their tight end and need a backup. One final note on blind bidding units: to allow even more flexibility, consider them as team property and allow them to be traded for draft picks, players or whatever the two owners can work out. Teams that use all of their cap to bid on a free agent might have to trade a player or picks to get more cap money to make a playoff run.
- Weekly Free Agency Cap - On the one hand, if your league charges a transaction fee, you probably don't want to cap the free agency moves because it just adds more money to the pot. However, you may have a couple owners who abuse the system by adding and dropping players at multiple times during the week. This creates havoc with other owners and can lead to a cascade of adds and drops, depending on which players were targeted in a given week. You can limit this churn by putting a cap on the number of free agent moves an owner can make each week. Limiting them to two or three moves is probably best. When you start dropping four or more players a week, you're looking changing almost 25% of your roster in one week. Owners who reach their weekly limit can still make trades and should still be penalized for not having a full starting lineup if they don't have one by Sunday.
Competition and Tanking
Every league wants to be competitive. However as the season wears on, especially when there is money involved, some owners who feel that they can't compete just check out and stop submitting a lineup or purposely start weak or injured players to skew the league. Here are a couple rules to keep people interested and discourse people losing on purpose or not paying attention.
- Bye-week Start - This happens a lot. Owners forget to submit a lineup or are not paying attention and miss that their kicker is on a bye this week. Many leagues, especially those that are for money, have a penalty for the team owner who starts a player on a bye. Penalties can range from fines to losing a roster spot for the season to losing draft picks for next year, depending on how harsh you want to be. One idea would be to create a rule where any player who was started on a bye was immediately cut from their roster and put back into the free agency pool for anyone to bid on. Rules like this show owners that they need to pay attention and keep everyone engaged during the bye weeks. You never want a guy to win the division or make the playoffs because his opponent started a player on a bye, even if it was an accident.
- Penalties for Losing - This one is a little tricky, because some guys just have a bad draft. However, if you want to encourage strong participation, implement some type of penalty for losing a game. A variety of gag penalties can be handed out on draft night for the team that finished last including a trophy, T-shirt, or constant mention as the league's worst team. Other ideas include a progressive tax for each loss, charging the owner $1 for their first loss, $2 for their second, $5 for their third and so on. Guys will work like crazy to avoid paying $10 for their fourth loss. You could also just fine the team with the lowest points scored each week a flat fee just like you would a waiver wire transaction.
- Weekly Top Score Prize - In money leagues, one way to keep everyone fighting to the very end is to give a small monetary prize to the team that scores the most points in a given week. Even a team that is 1-7 will keep playing the waiver wire with the hope that they might get something back if they can cobble together a good week. Be careful with this one though, as it often just turns into another way to reward the top teams in the league.
- Mandatory Check-in / League Controlled Teams. This one is harsh, but if you league doesn't have a mechanism to take over for an absent owner, you need to add it before the start of the next season. Owners stop playing in the middle of the season for a variety of reasons. People wind up in the hospital. In some cases, owners even pass away. You hate to throw gasoline on a fire, but if that guy's team turns into an easy win for the rest of the league, it just makes matters worse. League constitutions should have a provision for owners to check in by submitting a lineup each week or every two weeks. Even if it's the same lineup, an owner should still submit it each week. Any owner that goes three weeks without submitting a lineup should open their team up to league control. The Commissioner or another owner should step in and automatically submit the highest scoring player at each position that is not injured or on a bye week. If the team can't field a legal lineup due to injuries or bye weeks, then proxy owner should cut the least valuable player on the team to fill in the necessary roster slots. The rule should be specific enough so that anyone in the league could run the team or know instantly what roster moves and starting lineup should be made. This way, if an owner leaves the league for any reason, the league as a whole doesn't suffer.
Other League Twists
Here are some outside-the-box type of ideas. These are not for everyone, but they can give you some ideas on how to make things interesting.
- Attrition Leagues - In highly competitive leagues, owners can adopt some crazy things. These rules may not be for everyone. I've read about leagues that force the lowest scoring team each week to drop a roster spot and the player associated with it. Another rule included allowing head to head winners to force a trade with their opponent, such as your worst running back for their best wide receiver. Still others award bonus points to the top scoring team the following week, or penalized the lowest scoring team with a point deduction the following week. Any type of rule that would weaken a team for losing or strengthen a team for winning would be included here. These type of leagues really reward the strong teams and you need to make sure everyone knows what they are getting into before they start, especially if they are expected to pay to be in that league.
- Playoff Attrition Draft - A variation of the Attrition League format. When the regular season ends and the playoffs teams are chosen, a mini draft night is held. The teams that made the playoffs have a two round draft, selecting players from the rosters of non-playoff teams as a reward for making the playoffs.You can do this a couple different ways, but the most rewarding (or punishing) would be that the top seeded teams go first and the weaker teams draft at the turn. Think of the strategy that goes into those two rounds! Do you draft the best available player, even if it's not a position of need? Do you draft a player to prevent another team from drafting him? Do you take a guy because he will be facing weak NFL opponents? What players do you drop to make room? Be careful if you implement this though as you could shift the entire dynamics of the playoffs. Be open to making adjustments next season, depending on how it plays out.
- Bonus for the Season - In money leagues, many different rewards can be built in for teams that have the best (or worst) performance of the season. A bonus for the team that scored the most points in any single game of the year, or a bonus to the owner of the team that had the best waiver wire pickup (most point or best average points) are these type of leagues. You can award prizes for the best (and worst trade) based on how the players performed before and after the trade, or the best sleeper pick of the draft (most points relative to draft position).
- Tiered Performance Leagues - If face to face leagues, this doesn't happen often but over the internet, interest in a particular league can spread quickly. When you move beyond 16 owners of a given league, it becomes difficult for owners to be competitive every week. Splitting the leagues into tiers can make things even more interesting. The Pro league starts out as the top scoring teams from the previous season. The Semi-pro league consists of everyone else. The top two or four teams from the Semi-Pro league advance to the Pro league the following season and the lowest scoring Pro teams are sent down to the Semi-Pro league to make room. Each league is considered a separate entity with its own draft and player pool. Ideally the drafts are as close together as possible, but if you can't have a concurrent draft, the lower level league always drafts first.
- League Pro Bowl - One way to really keep every team interested to the very end is to have a league pro bowl after the playoffs are over. One owner from each division or conference must submit a starting lineup based on the players from their division / conference. Each team must submit at least one player, and the designated owner has the final say as to what players start. Other owners can suggest who to start, but the designated owner must be the one to set the final lineup. Whoever wins the game should get a bonus for the entire division or conference. Perhaps a money incentive or an extra player in keeper or dynasty leagues. Something to give the game some meaning to everyone. Owners from every team will have a stake in this final pro bowl, and they'll all be glued to the TV that final week if the payoff is big enough. Try not to schedule it during Week 17 if possible, but if that's the only week available, each team will be under the same constraint.
Wrapping It Up
As you can see, there are a variety of different twists that you can put into your league if you are creative enough. We just scratched the surface here, so let your imagination run wild and come up with whatever rules or ideas that you think will make the league more competitive and fun for everyone. A word of caution though: if you use a league software management system, make sure to test if your league supports your new ideas before you implement them. There is nothing worse than suggesting an idea that everyone loves, but you can't use it because Yahoo! doesn't allow it or you have to implement it by hand.
Don't be afraid to try new and interesting things. The worst that can happen is your league doesn't like it and you remove it at the end of the season. As long as you implement it after the playoffs and before the draft, your league owners will have plenty of time to plan and use the new rules. Have fun!
As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.