The Gut Check No.278 - The One Trade Advice Article You Need to Read

Matt Waldman takes on the aspect of fantasy football that every fantasy owner asks about: The art of the deal. 

How This Article Came To Be

I have written close to 500 articles about fantasy football. This is the one I'm most confident will make you a better fantasy owner. It might be the best thing I've learned as a fantasy owner in years. Ironically, the person who provided me the majority of this knowledge has no experience playing fantasy football. 

In nearly 20 years of writing about this hobby, I've never read a good article that discusses how to become better at making trades. I'm sure there are some, but not in the circles I've traveled as a fantasy writer (and it's a pretty broad circle). I broached the topic with Sigmund Bloom this afternoon when he called me to share his rant against trading Michael Vick.

Bloom agreed he hasn't seen any quality articles about the strategies behind making deals. He proposed we collaborate one night on the subject. A trained lawyer, Bloom has some good negotiation skills. I also have some chops of my own as a former salesman (when I actually try). However, the best negotiator I know is my wife, Alicia.

Those of you who read me regularly know by now that when I invoke my wife's name in writing 99 percent of the time it is for comic relief. Today is that one percent exception. Alicia is a corporate buyer. With millions of dollars of spend under her responsibility, she negotiates for a living with Fortune 100 companies. Her negotiation style is also regarded as rare in the field because she's adept at several styles rather than relying on just one.

Some of my best friends have benefited from her negotiation advice in recent years. It inspired me to attempt to write this article this summer, but I just didn't have enough perspective to translate her knowledge to fantasy football. I wasn't asking her the right questions. The combination of Bloom's initial topic, my wife's knowledge, and some information I acquired just a few days ago while covering a non-football story at my day job helped me figure out the right questions to ask.

I haven't been a good trade negotiator in fantasy football. Some who got the worse end of deals with me might disagree, but they're looking at the art of the deal the wrong way.

I'm lucky when I get time to assess my collective free agent pools for 30 minutes a week. I'm in too many leagues and I'm likely to be giving notice in half of them this spring. I want to have time to analyze my league's market and negotiate on behalf of my teams.

This year I've already accepted and turned down two deals I shouldn't have in dynasty leagues. The reason is I never had a clear understanding of good negotiation tactics and what is required to cultivate them.

Until now.

Part I: Adopt A Negotiator's Mindset

There are three fundamental things you have to internalize as a fantasy owner if you want to become good at the art of the deal:

1. You need to know the spectrum of players you want and the spectrum of players you're willing to give away.

2. You need to have real commitment to your limits and be willing to lose.

3. You need to evaluate your skills at trade negotiation more by the process and less by the end result.   

If you don't approach negotiations with these three steps, you are are doing no better than searching for the next bandage to cover the wound in need of surgery. The best way to begin is to take these three steps and work backwards.

Be process oriented more than results-oriented and the REsults Will come

Becoming a good negotiator is a process. You have to be mindful of the steps and begin looking at the deal with perspective. Diplomats and business people call it vision; con artists call it the long con. It's the same skill applied in different spheres. 

Good negotiators understand that they will win and lose deals, but one of the best characteristics of a winning negotiator is that the person is easy to work with. In fantasy football this means you have to engage people and keep them interested in working with you. It's a quality you have to develop with every potential deal. Even if a trade doesn't come to fruition or a deal backfires for you or your trade partner, the way you conducted the negotiations will make that person return to you for future deals. 

This is ultimately what you want. The more that a person wants to deal with you, the more likely they will evolve into a more cooperative party in future negotiations. This facet of human nature benefits you as a negotiator. 

In fact, the more people who want to deal with you, the more opportunities you'll have to practice negotiation. Just like most skills in life the more reps you get, the more you'll improve. The increase of frequency benefits you as a negotiator. 

The more people you engage the right way, the more people will want to deal with you. It will mean you'll be among the first people they consult - often to the exclusion of the competition.

If you cultivate your relationships with your competition with every interaction, you're creating a future pipeline where you're more likely to get first shot at a deal, get a better quality deal, and have competition coming back for more. Think of it as creating a long-term situation where you always have one of the top positions on the waiver wire but with a more desirable pool of players to choose from.

How do you do this? First, you set the tone for a negotiation. Whenever someone emails you a trade offer, do not respond with the preset options of the website management tool.

Simple yeses, nos, or automated responses won't give you a chance to cultivate a long-term working relationship with the competition. Find that owner's email address and respond with a personal email. I'll address what to say later.

Second, you want to leave every negotiation on good terms. You may not like what the owner is offering you. You might even think the offer is insulting, but your job is to set the tone that you're easy to deal with. There's a difference between being easy to sway and easy to approach. You want to be approachable.

Third, you want to generate cues during your negotiations about specific players that will influence owners to return to you for further negotiation. I'll also address this later.

Commitment: The willingness TO LOSE BIG TO WIN BIG

The most difficult of these three mindsets to adopt among the average fantasy owner is this one. No one likes to lose. But the fear of losing prevents people from embracing the best risks. 

Bloom's rant that it makes little sense to trade Michael Vick is a good example of a fantasy owner with a strong desire to win a championship. Vick is quarterback with top-5 production at his position right now and potentially for the rest of the year in the Chip Kelly offense.

In contrast, those who want to trade Vick are betting on the quarterback getting hurt. As someone who projected Vick's production this summer with multiple games missed due to injury baked into my results, I understand this point of of view.

However, it's likely that at this point of the season your competition isn't going to give you the current value of Vick's production in return. If this is the case in the majority of leagues then Bloom's point is correct: Why trade away a player for less than his current value just to get whatever you can when the point is to maximize your use of his commodity?

The way to make the most of having Vick on your roster in most cases is to put him in your lineup! The exception is if your team is weak in multiple places and trading Vick will give you a far more stable team with multiple players capable of a strong game every week. Otherwise your best decision is to use Vick as a point producer, not trade bait. 

Most people I know think they play fantasy football to win championships. However, most people think they make decisions based on logic when in fact we are ruled by our unconscious. We're an irrational species no matter how much we try to prove otherwise.

You have to look a little deeper to determine if championships are your real, primary goal for playing. At this point in my fantasy career, I know I'm a good fantasy football manager. I've won expert leagues multiple times, I've won money, and I've helped at least three high-stakes winners with my strategies and advice in the past five years and many others in regular leagues over a decade of writing. 

But I've had the mindset in the past that if I finish second or third; win enough money from points totals and best record titles to paint my house; or make the playoffs every year that it's enough validation that I'm good at this hobby. There's no denying that these accomplishments will provide some level of validation for anyone who plays fantasy football.

I'm sure there are some of you who are fantasy football grinders and your goal is to win more money than you invested. If your goal is to win enough to paint your house or buy a new television that's great, then winning money means more to you than winning championships.

However, there's a point that playing to reach the playoffs and hoping something good happens afterwards can become an all too conservative mindset. This is playing not to lose. If you want to build a dominant team then you're aiming for bull's eyes more than you're aiming to hit the target.

It means adopting the mindset where the only goal is to win the championship. To do this means that you must be willing to target players who will make a big difference at the risk of building a stinking pile of garbage. If you've played long enough, you should be comfortable with the risk of going 0-13 if the reward is to build a champion or better yet, a team your league never forgets. This mindset is important as a negotiator because you have to know your goal before you can determine what players you're willing to accept and what player's you're willing to give away. 

If you're playing to look good to your friends, make the playoffs, or earn at least more money than your initial league investment, you'll sell Vick for his perceived value despite the fact it is lower than his current fantasy points value. If you're playing with the potential to dominate you keep Vick, fortify elsewhere, and ride it out. 

To change your goal from "making the playoffs and hoping something good happens," to "championship or bust," you also have to change your mindset. Fantasy football won't be fun for you if you make this change in goals and you don't learn to enjoy the journey more than the end result. This is where many of you will fail and I can't help you there.

Still, I can give you the tools for you to learn the process even if you have more work to do on your inner motivations.

Know What you're willing to Give and What you're Willing to accept in return

You have to know your boundaries before you enter any negotiation and you must be committed to sticking to them. It means you need to be willing to risk making deals that don't work out based on your evaluation of players.

Before you engage with an owner, figure out how much you're willing to concede in every possible situation. Anticipate every possible scenario and determine what you'll take and what you won't. If it helps, write them down and rate them so you can visualize them.

If you value Roddy White as a WR1 despite the fact that his current production is that of a free agent, then you have to stick to your value and be willing to walk away from a deal. If you believe White may only offer WR2 production at best because of his ankle injury - even when he's healthy - then you're willing to have some give to your valuation and broaden your range from WR1-WR2. Also, which players are you willing to give away for White? Is David Wilson on the table? Why or why not?

This requires knowing not only your players, but researching the players on your opponent's team. How do those players' values compare to yours. Is there a gap between the way you perceive that player and the way the current owner or league perceives him? If so, you've just identified a potential bull's eye - or your own roster's wrecking ball. Remember, if you defining a good seasons as championship or bust, then the risk will be easier to take.  

You may not arrive at a deal with this negotiation but if you know your boundaries and use the rest of the knowledge I'm about to impart, you'll get most reasonable fantasy owners to return to you for future offers that will work out. 

Part II: Understand The Framework of the Negotiation - The Seller

The person initiating the deal is the seller. The person receiving the offer is the buyer. This is common sense, but it sets the table for what comes next because there is a different strategy for each role. Learn the dynamics of each role and respond to these roles the right way and over time you'll cultivate more negotiation opportunities, better offers, and seal deals that transform your team.

Let's begin with the role of sellers. Remember, even when you're initiating a trade, you must understand what you're willing to give or take in every possible scenario before you initiate any offers. Once you do this, you'll know when to continue negotiating with counter offers and when to politely end it while leaving the door open for future conversations.

It's common sense, but I'd lead with offering the least amount of you're willing to give up in exchange for the most that you want in return. You can't win if you don't play. Since you're trying to cultivate a long-term reputation as someone easy to work with among your opponents, this should also dissuade you from making offers that are intentionally lopsided and insulting. You may insult an owner with a well-meaning offer regardless, but if you're using this process it's unlikely you'll damage your chances to deal with that owner in the future.  

You also should inquire with an email first rather than an automated trade offer unless you can provide some comments with it. Even with this format, I'd prefer email, a text, or phone call. It's more conducive to conversation.

You want to get that person to feel comfortable responding to you. One of the reasons is that the more they talk, the more likely they are willing to give you information you can use. However, the bigger reason is to get them feeling comfortable talking and working with you so they'll get more open to dealing with you in this league or another league. 

Ways to Sell Players: Learning Buyer Motivations

When you contact that owner you have to have a plan for how to best advertise this player. First, identify the needs of the fantasy owner you're targeting. Looking at his roster is simple enough. Once you've figured out that the owner needs a WR1 then it's time to assess the motivation behind that need.

This seems weird on the surface, because you might think everyone's motivation is to win. But if you've been paying attention, then you realize the deeper motivations for fantasy owners are often different than championships: not getting humiliated by other owners, making the playoffs, or winning some kind of money is often the fundamental desire.  

If you know these owners, you can often feel this out through casual conversation with them about their team or other teams in their fantasy leagues. This is easier than it sounds. Everyone likes to talk about their fantasy teams, but few people get a chance to do so with someone who not only cares but actually understands and plays fantasy football. If you become one of those people over phone, text, or email, you'll get a chance to learn what motivates this fantasy owner. 

While what I'm about to share sounds complicated, it's something that you don't have to master right now to become an effective seller. However I recommend you begin thinking about it when you chat up fantasy owners.

In the process of writing a story about a master's program in marketing research at my day job, I learned about a market research firm by the name of Olsen and Zaltman who services Fortune 100 clients with a patented qualitative analysis tool called ZMET. They have performed this analysis over 12,000 times in 30 countries and their repeat customers are top names in a variety of industries. The process involves eliciting deep insights from customers through the use of metaphor theory. Lindsay Zaltman, the firm's managing director and partner, explained that there are as many as 16-18 universal metaphors all humans use. Seven of these are deep metaphors: balance, journey, transformation/change, container, connection, resource, and control. 

common motivations of fantasy owners

I'm not an expert in metaphor theory, but there are scenarios with fantasy owners where their motivations are easy to identify. If an owner tells you something that indicates he feels trapped in a cycle of losing weeks then this is an owner who feels imprisoned by his losses. This is an expression of a container metaphor and you could appeal to him on the basis of providing him of freedom or security. When offering the deal, explain why the player on your side of the deal will provide him a more secure chance of winning each week or getting his team to make the playoffs.

If the owner says he feels like his team is spiraling down the drain or imploding, it's a good indication he feels a loss of control. Selling the owner with the concepts of freedom and flexibility may help. You can pitch that the player you're offering will give him more control over his lineup decisions. 

The owner talking about his team veering off path or losing its direction is a journey-focused desire. Selling the idea of your player having the potential to put his team "back on track", "maintain course" or "on the road to a championship" could help get that interest rolling when it comes to  negotiating with you.

A desire for balance would be the owner's description of his team's inconsistency or great players at one position and bad players elsewhere. A desire for change might be an owner complaining that it's the same thing every week with Player X. It's ok if you guess wrong and lead with pitching the incorrect motivation. You may appeal to his desire for control when what he's really motivated by is transformation/change.

The more you engage the owner, the sooner you'll figure it out. Even if you don't with this transaction, everything else you do during the negotiation will influence him to come back for future talks. By then, you'll begin to see what motivates this owner and learn how to appeal to him best. 

If you think your target owner is motivated by control, balance, or containment/security then you can often use fear of the loss of these things to your advantage: "I see Reggie Wayne is your WR1. He's a great player, but it looks like he's working out more as a WR2. You know once Roddy White gets healthy in a couple of weeks (the player you're offering to him) he's going to be no worse than a low-end WR1 with elite upside every week and it will strengthen your corps so it can withstand a bad week that everyone gets from a player crapping out on occasion." 

You're saying "Your wide receivers aren't good enough to win and if you don't take White you have no chance at competing with the big boys of the league," but you're doing it without alienating the owner. You're also saying it in a way where the reader absorbs this blunt underlying message while reacting graciously to the literal words of the nicer message about Wayne.

Remember, we're basically irrational beings. Despite all the numbers and data, research shows that we make irrational decisions and a vast majority of what factors into our decisions are subconscious triggers. Use those subconscious triggers to your advantage and sell fear, security, balance, a successful journey, or a positive change along with the player you're offering. Do it in a nice way by explaining that rationale of your offer that appeals to a potential motivation and you'll get the conversation flowing. 

Part III: Understanding The Framework of the Negotiation - The Buyer

Knowing how to sell also also helps you in the opposite role and some of the same methods of preparation apply. When approached with an offer, I recommend you reply right away with an email to explain that you're interested, but indicate somehow that you need some time to look at it.

Perhaps you're busy at the moment and look at it later. A better way is explain that you have a few offers on the table you're considering and need some time to examine them. Either way, the small cue of responding and giving one of these explanations tells the seller that you want to work with them but you're in demand and not in a situation of desperation.

You might be desperate for that WR1. The owner offering Roddy White might know it. Even so, you always want do something that may potentially give that seller the smallest shred of doubt that you aren't desperate. That seller may even know consciously what you're doing, but as the deal nears crunch time these little things can still help. You've been there before. You know those young girls in green uniforms selling cookies are little containers of guilt, but many of you still buy those cookies you don't even like all the while rationalizing that you'll put them in the break room at the office. 

After you respond, do the same things that the seller should have done before pitching a deal to you: Research his team and find the players you're willing to accept from his team. Determine which players your team that you're willing to give away. Consider all the scenarios you'd accept and those you'd deny. This is your value of the players and no one else. While asking others if they'd make the deal can be helpful, it's wiser to figure out how and why you or someone you tend to trust values those players.

Once you've done this, commit to these values and understand that with each offer that you don't like make sure to counter in a way that sets up future negotiations. You might not reach a deal this time, but every interaction is a piece of that bridge that owner will walk across with another offer next time. The easier you make it for them, the easier they will make it for you - whether they realize it or not. 

A good rule of thumb is not to accept the offer unless you feel it is so heavily weighted in your favor that you thought the possibility of this scenario happening was low. Once again, if it helps you to write down every combination of offers you'd accept involving the target player(s), do it and then rank them by likelihood. This can also help you organize your thoughts as either a buyer or seller and ensure you're committed to your values. 

Seller Motivations in fantasy football

Never flat-out refuse an offer and turn an owner away. In fact, I'd try get some conversation flowing. This will help you find out the motivation of the seller.

Yep, they have deeper motivations, too. Some folks are straight-up results-oriented and about the numbers: wins or money. Once you learn this about a fantasy owner, you can get straight to the point with them in the future and talk value. If you don't know, it's always safe to see if they have a different motivation. 

Whether folks realize it or not, many folks like to show off what they know. Watch football with people in any setting and there's a constant game of one upmanship when it comes to how much they can tell each other about a player or team. Why not use that to your advantage and ask the seller initiating the deal to explain why it's a good deal for you? 

Maybe even play a little fool to catch the wise - especially if you're new to the league. Perhaps you don't understand the nuances of this scoring system as well as you should and they can help educate you. Maybe the lineup options are a good topic of conversation. It doesn't matter too much how you respond, the attempt to get the seller talking is a good start.

The counter offer

When you do counter, lead with an offer where the value of the deal is 15-20 percent lower than the original offer. How you determine that value can vary. As the season progresses, a comparison of fantasy points or projection of fantasy points is a good starting point. However early in the year, Average Draft Position can still be a factor. My buddy Bloom may talk about the regular season being a "new reality" but the fact that Bloom has to rant about keeping Michael Vick rather than trading him tells you that ADP is still a factor at this stage of the year.

Whether it's fantasy points or ADP, use whichever data that helps your position the most. Again, negotiation isn't scientific. If you think you're going to convince a trade partner purely on logic, you're not sealing a lot of deals.

If you're countering according to ADP league had a 20-round draft then the player you counter with should be an option you drafted 3-4 rounds (15-20 percent) lower than the seller's targeted player. Or, you can ask for a second player who adds another 15-20 percent in terms of fantasy points or a promising late-round guy who has produced well early. 

First and foremost, always make a counter offer that works best for you, even if you have a feeling that owner is going to say no. I think it's always helpful to adopt the position that he came to you so you're trying to work with him to get something done. However, if he leads by identifying your needs and you're the more desperate one, then I'd try to minimize any sense of desperation he senses.

If you stick to your guns on what you're willing to give and take then it doesn't matter what your potential trade partner says. You also can use the ploy that you have other deals on the table that are appealing. More on this in a bit.

Even when the seller offers a package of players you have no interest in at this time I'd comment on this, too. However, not like you think. Let's say an owner offers you Kenny Britt, Matt Forte, and Donald Brown for Giovani Bernard and Kenny Stills. It's clear the main players of interest are Forte and Bernard. 

Some of you may take this deal without a counter and I don't blame you: Britt is likely getting a second chance with a new team and Forte has at least a couple of years of RB1 potential left. But let's say, you've done your due diligence and don't like Britt and don't want this deal. Instead of taking the blunt route of saying you don't like Britt, why not say something complimentary instead?

"I'm not ready to part with Bernard but man, I can't believe you're willing to deal Britt, too. He might be done in Tennessee, but he's going to be a fine WR1 for someone else and probably with a veteran quarterback and coach that knows how to use him." 

You might think you're raising the value of Britt, but if you're not interested in him what does it matter to you? If anything, there's a chance you've just raised the asking price for Britt when he makes an offer to someone else - and perhaps high enough that he gets turned down flat and comes back to you for another negotiation involving Bernard and Forte if you play your cards right. And you're doing everything right by complimenting the seller on a good offer and talking up players you don't even want. 

Another dynamic is to understand how he is pitching you. Does his pitch indicate that he thinks you are seeking balance, security, or control? When you find out, play down that aspect of his argument. 

Say your seller responds to your comment about Britt with something like, "You know, Britt and Forte give you the balance and depth to win now - especially if you think Britt's benching is just a temporary thing. I have enough depth that I don't really need him."

You can counter with "I agree that could help, but I know that I need a player who will start every week, will get targets every week, and isn't in danger of getting placed under the bench because he and the coaches aren't playing nice. Do you think we can find a player on your roster to pair with Forte who fits what I need? I'm thinking [Player X]"

Other Negotiation Tips

Once you've responded that you'll look over a deal - and do this after every offer/counter - it might be time to switch up the routine once you get to an impasse where you've held firm on your original terms on two different offers and he makes a third offer. At that point, I'd wait to respond until he emails you to find out if what you think. Let him sweat a bit.

What you might find is that he'll break and give you one of your original offers. This is you winning the patience game. If he doesn't and asks you to make a call on the third offer, turn it down, thank him for trying to work out a deal, and restate what you needed to make it work. Then tell him if he's interested in dealing Players X, Y, or Z, let him know. Also say something else good about a player you didn't want so you get a shot of raising the value he offers to another owner.

There's nothing wrong with intimating that you have a shot at equal or better options than what he's offering. You don't have to say who you're dealing with or what player you're seeking. You can say, "Out of respect for the owner I'm dealing with let's just say I have an offer available for a true WR1, but I think you make more reasonable offers and I like working with you." You're coating the threat with honey. It makes the idea of lightening the terms of their offer go down smoother, right?

If you don't have other offers, why not use the current offer to initiate others? If Owner A offers you Cecil Shorts for David Wilson, why not go to owner B and tell them you just got an offer of a good starting WR for Wilson and wondered if he is interested in making a deal for Wilson for his under-performing Roddy White. Compliment his depth at receiver, his smart picks of sleepers, and say you'd be willing to take the chance on White having an even slower recovery in exchange for a potential stud like Wilson who has no real competition and has already shown better ball security like Tiki Barber's final seasons where Tom Coughlin made him a stud fantasy RB. 

Notice I'm pointing out the downside of his player in a palatable way while only playing the upside of the player I'm giving away? Most folks see through this on one level, but you're still planting seeds that influence the overall decision. It also allows you to go back to the owner making the original offer and give him believable offers to compare. At that point you can share the offer if you want. I wouldn't do it all the time, but just enough so don't assume you're always bluffing. 

Final Thoughts

None of this advice comes with expectations to make deals for the sake of making deals or to act tough. It's all about knowing where you stand, how others are coming at you, what role you have in the negotiation, and how to cultivate relationships. This is how you do it for the long haul. 

Otherwise, you'll just be stuck in a cycle of wondering how to handle each deal and repeating mistakes in the negotiation process. There is always a chance that your deals will backfire, but if you play the long game you'll have more chances at deals and therefore more chances to make ones that help you more than hurt you.