It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was bonkers. It was insane. It was so crazy it might just work. It was a once in a lifetime experience, in as much as it was brilliant and, I think, that’s about the one time in my life I want to do it. It was, of course, The DynaBowl auction day in Sheffield.
I don’t want to be negative about it – I certainly don’t feel negative about it – but looking back on the day, there were so many things that went wrong, be they with my strategy and planning, or with the way the day itself was run, but they are all part of what is, weirdly (and perhaps shamefully) one of the best days of my life. I both love and hate myself a little bit more for being able to say that.
So, a brief bit of scene setting for those not in the know. We are a UK-based fantasy football (NFL) league. We have played a redraft league for a few years and had decided to step things up to a Dynasty League (Dynasty League basically means you own your players as long as you like and try to build through the draft so you can win year after year). We threw the kitchen sink at this league though. There’s an auction to start things off. There’s full IDP (individual defensive players). There’s a starting line-up of 22 players and rosters totalling 50. There’s a salary cap, and contracts with extension costs, and the ability to structure guaranteed money in different years.
Basically, we figured if we were going to do this, we were going to do everything we could possibly want to do the first time we tried, and it was going to include every feature we could think of. Nearly.
Fantasy Leagues tend to get split into two types – those played with (relative) strangers across the internet and those played amongst a group of friends, and we are definitely part of that latter group. However, we are also part of the former. We are all split out across the country in a variety of locations and rarely get to see each other. Indeed, some of us had never met others before, bizarrely, despite all being good friends. Go figure. We do spend a fair chunk of time chatting with each other via online messaging services, especially during big sporting events. Especially during the NFL season.
Our redraft league is run through the internet and the draft that takes place is internet based. If we were going to set up a Dynasty League though we wanted to do it in style, all meeting up to launch the fucker together. And that is what the Auction Day on July 12th was all about.
The plan – we had a room in a pub booked all day. 10 men would enter, 10 men would leave. Broken shells of men, but 10 of them all leaving. Those 10 men would have bought the fictional rights to 500 players for the next several years. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, two very key things could go wrong. One of us could be stuck in Turkey, and we could all drastically under-estimate the amount of time it would take to buy 500 players. Thank God we weren’t dealing with agents too.
I had foreseen some problems. Availability was always going to be an issue. That’s why I had the day picked out from January. I surveyed the league. I made sure it was good for everyone. And immediately after I picked it out I was told it wouldn’t work for one league member. So we moved it. Then one of our contingent got a job in Belgium, but he would be able to make it back over. Except that then his Belgian employers sent him to Turkey and he wouldn’t be back in Belgium until the morning of the auction. Fine – we’ll Skype him in. Except then there were plane problems and he couldn’t leave Turkey until later… And argh… I started to get that feeling that everything was crumbling around my ears.
So before I get into how the day went, the mistakes, both real and perceived, mine and others and the group as a whole, before all of that, let’s expand a little on the set-up.
Fantasy Football (NFL) is a big thing in America. I mean, in the UK, Fantasy Football (soccer) is quite big – newspapers run their leagues, Sky runs a league. There are some big prizes. But consider this – in America, during games on the scoreboards in the stadium, messages flash up to update the crowd on how many points players around the league have scored. Fantasy Football (NFL) isn’t a bit of fun around the side, it has been woven into the very fabric of the sport.
Imagine if you were reading an article in the paper about a new signing made by Chelsea in the Premier League and the end of the article had a couple of paragraphs about what the signing means for your fantasy league. That happens in America. That’s a real thing. Fantasy Football is central to the sport.
This is reflected in web options. To run your league, you can set up a free league through Yahoo or ESPN or CBS or the NFL itself, but if you’re serious you pay a website to have a fully customisable set-up, so you can change nigh on every single detail. So what do you think we’ve done?
Are we taking our hobby seriously? You bet we are. Too seriously? No such thing. OK, there is, and I am. I’m writing this aren’t I? But I am by no means the worst. Google fantasy football. Google dynasty leagues. You will disappear down a rabbit hole. People pay thousands of dollars each year to enter leagues online against strangers, with winner takes all, or most, of the prize fund. People actively seek out failing and abandoned teams (known as Orphans) for the challenge of turning them into champions.
So why such devotion, and why haven’t things gone this far with fantasy football (soccer)? I think the key is in 3 very specific things. Most North American sports can be broken down into stats very easily, and football (NFL) more than most. The number of yards running, receiving or throwing is a very simple thing to calculate, with bonus points for touchdowns. Compare that to goals and assists – the bulk of fantasy football (soccer) scoring – and you can begin to see there are more options. A typical football (soccer) match sees 3 goals – that’s very few scoring events. In the NFL each team will generate a total of 300-400 yards offence on average, with different players getting credit and earning points for those. Suddenly there’s a lot more ways to score points, and a lot more points to be scored. A canny manager has more control in fantasy football (NFL) than fantasy football (soccer).
The second reason is that in football (soccer) teams have (relatively) large squads but can only let 14 guys on the field per match. That means that your player could get rested for the big European match midweek, and you won’t know until the game kicks off. You don’t have enough information to manage your team. In the NFL, players are active for games, or inactive. The roster has 53 men in total and all could play some part, and you’ll generally know in advance if your guys will or won’t. Therefore, management is, again, more nuanced.
Finally, most fantasy football (NFL) leagues – except the one run by Sky in the UK, which follows the fantasy football (soccer) model – are set up to be individual leagues where teams compete against each other each week, building to playoffs and a superbowl, and – crucially – each player can only be owned by one team in the league. In fantasy football (soccer), everyone can field Van Persie if they want. The level of competitiveness isn’t there in fantasy football (soccer).
So that’s why it’s so great, why it’s so appealing (though having a love of NFL helps, too, of course). Now back to the DynaBowl. I set up the auction. I then had to craft some rules.
The rules. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had some ideas, but would they work. I searched the interwebs. I signed up at websites. I posted on forums. I read archives. And I wrote and I honed. My final rules, I have just found out, clock in at a scary over 7,400 words. Seriously. That’s nearly as long as the dissertation that got me my degree. And they are a fucking work of art.
I thought of everything I could. I thought of all the ways I’d try to gain an advantage and then wrote rules so I couldn’t. I made them as simple to read as possible, but they are still quite complex. We had robust conversations. Well, the people who read them did. Not everyone has yet. Still. They trust that the rules will be there when they need them. No one has found my secret loophole.
The next thing was research. I knew some players. I knew the main players. The redraft league had given me that. I didn’t know most of the defensive players. I didn’t know the depth players. I didn’t know the secret players who might have a break-out season. I didn’t know how consistent or otherwise players tended to be, with regard to point scoring. I didn’t know how much of an impact a trade or free agency signing might have. How would he fit in with the new coach’s offensive line schemes? That kind of thing. So I read lots and lots more. And I read the questions everyone else posed. And I absorbed and I came up with values I thought players would have and I came up with a strategy for who I wanted on my roster.
In the meantime, as Commissioner of the league, I had another duty. An important duty. Every league member was paying me £20 for the first year and £10 each year thereafter to run the league, pay for the site and pay for the prizes. This is not for profit. Anything that didn’t go on the site was going on the prizes, and I needed a trophy. I looked at websites, I visited trophy shops. It turned out they had all closed. I found one run out of an old man’s garage and paid him a visit. He gave me some catalogues. I was *this* close to buying a cup. It was fancy, but it came out of a magazine. It was nice, but it wasn’t special. This league needed special.
A friend of mine makes art and models. Things like dragons and fawns and night elves. They are really, really good. We were chatting about stuff in general and I mentioned the league and the trophy search and I suddenly realised – maybe, if paid enough, she could create the ideal trophy.
Amongst my friends, the NFL championship is referred to as the Owl. Not just any Owl, the Superb Owl. I commissioned my friend to produce a Superb Owl for me. And it is fucking superb. See for yourself:
See… superb. I teased the league in the build-up to the auction, but I didn’t let them know what I had done. It was to be a surprise.
Anyway, back to the best of times, the worst of times. We were meeting in Sheffield. I don’t live in Sheffield. I live a long way from Sheffield. I allowed an hour longer for my journey than was suggested. It was a beautiful day and everyone else was on the road. I used up all of my hour and arrived at the pub at about 5 minutes past midday. 5 minutes late. Not a good precedent. Fortunately we were waiting for others to arrive too. I didn’t keep too many people waiting.
We got into the pub, relaxed with a drink before getting started, and then went to our ‘function’ room to set up. It was a decent room. A good size for all of us. Unfortunately we all had at least one laptop and/or iPad, and we were using a projector. And, as discussed, it was a lovely day. That room got hot, quick. We were promised a fan. It never arrived. It would have just moved hot air around anyway. It wasn’t a huge loss.
So once we set up I unveiled the Owl to gasps of delight, and flashes of cameras from the local press.
And then we got down to business. I wanted a bit of pageantry. We drew marbles in an FA Cup style to determine who called the next player for auction (we stuck with the same order throughout, we didn’t do this every single time). The first person called was Neil. Neil had no idea who he wanted to nominate. It was an inauspicious start.
Once Neil had nominated the bidding got under way and, with the help of a broken chair leg for a gavel, I announced the sale closed. The player, Cam Newton, quarterback for the Caroline Panthers and general all-round stud player. He was bought by Mike for $50. Mike subsequently revealed that he had not planned to spend $50 on a quarterback or to bid on Cam Newton. This is what the pressure of a live auction can do to a man. By the end, I think we had all experienced this to one extreme or another.
This process went on. Most people had no idea who they wanted to nominate each time it came round to them. I was probably the worst for it. I was juggling running the auction, entering all the sales into a database, keeping people up to date with how much they had spent AND trying to buy players for my own team. There was too much happening. It is now 3 weeks later and I still haven’t fully recovered my brain function. I made a lot of mistakes. But before we get to those, let’s stop a moment to watch a lengthy video of the first round of purchases being made.
As you can see, I am well placed to take up a professional auctioneering job, should commissioning fall through.
I am going to go into detail (“What?!? This isn’t detail yet???” – you) around my strategy and how I messed up and what I felt about the way in which things went from a buying players perspective, but first I wanted to talk more generally about what I learned from doing this whole thing.
1) If you’re thinking about doing something like this – a live auction with a bunch of friends – always err on the side of caution with regards to time. We had estimated that we’d start of at 30-40 players per hour – that’s one player sold every 90-120 seconds – and would get up to somewhere between one player every 30-60 seconds.
We thought big names would go first, with lots of bidding, hence the longer time-frames, and then we’d get down to a lot of $1-3 players – barely any bidding. This wasn’t the case. As I mentioned before, most of the time people didn’t know who they were nominating next. There were lots of players that got a “Who?” reaction around the table which meant, before bidding could commence everyone had to look them up – their name, team, position, past performance – and then make a snap decision to bid or not. It all added up.
For 500 players to be sold off, we’d probably need to have started at 9am and gone for 12+ hours. As it was we went from 1pm until about 7:30pm as the last train from Sheffield for some team managers left at around 8pm.
I never thought we would be done by 8pm, but even if we’d stayed until 11pm, closing time, we wouldn’t have made it to 500 players.
2) Have a contingency. If there’s a risk that you might not be able to get through the whole thing in one day, have a plan for what you do next. We had to make one up pretty much on the spot. Those who could stay on talked in the bar about how to sort it and then I had to figure out the finer details.
To explain what we did, we took the positions one by one (or in a couple of cases, grouped them together). People submitted a list in preference order along with their maximum bid and some vague instructions (like “If you get X, don’t bid on Y”). I then collated all of that information and worked out who got which player. Teams went into a ‘first-preference’ order to break ties, dropping the team who won the player to last on the list.
It was a complex process and more gut than scientific to be honest. The complications over person A put player X 5th on his list and bid $10 while person B put them 1st with a bid of $8 (and that’s very much a simple example) meant I had to bring my own interpretation to it.
I like to think that during my time in leagues with the other GMs means that I am trusted as being fair and rational and impartial in these situations and that’s why it worked. I wasn’t questioned once about where the players ended up and for how much, though the big difference in player evaluations made that easier – there weren’t many instances of teams ending up with their 10th choice on their list.
Still, I would recommend having some kind of plan set up and agreed in advance.
3) Have some kind of contingency for if someone can’t attend. Who knows what can happen, especially when you set your auction date so far in advance. We were caught out by one member’s job situation taking him to the other side of the continent and we mad as good a stab at covering for him as possible.
I bought him a few players – none that I was targeting myself of course – when the info he had managed to send through at short notice seemed a bit shallow. He couldn’t have known that the values for the players he had given me would go above his maximum, and there was no ability to adjust on the fly so I took some decisions.
This wouldn’t work with a different group of people, which is why a more robust plan should be in place before it goes ahead, just in case.
In the end, he’s ended up with, arguably, a decent but not great. At least he’ll be competitive and, as Commissioner, it’s in my interest to make sure the league as a whole and all teams individually remain competitive.
4) Try to find somewhere with air conditioning.
5) Get someone to be auctioneer. Someone who is not buying a team. I managed to pull together a pretty decent team, but I made a fair few mistakes along the way and didn’t follow my plan. Not having to run the auction itself would have allowed me to pay more attention to the bids I was making and how much I was spending.
On a related note, if you can rope 2 people in (and I get that getting someone to be auctioneer could be hard enough), then having someone separate to enter all the sale details as you go would be ideal.
1) Defensive players. No one knew how to value them. The big names went for big bucks, and that’s fair. Robert Quinn and JJ Watt are behemoths and will score more than anyone else on defense, but all my researched showed that the next tier below tended to be a) very similar in performance and b) relatively inconsistent. This means that paying for the 7th best linebacker last season is basically the same as paying for the 25th best linebacker last season.
Why, then, did I make Ryan Shazier my most expensive defensive player, at $16? He’s a rookie linebacker. He may be terrible – he’s never played one professional snap – and yet I made him the joint 8th most expensive linebacker.
Just by way of comparison, I got Kyle WIlliams, the best performing defensive tackle (DT) in 2013 (by 24 points) for $6. Each team only needs to field 1 DT, but can field 2. If we assume that every team fields 1 and there’s even skill distribution (and there isn’t, as I have 3 of the top 10 from 2013), Williams scored 70 points more than the fifth best DT in 2013, and 89.5 more than the 10th.
It’s no guarantee of future performance of course, but that’s potentially a substantial point advantage, especially when you consider the most expensive DT went for $26.
We won’t see just how good that purchase was, or how inconsistent the scoring turns out to be for defensive players until the season takes place, but I think it’s clear this is the area we knew the least about and were least prepared for. Those contracts will even out over time as they need to be renewed or players hit free agency, but for now they are all over the place.
2) Quarterbacks. In any given week there are up to 32 players starting as QB across the league. This league requires exactly 10 to start each week. There are some excellent QBs out there who can score a lot of points, however, given the requirement to start 3 or 4 WRs and 2 or 3 RBs which means that those pools of major talent would be in high demand, I had decided my strategy was to pay low fo QBs and spend on performers in those positions.
I was right, as well. I could have picked up Matt Ryan, Phillip Rivers and Tony Romo – three players with several top 10 fantasy seasons behind them – for a combined $25.
Unfortunately, I spent $64 on my three QBs – one of whom is Ryan – but the other two are overpriced gambles, RG3 and Johnny Manziel. RG3 could be a top 3 player – he was 5th in his rookie season and only 27 points behind Drew Brees in 1st – but his injury record and inconsistent play in his second season show the direction this gamble could take.
I’m not unhappy to have RG3. I actually think his upside is more likely and he’ll be a great player to watch this season, but I’d rather have spent less and invested the extra money in WRs or RBs.
Related to this, Aaron Rodgers, arguably the best QB in the league and with many seasons ahead of him, was the highest valued player at the auction, sold for $77. Given the prices for other players, this to me was an overspend. Despite being a Packers fan, I had ruled out going for Rodgers before the auction because I thought he’d be too expensive and I think I was proved right.
Ultimately this boils down to how many points can, say, $40 buy you? (Matt Stafford scored 1.5 points per game fewer than Aaron Rodgers in 2013, 4 fewer in 2012, and cost $44 less at auction). Could the investment of $20 in two RBs or WRs net you a gain of more than 4 points per game over the players actually bought? I think that’s entirely possible. If I had spent $40 less on my QBs, as I intended, I would have invested in a couple of other bigger players.
But hey, it’ll all come out in the wash, and maybe the Tamworth Two, who paid that $77 for Rodgers, will be proven right with a trip to the Owl.
3) Rookies. This was the foundation of my plan. I had read theories around structuring a dynasty roster which said it was a better strategy to go for longer term, don’t look to go for year one. Why? Because a team that is built to win from year 1 rarely has the depth to win for much longer afterwards and so requires immediate work to rebuild. By investing in youth (younger studs too, not just rookies), you hopefully prime your team to be stacked for years to come. This strategy may have a sneaky added advantage of giving you a bad finish in season 1 and so netting you a high draft pick in the first rookie draft too.
I went after this big time, with a combination of rookies who had high upside (Jordan Matthews at Philadelphia, for example) and those I thought were assured to be at the least very solid for years to come (Brandin Cooks, New Orleans). I also threw the dice in a couple of areas. At Tight End (TE) I have taken 4 young guys who may or may not come to something. If one of them hits to any degree I should be in a good position.
Of course, there are no guarantees any of these guys hit, and that’s why I also made sure to grab some guys who were proven to some degree, but had years ahead of them. AJ Green of the Bengals was my main purchase, the second most expensive player at auction at $71, and alongside him I picked up some second and third year guys who can hopefully break out this year. At least I know they can already perform to a reasonable standard in the league.
Finally, I grabbed a couple of veteran WRs cheap in the post-auction portion of proceedings. Anquan Boldin and James Jones should provide something for at least a year. They may not set the world on fire, but they provide options.
The same kind of thing with RBs, except here I tried to pair guys up. I only succeeded with 49ers veteran and rookie combo of Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde, but I still feel I have a good mix of experience, youth and rookies, along with a couple of players who could surprise or could just disappear.
It may all backfire, of course, with nary a stud between them, but I can’t imagine all of them busting. Even if they don’t all become studs, there should be enough players with a good future ahead of them to keep me in with a shout for a few years.
4) Contracts. Of course, the one thing I had forgotten to factor in was contracts. We have a limit as to the number of contract years that can be assigned at the start which means that some/many of these players will need renewing or releasing in a year or two. If I offer short term contracts to young players I run the risk of not being able to afford to keep them when that time comes around, but if I offer them longer contracts and they bust, I end up wasting money on them. It’s a fine balance, but one that effects everyone. The potential issue with all the rookies is if too many of them do too well too early and I can’t afford to keep them all, but that would be a nice problem to have and one I’ll worry about if or when it comes up.
5) Other teams. It was really good to see the variety of approaches taken and I was very pleased by the balance across the league. I think some teams are better than others, but there’s no one there who will be either winning or losing all their games this year. I was concerned some teams might end in a terrible state and that poor balance might lead to managers wanting to leave the league but I don’t think there’s a risk of that. I have my own favourites for the title this year, but I think it’s pretty wide open. Despite my plans for the future, I think I stand a chance of the playoffs this season, and if that’s achieved, who knows what will happen?
So overall it’s been a great deal of fun so far, and it’s opened my eyes to a lot of things. It could have been a farce and, in many ways, it was a bit, but we’ve ridden through the storm and now can’t wait to get down to the real business, when we see just how wrong we were about the players we bought.
(NB all photos and video courtesy of Ben Archer)