Playing For Keeps: Keys to Running a Keeper League that Survives

Marc is a regular visitor to and has been running keeper leagues for years.

As the NFL season approaches, fantasy football enthusiasts have more exciting formats to pick from than ever before. Auctions, Drafts, FFTOC style, redraft leagues and survivor formats all make up the fantasy football landscape. 

In this article, long time fantasy football veteran Marc Hess examines the joys, pitfalls and many benefits of keeper leagues. If you're thinking about forming or playing in such a format then by all means keep reading. 
Are you ready for a new challenge? Where good moves can make you a powerhouse for years? 
Fellow fantasy football crazies: if you've never been in a keeper league you really have been missing out. This unique experience is the closest many of us will ever have to becoming a General Manager of an actual NFL franchise. You'll need to take all your years of fantasy knowledge to scout players, outwit opponents, and work harder than ever before. Keep reading - you'll learn the keys to running a successful league that will stand the test of time. 
By definition, a keeper league is a fantasy football league that carries NFL player assignments over from year-to-year. 
At the end of each season, tough decisions are made, foremost on the list, "Who should I keep?" Typically, all released players become draft-eligible along with the new NFL rookies. 
The keeper format seems simple enough but, I can assure you, you'll have many interesting decisions. 
Still, not sure about the keeper format? We'll, let's start with some pros and cons: 


You'll feel more like a General Manager, while retaining plenty of coaching decisions
You become part of a very special members-only group
Your team is a reflection of you and gives you a sense of true ownership
Keeper leagues often create long lasting friendships and extra bragging rights


More work and preparation for your draft
One bad draft can hurt you for years
After your initial draft, NFL rookies become very valuable
Emotionally charged arguments will occur if rules and scoring are not clear and concise
Do the pros outweigh the cons for you? You might just be ready for a keeper league! 

The Commish

Like any sports league, it helps to have a great commissioner. Someone that oversees the league, handles complaints, makes proactive suggestions, and ensures the integrity and overall success of the league. Since you're reading this article, perhaps you're the #1 candidate for the job.
A good commissioner is always accessible and cannot imagine his/her life without fantasy football. This person becomes the focal point and the glue that keeps the keeper league together, year-after-year. 
Don't start a keeper league unless you firmly think it will be around for years to come. If you have just started playing fantasy football, a keeper league may not be for you, at least not yet. As a rule of thumb, you generally need to have several years experience in a redraft league before you take the step up to keeper format. 
The fantasy landscape has changed greatly in the past 10 years. Commissioners used to be responsible for keeping track of stats manually. Today, there are many great fantasy websites/software that will automatically take care of this. Initial setup may take a few hours but as years go by the league will virtually run itself. 


As a commish, you must give people ample warning to key dates, such as the draft and trading deadlines. 
Owners should provide email addresses and multiple phone numbers. This list of contacts should be given out to everyone in the league and any changes should be updated as soon as possible. This provides everyone in the league an opportunity to contact owners in various ways. Building relationships is crucial for trades and to discuss how the league is going. 
To promote open communication, have everyone "give a speech" before the draft. This gives everyone a chance to openly discuss the league. In some leagues, a note taker writes down what each person said and if anything has to be voted on, it's done while everyone is present. Communication is vitally important. If good owners feel like they don't have a voice, they'll lose passion and will eventually leave. 

Recruiting Owners

The number one rule of a keeper league is to recruit fantasy football nuts like yourself. Start writing down a list of people you know that fit the "fantasy football diehard" category. As you do this, you'll see your competition level is going to increase. You won't see rookie mistakes or poorly managed starting lineups. I encourage you to avoid the weak players in your redraft leagues, and only recruit owners who spend time and energy on their game strategy. Owners who can't field a competitive team in a redraft league are not good candidates for your keeper league. I would not recruit owners who: 

Don't turn their lineups in regularly
Believe that fantasy football is based solely on luck
Can't name the starting quarterback on 10 or more NFL teams
Have no passion for the game and join redraft leagues only for something to do
Okay, now that you have your target owners in mind, go ahead, start e-mailing and making calls! 

Optimal Size

The best size for a keeper league? Having 12-teams may be ideal. It offers a nice balance of four 3-team divisions or three 4-team divisions. "The more the merrier" is a nice phrase, but having more than 12-14 owners dilutes the NFL talent. When this happens, some keeper league owners can lose interest. 
I believe it is essential to keep your league small because talent needs to be available for waiver wire pickups during the season. In addition, it's a good idea to have an adequate talent base for future drafts. 

Draft Day

With owners willing to be part of this grand experience you need to pick a draft day. I say draft "day" because this event goes well beyond the typical fantasy football draft. Make sure you select a draft day so that everyone will be present, whether it is face-to-face, in a chat room, or on a teleconference. Once you've contacted everyone it's time for you to be prepared for the vital topics you need to discuss. 


You must have detailed rules. Without them you leave your league open to debate. I've lead many passionate meetings discussing rules. This is a chance for everyone to give input and put their thumbprint on the league. However, changing keeper league rules can often lead to problems. My advice -- once you get a robust system, keep it stable. 
Rarely should you change starting lineup requirements - "Well we are only going to start two WRs instead of three for next year." If you do that, you might ruin an owner's dream of having the three best WRs on his/her team and worst yet, years of strategy go out the window. 
One of the most interesting things about keeper leagues is they invite historical comparisons. They give you the ability to look back: Who belongs in the Hall of Fame? Who had the best team of all time? When you change rules, you often have no basis for comparison. 
The moral of the story, spend plenty of time thinking over your keeper rules before starting our keeper league. Make sure everyone is happy from the beginning and keep things stable. 

Who to Keep?

How do you decide what players should stay on teams and how rosters will be managed? I have two suggestions: 
1) Salary cap based on years. Each team has a maximum roster of 16 players with a 32-year salary cap. After the draft is complete you will assign years to your players. Be very careful assigning years because injuries and bye weeks will inevitably force you to make a move during the season. Solid planning and foresight is key to salary cap leagues. You want to have flexibility with your cap so you aren't forced to cut someone to get a starting lineup filled for a given week. At the end of the year you are allowed to sign one player on your roster to an extension for as many years as you want.
NOTE: Sign young stars to long-term contracts while signing backups and aging stars on 1-2 year contracts. Also, leave one year available on your salary cap for flexibility and allow an Injured Reserved spot so you can carry 16 active & 1 inactive player. 
2) Keep 3-4 Players. This option is much easier if you don't want to keep track of salary caps and possible cap violations. Before the next season begins, owners determine which 3-4 players to keep from their 16-player roster.
NOTE: This method is good for keeper league beginners. It's easier to manage and redrafts will have more available talent. Plus, total domination by one owner/team will be much more difficult to achieve when you limit your keepers. More often then not, parity in the league is a good thing. 
3) Keep ALL your players: This is called a "dynasty" league. The draft consists only of rookies and free agents and teams carry over all (or most) players year to year.
NOTE: This is for hardcore fantasy enthusiasts only.


Scoring is no different in keeper leagues than redraft leagues. Yardage only, touchdown only, or combo scoring will all work. Owners should know the scoring system before draft day so they have ample time to prepare for the draft. Starting lineups also vary in leagues. A typical starting lineup will look like the one below: 
(1) Quarterback
(2) Running Backs
(2) Wide Receivers
(1) Tight End
(1) Kicker
(1) Team Defense


Your first draft order will be randomly determined and should follow the snake draft pattern. Conversely, you could hold an auction. 
All following drafts will reward the worst teams in the first two rounds: the worst team will get the 1st pick of Round 1 and 1st pick of Round 2. After the 1st and 2nd rounds are complete, Round 3 will start the snake draft. So, the champion of the league would get the last pick in rounds 1 and 2 and the 1st pick in round 3. To discourage people from purposely losing games to get the #1 pick in the draft you may want to implement a draft lottery such as this one: 
Worst Record gets 30/100 Chances
2nd Worst gets 24/100 Chances
3rd Worst gets 19/100 Chances
4th Worst gets 14/100 Chances
5th Worst gets 9/100 Chances
6th Worst gets 4/100 Chances
The draft lottery determines which non-playoff teams will get the first three picks. Once that is resolved it will go in order of worst regular season record. For playoff teams, the draft order will be determined by where they finished in the playoffs. Regular season records should be used as a tiebreaker. 

Draft/Trade Tips

Often, trades are more important in keeper leagues than in redraft leagues. In keeper leagues, you can often ride one good decision for years. 
Rarely is it wise to trade within your division -- if your trade goes bad, you don't want to give someone an advantage over you for the next three years. Always look to trade out of your division if at all possible. 
Keeper leagues provide you with a little more flexibility when it comes to trading. You now are able to trade future draft picks (1st round, 2nd round and so on). 
In most cases, no one player is worth more than one 1st round pick. Future first round picks are very valuable commodities because they enable you to grab potential superstar rookies and solid veteran players that might be available. 
Never overestimate a player's worth. Imagine an owner wanting a player so much that they trade three future 1st round picks to acquire him? It does happen. Although you may love a player and even own his jersey, don't go out of your way to mortgage your team's future to get him. Production is what matters -- remember, you're a General Manager so run your team like one. 
Also keep in mind, retirement, injuries, and declining fantasy productivity help change the dynamics of your keeper league. Fantasy teams who were once strong may become the laughing stock of the league, and weaker teams may become dominant. Good management and talent evaluation is crucial in keeper leagues. 

Waiver Wire/Free Agency

I suggest you allow owners free reign to make unlimited cuts and pickups during the year. A waiver wire process should be implemented to allow owners the ability to acquire the top free agents of the week. When an owner makes a successful waiver wire claim they move down to last priority position for selecting another wire pick that week. Or you can adopt a FAAB (free agent acquisition budget) where each team is alloted a certain amount of funny money for the season to place blind bids on free agents. Both methods are common and most good fantasy football software will help you manage this process automatically.


It's sad that you have to think about collusion and cheating in the league. However, you don't want people colluding together to make a super team. A super team is formed when two owner work together to make one teams dominant via trades and/or pickups. Often, these underhanded owners have an agreement that the winnings will be split based on the super team's performance. To prevent collusion or questionable trades you need firm trade rules. I suggest the following: 
Anyone may challenge a trade. Once a trade is challenged it goes to a vote where, depending on how many people are involved, the trade can be canceled by the remaining owners in the league not directly involved in the trade. 
a. With 2 Owners involved you need 8 out of the 10 votes to overturn the trade. 
b. With 3 Owners involved you need 7 out of the 9 votes to overturn the trade. 
c. With 4 Owners involved you need 6 out of the 8 votes to overturn the trade. 
Player dumping is another method of cheating. This happens when an owner cuts a player so another team can pick them up. An owner may be lured to do this for monetary compensation. To prevent this, consider using some sort of a no-cut list. Ultimately, if you ever suspect an owner of player dumping, give them a warning. If the player dumping continues, boot the owner from the league immediately. Hopefully, this never happens but at least there are rules implemented to warn owners that cheating will not be tolerated. 

Emotions Run High

Keeper leagues often tend to be much more emotional than any redraft league. Here are just a couple of reasons why: 
1. One move can impact the league for years to come. Your every move is going to be closely scrutinized by others in the league. 
2. Arguments will occur over anything that that may affect an owner's team. 
3. You never forget history and how you just can't beat a certain team. 
4. Perennial winners sometimes act arrogant and brag, frustrating other owners. 
5. Perennial losers can act childlike and hurt league moral
You want motivated owners to put their best lineups in every week. You must understand that everyone cannot win every year. The good news is keeper leagues tend to be very cyclical, meaning you will eventually have your chance to shine, sometimes sooner than you think. To give you an example, I have been in a 12-team keeper league for six years and we have had six different champions. Encourage owners to keep their emotions under control and to focus that emotional energy on improving their team. 
When heated disputes arise, try to be a uniter, not a divider! 

Keep It Fun

Plenty of rules and regulations may have some owners thinking the commissioner is trying to run some sort of dictatorship. To solve this problem, give each owner a responsibility such as keeping stats, a newsletter, lineup deadlines and so on. The league should be fun for everyone, include owners so they feel like an integral part of it. Perks are another way to keep players returning and having fun. Some perks include large cash prizes, trophies, record books, and a toilet bowl for all the non-playoff teams. Two years ago we did a Pro Bowl in Week 17. The two participants from the championship game had to use a player from each team in their conference and make a pro bowl lineup. This provided us with some conference pride. It added some extra fun after the champion was declared. 

Planning Ahead

Everything seems exciting and great until you hear the news that someone wants to quit. If you recruited the right owners this won't happen often, but life is unpredictable and there may be a time when you need to find a replacement owner. As commissioner you should always have a list of replacement owners. Over the years, make people aware of your league and how great it is. If you're obsessed, like I am, this won't be difficult. If anyone shows interest in joining the league then put their name on your waiting list and tell them if a franchise becomes available they'll be contacted. By doing this, you increase the perception that keeper leagues are selective, and joining one is a privilege. When there is an opening in your keeper league, there should be plenty of outsiders who will jump at the chance to become part of your elite group. Believe it or not, I have 10 people waiting to get into my keeper league. 


The beauty of keeper leagues is that there is no one right answer. Strategy? Some go all out and try to "win today forget about the future." Others prefer to plan for the future. Oftentimes a happy balance of future talent and current stars works best. In any case, it's all up to you. 

Last-Minute Prep

Before draft day, it's time to review and vote on your list of league issues. Be prepared to go through the topics on your list. As you go through each topic in detail be sure to listen to everyone's opinion. You don't want to end this very important day with people feeling slighted. When the group comes to an agreement on a topic be sure to write it down in detail. Keep rules, scoring, and operating procedures in one document and then send it to all owners. It will be useful as a reference guide throughout the season and for years to come. Having detailed and well documented league guidelines maintains a high degree of integrity. 
Over time, changes to your league may need to happen. Limit your changes to the general rules or operating procedures only. I can't emphasize this enough: You don't want to change the scoring or the starting lineups in your league unless everyone is on board! Let everyone know that those two decisions are critical to the success of the league. The time you invest together that first draft day will pay off huge dividends in the long run. Once you feel confident that all topics have been discussed and recorded properly the draft can commence. 
DRAFT DAY HAS ARRIVED! So order some pizza and pop open your favorite beverage. By the way you're on the clock and remember: put on your game face, because now YOU ARE PLAYING FOR KEEPS!! 

Best Bet

The greatest thing about a keeper league? For me, it's the fact I've been able to keep in touch with some extremely knowledgeable NFL fans and some wonderful people. I've established bonds that will likely last a lifetime. 
Filed Under: Preseason, 2010

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