Daily Fantasy Football: Timing Your Leagues to Maximize Profit

Aug 23, 2013
Daily Fantasy Football: Timing Your Leagues to Maximize Profit

Heading into a season-long fantasy football draft, I never have a set-in-stone strategy that I follow. I might prefer to draft three running backs to start, for example, but that can change in the blink of an eye, depending how the draft unfolds. In most cases, I’m looking to implement a contrarian approach, assessing market tendencies and then looking elsewhere to see if there’s value.

If you don’t consider your opponents’ beliefs and actions in fantasy football, you’re going to have a tough time becoming a long-term winner. The use of game theory allows for a flexible draft strategy that opens the door for optimal draft picks. Your decisions can’t be made in isolation; they need to be based on those of others so that you can exploit inefficiencies.

Daily fantasy football strategy, too, has game theory as a cornerstone. You absolutely must consider others’ actions when selecting your lineups. When the market is too down on a player, you should be bullish on them. When they’re too high on someone, you should fade them.

In the same manner, effective league selection is governed primarily by game theory. Your goal isn’t necessarily to do what you do best, but to do what creates the greatest expected return when you consider others’ moves.

League Types

In terms of league timing, there are five basic types of daily fantasy leagues:

Thursday-night leagues typically include every game in a given week, from Thursday night to Monday night. This is the largest sample of games a daily fantasy player can take on. That’s a positive for experienced owners. The primary disadvantage is that your lineup must be set for good on Thursday night, well before the rest of the week’s games.

Most daily fantasy football leagues include all games outside of the Thursday night matchup. The primary advantage is waiting until the last possible minute to set your lineups on Sunday morning.

Sunday-only leagues usually have anywhere from 11 to 14 matchups, depending on bye weeks. As the name suggests, Thursday night and Monday night games aren’t included. They offer the same advantages of Sunday/Monday leagues, except you’ll know your fate on Sunday night instead of waiting another 24 hours.

Some sites offer leagues for just the 1pm EST matchups. It’s cool to see such a quick turnaround on your investment, but generally these leagues should be avoided. You’ll be unnecessarily limiting the player pool, which increases variance. You might find some success fading the players who are on national television because that’s who most owners will select, but you can also do that in leagues with a larger player pool.

Primetime leagues typically offer players from the Sunday and Monday night games. The sample of games is incredibly small and, many times, daily fantasy players have identical lineups. These leagues are great for novices and horrible for experienced players because, again, they greatly enhance variance. A pro’s advantage over a complete beginner would likely be small enough in Primetime leagues that he can’t even overcome the rake. They’re for pure entertainment, not investment purposes.

Allocating Your Funds

The majority of daily fantasy players put most of their money into Sunday-only or Sunday/Monday leagues. They have a large sample of games, and thus a large player pool. Remember, the greater the list of players you can potentially add into your lineups, the greater the skill level required to win. Thursday-night leagues obviously offer the largest sample of games, but many daily fantasy players get scared to finalize lineups on Thursdays. If a player goes down, there’s really nothing you can do about it, which is of course a big risk.

However, I believe that Thursday-night leagues offer the greatest possible returns, and by a wide margin at times. The reason is that there’s so much bad money in them; novice owners love to watch their players on television, so they’re very eager to sign up for Thursday-night leagues and start a handful of players who are in that night’s contest. If you ever enter a large tournament, take a look at the standings after Thursday night. They’ll be dominated by numerous lineups that are filled with players from the Thursday night game. While everyone wants to be profitable, most daily fantasy players are concerned primarily with the entertainment value of playing the game. We’re going to exploit that to our advantage.

Thursday-Night Strategy

If you plan to enter a Thursday-night league, you need to minimize as much of the inherent variance as possible. That means you must avoid all players with questionable designations. If there’s any doubt at all that a player will suit up on Sunday or Monday, avoid placing him in your Thursday-night lineups. If you can go into the Thursday-night matchup with a 99-plus percent chance of everyone in your lineup playing, then the potential profits far outweigh the very small probability of a late-week injury.

In addition, you might want to consider joining Thursday-night leagues and purposely avoiding the players in the Thursday game. I wrote about why that might be a smart strategy in Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Cash in on the Future of the Game:

Below, I’ve listed the potential outcomes for Thursday night games (how the players performed, if you picked them, and how your post-game situation compares to that prior to the game in relation to a novice).

· Well, Yes – Worse

· Well, No – Possible slight disadvantage

· Poorly, Yes – Even at best

· Poorly, No – Much better

You can see that the best overall scenario is to fade the Thursday-night players and have them play poorly, putting the novices (who are always bullish on Thursday night players) in an early hole. If you select players on Thursday night and they perform relatively well, you could still actually be in a worse position than when you started. If the novices picked the same guys (or arranged a comparable Thursday night lineup), you’ll be in the same boat in terms of points, but instead of having nine players left, you’ll have just eight (or seven, or six), increasing randomness and decreasing your win expectation. On the other hand, if you pick Thursday night players and they perform poorly, you’ll still be even with the fish, and again randomness rears its ugly head.

However, if you fade the Thursday night players and the novices see a handful of them play well, you can still potentially make up the gap; it doesn’t help by any means, but it isn’t a death blow. Thus, the final outcomes for choosing multiple Thursday night players are being in a worse or comparable situation to your opponent(s), while the results of forgoing those players are slightly worse (or possibly even) and much better. Simply put, more good stuff can happen if you generally choose Sunday and Monday players in your Thursday night leagues, especially when your opponent is likely overvaluing them.

The above example is of course an oversimplification of the situation for demonstration purposes; if you have a player in a Thursday night game ranked well ahead of his salary, there’s no reason to bypass him. Further, you can’t expect a league of 20 competitors to all be novices. If the perceived value of the Thursday-night-player-in-question is minimal, however, it might be best to lay off.

So with that background, what’s the best way to distribute funds each week? The answer is, as usual, it depends. You always need to be flexible in your strategies, changing gears whenever necessary to optimize your potential profits.

One of the things that should affect your league timing is the size and payout structure of your leagues. Usually, it’s smart to enter as many tournaments that start on Thursday night as you possibly can. The reason is that novices love to shoot for the big payday, so you’ll go up against A LOT of bad money; so many people will be targeting Thursday-night players, and that will increase your expected winning percentage. Plus, since you shouldn’t be putting a huge percentage of your bankroll into tournaments anyway, there’s not that much risk in setting your tournament lineups on Thursday nights.

On the other hand, you don’t want to enter all of your 50/50 lineups into Thursday-night leagues. The reason is that, if a player unexpectedly goes down late in the week, you’ll have a really difficult time cashing at all. Entering the same lineup into multiple 50/50s is already a volatile strategy, so making them all Thursday-night leagues just creates too much risk. You can certainly enter some of your best heads-up lineups into Thursday night leagues, but it shouldn’t be done exclusively for the same reason as above.

Ultimately, there’s no reason that you can’t have half of your “cash in play” in Thursday night leagues in a given week. You’ll want to put the majority of tournament money in them and a good portion of heads-up funds. As a final note, I’ll leave you with a sample breakdown:

Thursday-Night: 75 percent of tournament cash, 60 percent of heads-up cash

Sunday/Monday: 25 percent of tournament cash, 30 percent of heads-up cash, 75 percent of 50/50 cash

Sunday-Only: 10 percent of heads-up cash, 25 percent of 50/50 cash

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