Playing for Keeps: Keys to Running a Keeper League
A keeper league is arguably the best type of fantasy league. If you haven’t tried at least one, you’re missing out. This article examines the joys, benefits, and pitfalls of keeper leagues.
What is a Keeper League?
By definition, a keeper league allows owners to carry NFL players over from one year to the next.
A keeper league is in many ways the antithesis to DFS, where owners only project one week at a time. In a keeper league, a long-term outlook in terms of strategy and team-building becomes paramount to sustaining success.
If you’ve never tried a keeper league before but are interested in adding a keeper element to an existing league or starting a new keeper league, you can expect to add a few new wrinkles to your job as commissioner—and add a whole new level of fun to your fantasy football experience!
The unique experience of a keeper league is the closest most of us will ever get to being an NFL GM. You get to put all your years of fantasy knowledge to use scouting players, outwitting opponents, and balancing the short- and long-term benefits of each player on your roster. Keeper leagues are more work, but also more fun than other fantasy formats because of the level of detail and investment involved.
Depending on your league settings, this creates a huge offseason decision: Which players do I keep?
If you only have three or four players to keep from your roster, you have to be particularly deft in deciding which players are not only vital to your current team, but also have enough long-term value to warrant hanging on to.
You also have to decide who might be available in the draft, as typically, all released players become draft-eligible, along with the new NFL rookies.
The keeper format seems simple enough but you'll have many interesting decisions to make during the process.
The Pros & Cons of a Keeper League
Not sure about the keeper format? Here are the pros and cons:
- You'll feel more like a real NFL 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.
- There will be more work and preparation required than in a traditional redraft league.
- One bad draft can hurt you for years.
- After your initial draft, NFL rookies become very valuable.
Additionally, as both a pro and a con, you can acquire your favorite players and hang on to them year after year, instead of relying on your position in the redraft to determine whether you get to root for your favorite running back every Sunday. On the downside, if your favorite player ends up assigned to another owner, you may have to wait years to have a chance at snagging him.
Do the pros outweigh the cons for you? If so, you might just be ready for a keeper league (and a subscription to 4for4)!
Responsibilities of the Keeper League Commissioner
Like any sports league, it helps to have a great commissioner. What does that entail?
The Makings of a Good Commissioner
A good commissioner is someone who is always accessible, oversees the league, handles complaints, makes proactive suggestions, and ensures the integrity and overall success of the league. This person becomes the glue that keeps the league together, year after year. Continuity can make or break a keeper league, and how much fun owners have is partly a reflection of the commissioner.
Ideally, when you start a keeper league, you should plan for it to 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. Often, several years of redraft leagues can help you work up to a keeper league format, or you can try out the concept with a semi-keeper league, where teams only keep one or two players.
Technological advances in fantasy sports definitely make things easier on modern-day commissioners, making this the best time ever to start a keeper league. Most sites that host fantasy leagues include options for keepers, and after taking a little time to set up the league, you'll be up-and-running in no time, and your settings will carry over each year (or you can make alterations after the season if you'd like).
The Importance of Open Communication Among Keeper League Members
Communication is pivotal in a keeper league. In a redraft league, knowing the draft date is important, but beyond that, other dates are usually common sense. A couple weeks into the season, even the most inattentive owners can pick up on waivers times and lineup deadlines. But in a keeper league, the commissioner must give people ample warning for key events, such as offseason trading dates and keeper designation deadlines.
Owners should provide the commissioner sufficient means by which to contact them, including email addresses, group chat apps, social media, or even 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 with your league mates can be one of the most rewarding experiences of having a keeper league. Furthermore, relationships can be crucial to finding trade partners. If your league is open to it, starting an email, chat, or text thread with all league members in one group can be an effective way to promote lively interaction, as well as disseminate important information.
One way to promote open communication in the league is to have everyone provide some type of feedback on the league before the draft, where they may openly discuss proposals for potential rule changes, etc. This gives everyone a chance to openly discuss the league. Each owner will likely have their own opinions on the way the league should be run, and it’s important to weigh each person’s opinion carefully. If good owners feel like they don't have a voice, they'll lose passion and will eventually tune out of or leave the league.
Recruiting the Best Owners for a Keeper League
The most important rule of a keeper league is to recruit fantasy football nuts like yourself. Make a list of people you know who fit the fantasy football diehard category. As you do this, you'll see the competition level within your league is going to increase over a traditional redraft league. 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 strategy. Owners who consistently fail to field a competitive team in a redraft league are not likely to be good candidates for your keeper league.
I would not recruit owners who:
- Don't turn lineups in regularly.
- Believe that fantasy football is based solely on luck.
- Can't name the starting quarterback of most, if not all, NFL teams.
- Have no real passion for fantasy and join redraft leagues only for something to do.
If you’re starting a league and recruiting owners from the public and not just people you know personally, then check to see if your fantasy football website has an option where the commissioner can approve or reject prospective owners. This will allow you to screen potential league members to ensure they know what they’re getting into and to ensure you have people who will be around for the long haul.
Optimal Keeper League Size
What is the best size for a keeper league? Like most other league types, 10 or 12 teams is ideal. The more the merrier is a nice phrase, but having more than 12-14 owners dilutes the supply of NFL talent. When this happens, some keeper league owners can lose interest.
It’s essential to keep your league small enough for usable talent to be available for waiver wire pickups during the season, and for enough good players to be available in the draft each year. Otherwise, owners may become frustrated quickly and not return.
Conversely, if a league has only six or eight teams, there may be too much talent available, and owners may put less effort into their waiver pickups and lineup choices, knowing they’ll have star players at every position in most cases.
For more information on optimal league settings, including league and roster sizes, check out 4for4’s guide on how to play fantasy football.
Keeper League Draft Day
With owners in tow willing to be part of this grand keeper league 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 where everyone can be present, whether it is face-to-face, on a website hosted draft, in a chat room, on a teleconference, or using any other method available. I’ve even seen leagues draft on Twitter, using specific hashtags and lists. No matter how you draft, you don’t want anyone using a substitute drafter or relying on auto-pick in a keeper league.
Keeper League Rules
Your keeper league must have detailed rules. When the league is initially formed, the commissioner has the chance to state clearly what the rules are, and any disagreements can be settled with a league vote. Also, keep in mind that changing keeper league rules can often lead to problems. My advice: Once you get a robust system, keep it stable.
Specifically, you should rarely change starting lineup requirements. If you do, you change the approach that owners—who are thinking long term—have taken when drafting and choosing their keepers. Changing lineup requirements could cause years of strategy for someone to go out the window.
Spend plenty of time thinking about your keeper rules before starting. Make sure everyone has been able to give input and that you have a good solid basis from the beginning. This can help you keep things stable for the future, and help avoid angering owners later with rule changes that hurt their existing strategies.
How to Decide Which Players Owners are Allowed to Keep
There are a few tried and true methods to decide what players should stay on teams and how rosters will be managed:
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. Here's a strategy tip: Sign young stars to long-term contracts while signing backups and aging stars to one- or two-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 and one inactive player.
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. 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.
Round penalties. Keep a set number of players, or as many players as you want to, but each player counts as a draft pick in your draft. Typically, a player drafted in the fifth round the previous year would then count as a fourth-round pick the current season. This makes keeping players a value proposition instead of a simple choice of who the best players are on the roster. It also limits the number of players that can be kept who are drafted in the first few rounds every year. This system is a favorite for many keeper league owners because it tends to reward owners who hit big on late draft picks, and tends to allow the top players in the league to shuffle a little more season-to-season, increasing parity while rewarding those who really know their stuff.
Keep all players. This is called a dynasty league. The draft consists only of rookies and teams carry over all (or most) players. This is for hardcore fantasy enthusiasts only.
Keeper League Scoring/Lineup Settings
Scoring is no different in keeper leagues than redraft leagues. Standard scoring, point per reception, or any other scoring format will work.
Owners should know the scoring system before draft day so they have ample time to prepare for the draft, and the scoring system should remain the same each season to avoid kept players losing or gaining value based on a scoring change.
Starting lineups also vary, but a typical keeper league starting lineup will follow that of more traditional leagues:
- 1 Quarterback
- 2 Running Backs
- 2-3 Wide Receivers
- 1 Flex Position (Running Back/Wide Receiver/Tight End)
- 1 Tight End
- 1 Kicker
- 1 Team Defense
Determining Keeper League Draft Order
Your first draft order will be randomly determined and should follow the snake draft pattern. Conversely, you could hold an auction.
Following-year drafts typically reward the worst teams in the first two rounds: The worst team will get the first pick of round one and first pick of round two. After the first and second rounds are complete, round three will start the snake draft. So, the champion of the league would get the last pick in rounds one and two and the first pick in round three. To discourage people from purposely losing games to get the top pick in the draft, you may want to implement a draft lottery such as the following:
- The worst record gets 30/100 chances.
- Second-worst gets 24/100 chances.
- Third-worst gets 19/100 chances.
- Fourth-worst gets 14/100 chances.
- Fifth-worst gets 9/100 chances.
- Sixth-worst gets 4/100 chances.
The draft lottery determines which non-playoff teams will get the first three picks. Once that is resolved, the draft 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.
Other leagues may simply slot next year’s draft from worst to first, and I’ve also seen leagues reward the winner with their selection of which pick they want in the draft. No matter how you do it, coming up with a method that is equitable and agreed upon by all owners is important before the first draft. If you wait until later, you may find it much harder to get owners to agree upon a method for slotting when they have something on the line.
Keeper League Waiver Wire/Free Agency
You can restrict or promote drops and pickups as much as you want for your keeper league, but it’s often best to allow free rein to make unlimited cuts and pickups during the year.
A waiver wire process, however, is good if you want to allow a more equitable system for picking up players. You can slot waiver wire priority by record each week, overall record, or by random generation. You can also choose to allow owners to keep their waiver slot from week-to-week. Once an owner makes a successful waiver wire claim, they move down to the last priority position.
Another option would be to adopt a free agent acquisition budget (FAAB) system, where each team is allotted a certain amount of funny money for the season to place blind bids on free agents. Both methods are common and 4for4 offers subscribers waiver wire advice every week to help you navigate your rules.
You will also need to establish rules that govern keeping a waiver wire mid-season addition. If your keeper league has round penalties for keeping players, and an owner wants to keep a player acquired off the waiver wire the season before, then there needs to be an agreed-upon penalty for these players. Sometimes, leagues put a standard mid-round pick on waiver additions. In other leagues, strategic owners who work the waiver wire all year are rewarded with the ability to keep waiver additions by surrendering only the last round selection in the draft. However you decide to handle waiver wire additions, ensure that all owners are in agreement before the first season begins.
Preventing Cheating & Collusion in a Keeper League
It's sad that you have to even think about collusion and cheating, but the reality is it can happen.
You don't want people colluding together to make a super team. A super team is formed when two or more owners work together to make one team 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. A suggested rule is that anyone may challenge a trade, but 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.
- With two owners involved, you need eight out of 10 votes to overturn the trade.
- With three owners involved, you need seven out of nine votes to overturn the trade.
- With four owners involved, you need six out of eight 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.
Emotions Can Run High in a Keeper League
Keeper leagues often tend to be much more emotional than any redraft league. Here are just a few reasons why:
- One move can impact the league for years to come, causing more scrutiny over every transaction.
- Arguments will occur over anything that may affect an owner's team.
- You never forget history and how you just can't beat a certain team.
- Perennial winners sometimes act arrogant and brag, frustrating other owners.
- Perennial losers can act childlike and hurt league moral.
You want motivated owners to put their best lineups in every week. They must understand that everyone cannot win every year. The good news is keeper leagues tend to be very cyclical, meaning everyone will eventually have their chance to shine. Encourage owners to keep their emotions under control and to focus that emotional energy on improving their team. When heated disputes arise, unite your league mates, don't be 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 help with this, soliciting feedback regularly is a good way to keep owners feeling heard. Asking owners to participate in a weekly task can be effective as well. Advanced stats-sharing, watch-parties, newsletters, and injury reporting are all things you can ask league members to put together. While not necessary, these can sometimes keep people engaged and help build lasting camaraderie.
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.
Being Prepared for When an Owner Unexpectedly Quits
Everything seems exciting and great until you hear the news that someone wants to drop out of the league. 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, try to have a list of potential replacement owners at the ready. 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 keep them in mind for the future. You may even want to tell them you’ll put them on a waiting list in case a spot opens up. 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.
Last-Minute Keeper League Draft Preparation
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, and be sure you’ve included anything that your league members brought up during the year. 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. Sometimes, even if you don’t end up changing a rule, bringing up people’s concerns and suggestions and hashing out the details as a group can help assuage any concerns people have.
When the group comes to an agreement on a topic be sure to document it in detail. Keep rules, scoring, and operating procedures consistent and make sure you send the information to all owners. Even if the rules are readily available on the website, it’s helpful to eliminate confusion with a quick e-mail reminding everyone of the rules. It can also end up being used 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.
As the commissioner, be patient with people as they ask you questions, even if the answers are readily available to them or you’ve told them the answer several times. The owners in your league look to you for help and by being positive and informative, they’ll continue to trust you and are more likely to stay engaged in the league long term.
Over time, changes to your league may need to happen. Limit your changes to the general rules or operating procedures only. 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 on that very first draft day will pay huge dividends in the long run. Once you feel confident all topics have been discussed and recorded properly, the draft can commence!
Once draft day has finally arrived, order some food, pop open your favorite beverage, and pay attention to when you're on the clock. And remember: Put your game face on, because now you are playing for keeps!
Keeper League Strategy
The beauty of keeper leagues is that there is no one right strategy. However, there are three tried and true strategies owners can look to:
- Some owners go all out and try to win now with more veterans at the expense of the future.
- Other owners prefer to stockpile younger assets with the aim of winning in the future.
- Owners can also employ a happy balance of acquiring both future talent and current stars.
Tips for Trading Keeper League Draft Picks
Often, trades are more important in keeper leagues than in redraft leagues. In keeper leagues, you can often ride one good decision for years.
Keeper leagues provide you with a little more flexibility when it comes to trading, as you now are able to trade future draft picks.
In most cases, no one player is worth more than one first-round pick. Future first-round picks are very valuable commodities because they enable you to grab potential superstar rookies and solid veteran players. Conversely, middle- and late-round picks hold less value in a keeper league. Most keeper leagues will have, at a minimum, the top 36-48 veteran players off the board before the draft begins. This means that drafting early is often about nabbing the top rookies. Usually, beyond the first couple of rounds, you’re in boom-or-bust territory with rookie picks.
Never overestimate a player's worth. Imagine an owner wanting a player so much that they trade three future first-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 that retirement, injuries, and declining fantasy productivity will constantly alter the dynamics of your keeper league. Fantasy teams who were once strong may become the laughingstock of the entire league, and weaker teams may suddenly become dominant. Good management and talent evaluation are crucial in keeper leagues.
This article is updated from an original article written by guest contributor Marc Hess.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images.