KEEPER LEAGUES: Winning vs. Success

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden took pride in the fact that he never mentioned “winning” when he spoke to his players. “You can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you’re outscored,” he said. "But if you make the effort to do the best you can regularly, you will always be able to hold your head up.” Of course, Wooden’s name is synonymous with success, as he guided his UCLA teams to ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row. Wooden’s premise was that consistently going about your work and preparation in an ethical, dutiful manner would lead to ultimate success, regardless of the final numbers on the scoreboard in any given game. If you give your truly best effort every day, the score will end up in your favor more often than not, both in sports and in life.

Prior to the recent HQ-WONK auction draft, several owners got into a discussion about how “success” would be defined in this league. As it is primarily a “test tube” league, created for us to try different strategies and write about our thoughts and findings for the benefit of BHQ readers, we are not playing for any money. While my personal belief is that having some “skin” in the game helps to keep the attention of the participants, in this competition, our “skin” is the pride each of us has as writers and contributors to this prestigious website. That should be plenty to keep everyone motivated to give their best effort.

So, we are playing for “pride,” but how is that pride-based effort reflected and measured by the yearly final standings of a keeper league? We all know that “flags fly forever,” but what does that really mean? In a 15-team keeper league, do we only have one successful “winner” and 14 “losers”? Sadly, that seems to be the prevailing attitude that has poisoned keeper leagues of all kinds, both fantasy and reality. Even fans of all four major sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL) increasingly urge their favorite teams to do a “full rebuild,” intentionally tanking season(s) with suboptimal lineups and inferior rosters, rather than to “fight the good fight” year after year.

At the highest level of professional sports today, consisting of the greatest athletes in the world, the worst thing a team can possibly do is to try their very best, yet fall short of the postseason. In our analytic age of “enlightenment,” both fans and pundits increasingly implore teams to essentially give up the fight until they are sure they have the resources to make it to the top. It is no surprise that this attitude has carried over to the way we play our fantasy sports.

For keeper leagues in which money is involved, generally the top three or four teams earn a monetary reward, so that provides at least some degree of incentive for teams in the top half to keep pushing through the dog days of August. Even leagues such as those, however, often leave teams at the bottom of the standings with no reason to remain engaged as Independence Day fades into the rearview mirror. Similar to their real-life brethren, in fact, they feel increasing pressure to pull the plug on a lost season by dumping high-priced non-keepers in exchange for prospective assets, no matter how dubious. “Anything (with potential for keeping, no matter how limited) is better than nothing” goes the thinking. And, of course, there’s “nothing to play for in the current (lost) season,” so let the fire sale begin!

I have no doubt that John Wooden would be disgusted with the current win-it-all-or-don’t-even-bother-trying atmosphere in professional and fantasy sports. Kenesaw Mountain Landis would be none too thrilled, either, I surmise. In fact, it is hard to believe that any of the great sportsmen who helped to found today’s major leagues, including the original founding fathers of keeper league fantasy, who once gathered at La Rotisserie Française, would feel good about how the nature of competition has become so sickeningly warped. But then, we are in an age of “informed enlightenment,” right? If the analytic data tells us that taking a dive improves our odds of winning it all, who needs integrity?!?

There is a better way. Introducing Keeper League Owner Rankings (KLOR). While the best team in any given season may be awarded the championship for that year, I submit that the best keeper league owners are the ones who can successfully be competitive year in year out, without ever needing to engage in a tanking-oriented “tear down and rebuild.” The true mark of keeper league success is the ability to keep building and reinforcing, even as one fights it out with the lead dogs each season.

To compute this "success quotient,” we count the number of teams in the league and award that many “owner points” for the first place team, reducing it by one for each place in the standings each year. In our 15-team HQ-WONK league, for example, the owner who finishes in first place this year will be awarded 15 points. Second will get 14, third 13, etc., all the way down to last place, which will receive one point. (A variation can be to award zero points to last place, as finishing dead last should be something all owners desperately try to avoid. I mean, should a team really receive anything for finishing above no one?) By doing this every year and keeping a running total, we will be able to see who is truly the most consistently successful keeper league competitor.

The owner who tanks and finishes last while he gathers assets to win the following season may have one championship to his name, but he has only earned 16 (1+15) WONKOR points. Meanwhile, the owner who finished third one year and fourth the next will receive a far superior 25 (13+12) WONKOR points. Often times in a competitive league, a single season championship is decided by a key injury or, even worse, a dump-trade. Finishing second (or even a close third or fourth) in a well-fought season is something we should all be proud of, even if we fall short of winning it all.

Of course, you can still give a dime store trophy to the “winning” team, but conspicuous tabulations of your league’s Owner Ranking will truly give every owner a reason to compete from Opening Day through the final game. Even owners at the bottom of the standings suffering through a down season have reason to remain engaged, as they understand gaining a couple spots in the standings can be a boon to their overall KLOR standing. Every owner can enjoy the fun of competing and watching the standings every day of every season, and that’s really what it's all about.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.