Business Lessons from Fantasy Football

Jack Plotkin
Nov 20 · 16 min read
Jack Plotkin
Jack Plotkin
Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

As August says good-bye to the dog days of summer and turns its weary head toward Labor Day, cable company call centers light up with callers requesting the RedZone channel. By now, this is hardly surprising. Each year that the NFL preseason approaches its zenith, a staggering 50 million players get ready to do their fantasy football drafts. The internet is flooded by fantasy football fever, with draft guides and strategy blogs fighting for their share of the click deluge.

If you work at a company with more than a dozen people, it is virtually certain that someone in your office is playing fantasy football. During the NFL season, more people play fantasy than go to the gym, the movies, or music concerts. So even if you’re not a player or fan, there is no denying that fantasy football has become part of the cultural narrative. The interesting bit is that this game, which takes a staggering share of post-Labor Day leisure time, offers many surprising parallels with real-life business management.

A Short Primer

If you clicked on this article and read this far, it’s likely that you already know how fantasy football works. On the off chance that your knowledge is rusty, here is a short description: in fantasy football, you join a league, typically with friends or work colleagues. The league is set up and managed using a fantasy football app (CBS Sports and Yahoo are two of the most popular). At some point before the NFL regular season starts, you and the other “coaches” in the league will agree on a date to conduct a draft.

The draft is done online using the fantasy football app, meaning you don’t have to be in the same room with everyone else in your league. The purpose of the draft is to select real-life NFL players to play on your fantasy team. Once you have drafted a player, that player is not available for any other team.

There are two draft types. With a snake draft, all the coaches in your league draft based on a pre-set order. The person who drafts last in the first round gets to draft first in the second round, and so forth. With an auction draft, all the coaches in your league get a pre-set budget and can bid on players. Whoever bids the highest gets the player, but then has correspondingly less budget left for future bids.

Once everyone has a full team the draft closes. Typically, a team is comprised of ten starters that include a quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, a tight end, a flex position, a kicker, and a defense. In addition, there are six bench spots for backup players that can include any of the above positions. Some leagues use either more or fewer starting positions, but they generally hew close to this general guideline.

During the first 13 weeks of the NFL regular season, each team will go head-to-head against another team in your league. The fantasy football app you use will automatically calculate the real-life performance of each player on your team. The scores put up by each player are added together to give you an overall team score. If your team puts up more points in any given week than the team you are playing against then you get a win. Otherwise, you get a loss. At the end of the period, the teams with the best win/loss records go to the fantasy playoffs and, when all is said and done, the top three teams generally split a pot of winnings based on league fees.

What makes fantasy football especially dynamic is that in addition to starting and benching players, teams can also trade players and replace players with undrafted players. Injuries or suspensions affecting real-world NFL starters invariably send seismic shocks through the fantasy football community, with coaches rushing to pick up or trade for replacements.

Parallels, Parallels

Even in reading the short primer on fantasy football, several parallels to real-world entrepreneurship immediately jump off the page. A fantasy draft is a lot like hiring a team for your business. You’re betting that both your fantasy team and your real-world business team are going to be competitive and secure a winning track record. Then, week to week and month to month, things can change quickly. Team members can become unavailable or fall short of expectations, which requires you to make midstream adjustments.

Within each type of position in fantasy football, there are different levels of scarcity. For example, there are more starting wide receivers than running backs in the NFL. As a result, the running back is a harder position to fill. The same holds true in business. Management or skill positions that require specialized expertise or proven track records are more challenging to fill than generalist or administrative roles.

Over time, certain players deliver results that consistently fall short of expectations. As a fantasy football coach, you must decide whether these results represent a deviation from the norm or the new normal for that player. Similarly, as a manager, you must decide if an employee’s apparent underperformance is a candidate for course correction or termination. In making that decision, both fantasy football coaches and managers must consider whether the underperformance is sufficiently significant to warrant the risk of a replacement who may end up performing even worse.

There are other parallels that we will seek to explore here. However, before we proceed, it is critical that we establish and maintain a level of perspective. Fantasy football, while doubtless interesting to its many participants, is just a game. Drafting and dropping players on your fantasy team has no real-world impact on those players. By contrast, hiring and releasing employees has tremendous real-life implications for you, your business, and those employees. Thus, nothing in this article should be misconstrued to suggest that fantasy football decisions and business decisions can ever inhabit the same galaxies in terms of importance, impact, or influence.

Drafting and Hiring

When you draft your fantasy football team, you are planning ahead for the entire season. Good coaches do not limit their perspective to the initial weeks of games. Rather, they think in terms of players that will enable them to attain a consistently winning record, to make the playoffs, and to give them the best possible chance of getting to the championship game. They also think in terms of relative positional value and overall team composition rather than simply grabbing the highest-rated player available.

Planning for the long term when hiring a real-world business team means that you are not only considering how an employee might perform on day one but how they will perform on day thirty-one and on day three hundred and sixty-one. Someone who can do the job you need today but whose skill set cannot scale as the company grows or evolve as departmental needs change may not be the right long-term candidate.

It often makes sense to wait for the right candidate rather than taking the right-now candidate. In fantasy football, players who start the season injured or suspended are often available later in the draft or for a lower cost. Selecting such players can yield tremendous dividends for fantasy coaches later in the season. Similarly, waiting for the right candidate or taking a great candidate with a known but addressable skill gap can make the difference between a business team that succeeds and one that falls short of expectations.

In fantasy football, good coaches think not only about a player’s long-term performance but also their impact on the overall team. For example, there may be a great wide receiver available late in the draft. However, if your team is already deep in wide receivers picking up another one will be counterproductive. Since you can only start three wide receivers in most leagues, spending your draft picks on more wide receivers, no matter how good they are, will cause you to be weak in other starting positions.

In business, hiring four smart engineers when you only need three presents a similar opportunity cost. You are better off passing on the extra engineer and using your budget for another role your business needs instead, such as sales or marketing. A team of talented engineers may build a great product but have no idea how to sell it. A team of effective sales executives may be tops at selling products but have no idea how to build one. Building a great team means not only hiring great candidates but also passing on great candidates when you know that your budget is better spent on other roles.

Another key aspect of draft strategy as it applies to business is relative value. The easiest way to think about relative value is to compare how much better the number one player in a given position does relative to the number ten player in the same position over the course of a typical season. For example, suppose that the number one kicker only scored an average of ten more points than the number ten kicker over the course of the entire season. In this scenario, using an early draft pick on a kicker makes little sense. You are better off taking a player at a position with a higher relative value, such as running back, in the early rounds of the draft and waiting on taking a kicker until later since even the tenth best kicker will, on average, perform nearly as well as the best kicker in the NFL.

Relative value also applies to business. Certain positions that require highly specialized skills, knowledge, or relationships have a more limited pool of strong candidates. For these types of positions, especially when they are vital to your business, the right advice is to take your time and to be prepared to pay above market. This person will be a key starter for your team and an essential contributor to your competitive advantage, so make every effort to make the right selection.

The final point of draft strategy we will consider is the exercise of discipline. Most fantasy leagues have ten starting spots and six bench spots on a team roster. That means each coach only has 16 roster spots and must tightly control each selection. To draft a strong team, the coach must be willing to pass on players that he or she personally likes, on players that are objectively strong in their positions, and on players that are dynamic but inconsistent.

A similarly rigorous approach is advisable for business teams. Every seat at your company matters and there are enormous opportunity costs associated with hiring a suboptimal candidate. Not only does it mean that you will have to invest time and resources into someone who will not work out in the long term, but it also means that you are missing out on someone who is a better fit. The productivity and quality gap between the wrong resource and the right resource is compounded with time and has caused many a business loss, whether in the form of departments missing their targets or, at the extreme end of the scale, entire companies going bankrupt.

Managing Teams

A fantasy team is vastly different from a real-life team in one important respect: you have no ability to interact with the players on your fantasy team. Although the occasional overly zealous fantasy coach may try to speak with a real-life player at an autograph signing or community event, the likely result of such an attempt at “coaching” is having the fantasy coach tossed, quite literally, from the event.

Of course, there are more aspects to managing a team than just interacting with individual team members. Fantasy coaches engage in traditional management each time they decide whom to start and whom to bench in any given week. This decision is not as simple as it may seem. Star offensive players, unsurprisingly, draw a lot of attention from defenses. If an NFL team is facing one of the league’s top defenses on a given Sunday, there is a good chance that their best offensive player is going to underperform expectations. In that scenario, it may make more sense to start a player that looks worse on paper but has a better match-up. Other considerations — whether the team is playing at home or on the road, whether the weather conditions are favorable, whether other key members of the offense are injured, whether the opposing team is offensively or defensively focused — also weigh on the decision to start or sit a player.

A further complication is that the considerations impacting a player’s likely performance can point in diametrically opposing directions. For example, a quarterback may be playing in a dome, meaning controlled weather, and against an offensively minded opposing team, meaning a higher scoring game. However, that quarterback’s receiving corps may be depleted and his offensive line banged up. This is where judgment and experience come into play. Analyzing countervailing indications and making the right call is what separates great fantasy coaches from the rest of the pack.

This is all well and good for fantasy football, but how does it translate to real-life management? All employees are starters, in a matter of speaking. While that may be true, managers do make starting decisions all the time by deciding how to assign tasks and projects. Some managers fall into the trap of always giving the most important and visible assignments to their top performers. The problem with this approach is that the top performers burn out while the less-than-stellar performers never get the opportunity to advance their skill set.

When it comes to assigning work, managers can take a page out of the fantasy playbook by considering a range of factors. Star employees who are overloaded, or partially unavailable due to planned PTO, or highly specialized for other types of work, might be the best performers on paper, but may not be the best starters for this project at this time. Thus, by pushing your bench players into starting positions you will be building their skillset while simultaneously improving the versatility of your entire team.

Every player’s contribution to a fantasy football team is equally important — every starter’s score is weighted the same when calculating the team’s overall performance. This is an essential analogy for high performing business teams: there are no unimportant team members. Every employee matters and effective managers ensure that all team members understand the importance of their roles and the criticality of their contributions to the overall mission.

Dropping Players

To bring our discussion of business management full circle, we must address the toughest topic: underperformers. Even the luckiest of managers must confront situations where specific team members are performing below expectations. Unless such situations are effectively addressed, continued underperformance can bring down the entire team, negatively impacting both results and morale. In this context, there are two key aspects of managing underperformance: identifying an underperforming team member and managing the team member’s departure.

Is it, really, so hard to identify an underperforming team member? Most of us would agree that we know underperformance when we see it. In fantasy football, it is directly evident at the end of every game by comparing the player’s actual score against his projected score. Here, we must pay attention to semantics. Identifying underperformance is relatively easy but identifying an underperformer can be challenging. The reason is that underperformance is part of being human, especially in environments where many factors influencing our results are outside of our control. Thus, the only way to be certain that someone is a true underperformer is to observe a pattern of underperformance across a variety of tasks and settings. In turn, determining whether something is a true pattern can require time and analysis.

From a purely statistical standpoint, a star NFL player can have a bad week or a string of bad weeks. This can be due to a variety of factors, many of which are outside the player’s control. He could be playing through an injury. He could be getting disciplined by the coach. He could be facing bad game script, such as a running back playing on a team that falls behind early. He could be dealing with an unfavorable supporting cast, such as a wide receiver whose starting quarterback gets hurt.

Whatever the reasons for the underperformance, the fantasy coach must figure out whether the player’s underperformance is an outlier or a trend. This task is further complicated by the fact that prior performance is not always a reliable predictor of future success. Anybody who has played fantasy football for a couple seasons or more will tell you that the past is not prologue in the NFL. Players who suffer an injury, a coaching change, a positional adjustment, an update to the starters around them, or a trade to another team can fall off a cliff, going from heroes to proverbial zeroes from one Sunday to the next.

If you have an employee who is delivering late or producing low quality work, you must do your level best to figure out if this is a fluke or a pattern. And when you see that it is a pattern, you must further determine whether the pattern is due to factors that are outside the employee’s ability to control but within yours. Many employees, like many NFL players, fail not because of any intrinsic shortcomings but because of environmental factors. By the same token, these environmental factors may not be subject to change. An NFL coach is not generally going to alter his entire coaching style or strategy to accommodate a specific player.

Thus, in evaluating environmental factors that may be causing an employee’s underperformance you must be clear-eyed regarding their relative mutability. If an employee is underperforming due to a lack of skills, which may be remedied through training, that is an environmental factor you may be willing to adjust by providing the needed training. On the other hand, if an employee is underperforming because they prefer to telecommute whereas you prefer your team to be in the office that is an environmental factor you may not be willing to adjust.

Ultimately, regardless of whether the cause is intrinsic, environmental, or a combination, you must decide whether a team member is likely to improve sufficiently and within an acceptable timeframe. If this is likely, then you should put forward the necessary coaching effort to drive improvement. You owe it to the employee and to your team. However, if you have reached reasonable certainty that the necessary improvement is unlikely, then you have identified an underperforming team member and must now turn your attention to managing his or her departure from the team.

Good fantasy football coaches think not in terms of dropping players but in terms of replacing players. With just sixteen roster spots it is critical to use each spot for the best available player for the team rather than leaving it empty. Unfortunately, in the business world, it is not always possible to replace an underperforming team member with a new hire due to budgetary or operational constraints. Regardless, considerable thought should be given to how the underperformer’s responsibilities will be transitioned to minimize disruption to the team or the work.

The vacancy left behind by a released team member can be managed in a variety of ways. The most straightforward is to bring in a new employee who will hopefully prove to be a stronger performer in the role. However, if this is not possible for the reasons noted above, there are at least two other options. The first is to promote a more junior member of the team to the vacant role. This can be a great way to provide a growth opportunity for a deserving employee while simultaneously strengthening the team. The second is to distribute the departing employee’s responsibilities among the rest of the team. While this may add pressure on the team, it can also lead to innovations in processes and tools borne out of a need to find efficiencies.

Whatever your replacement decision, you should proceed with full disclosure to the entire team. In fantasy football, the entire league is notified the moment a coach drops or replaces a player. There is no gossip by the water cooler or whispers behind closed doors. While real-life NFL players could care less about fantasy coaches dropping them, the principle of transparency is arguably far more applicable to real-life workplaces as it is to a fantasy league.

You should explain to the underperformer your reasons for letting them go and you should tell your team how you plan to replace the departing employee’s responsibilities. All these communications should happen on the same day and, if possible, within the same contiguous block of time. This minimizes team anxiety and reduces the risk of employees becoming misinformed.

Winning is Winning

Not all great fantasy football players are outstanding managers and vice versa. However, there are certain qualities that great fantasy coaches and exceptional managers seem to share. These are the qualities that enable them to draft and hire well, to manage their respective teams effectively, to replace underperformers at the right time and in the right way, and ultimately to win consistently against the competition, whether it be in the form of other fantasy teams or competing real-life businesses.

The first similarity is that both types of winners invest significant time and energy in preparation. Great fantasy coaches know all the players at key positions in the NFL, read draft and strategy guides, study match-ups, and closely follow up-to-the-minute news about injuries, roster updates, coaching changes, and game plans. Similarly, effective business managers know the strengths and weaknesses of everybody on their team, read quality management books, continually analyze and refine processes, and closely follow updates relating to their department, company, and industry.

The second similarity is that both types of winners are strategic thinkers who maintain a long-term outlook. Great fantasy coaches plan for the entire season, ensure coverage during bye weeks, and evaluate player performance based on multi-game trends. Similarly, effective business managers plan for the full fiscal year, ensure coverage is maintained during employee absences, and evaluate team members based on output over the course of weeks and months.

The third similarity is that both types of winners place the team’s success ahead of individual preferences. Great fantasy coaches select the best available players even when it means selecting a player from a rival NFL team in favor of a player from the coach’s hometown NFL team. Similarly, effective business managers hire and promote the best performers irrespective of personal relationships.

Finally, great fantasy coaches and effective managers exhibit perseverance in the face of setbacks. They never stop trying or fighting for the win. Great coaches find a way to move forward even when their number one pick is injured or their key starter is traded or their top player underperforms for six weeks straight. Similarly, effective business managers find a path to success even when their budget is slashed or their best contributor leaves or their key hire underperforms for the whole quarter.

In the end, anybody can win a fantasy football game or make a good business decision on any given Monday. However, building a consistent track record of success requires a finely tuned skill set and the judgment and discipline to apply it effectively. This basic truth holds up equally well in business and in fantasy, and by identifying parallels between these worlds perhaps we can become slightly better at both.

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Jack Plotkin

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I have devoted much of my career to solving complex business challenges through the application of technology across multiple industries, including healthcare.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +536K people. Follow to join our community.

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