Auction Advantage – What's Worked for Me
By Scott Pianowski Originally published on August 20, 2003
This article is part of our fantasy football help series.
Let's get to the point – I'm here today to sell you on the joy of the fantasy football auction. It's fun, it's funky, and it will put more enjoyment – and more skill – in your league. And at the end of the year, you might have more money in your pocket.
Let's start with some Q and A, and then we'll get into my personal auction principles. There's a lot to cover, so bring a notebook – and maybe a calculator.
Why even bother having an auction? We usually draft.
With all due respect to the joy of draft day, my unofficial poll suggests that auctions are a lot more fun. They're also completely fair – anyone can own LaDainian Tomlinson or Ricky Williams if they want to pay the price. They add more skill to the game, most seem to think.
Of course, there are some cons to the auction way of life. A fantasy auction takes a lot longer than a draft. If one person has to leave early – or if one person gets bumped offline – it can throw a big wrench into everything. And there's more "grunt work" to be done at an auction – more accounting, more secretarial stuff, and obviously, you need an auctioneer too.
Still, auctions are pretty neat, and I really enjoy them.
So what do you know about them, anyway? Why should we listen to you?
I've got a pretty good track record in auctions. I don't have any specific stats in front of me, but I know I've won auction-based fantasy leagues in baseball, football, basketball and golf. The only hockey auction I can ever remember being in, I came in third. I've won a couple of team auctions, too (major-league baseball, NCAA basketball tournament).
Granted, I've had some train wrecks now and then – ToutWars comes to mind. But overall, I know I'm ahead of the game. I know auctions. I spend time on eBay. I own Adam Smith volumes. I've spent a lot of time with this stuff.
Okay, so what's the winning strategy?
I can't promise you that I know any secret formula that is guaranteed to bamboozle your opponents and lead you to glory. I just know what has worked, more often than not, for me.
And understand that I will never argue that there's just one way to "win" at the auction table; just like multiple styles of play can win at poker, and just like multiple investment strategies can win on the stock market, I firmly believe that multiple schools of thought can lead to a successful fantasy auction.
Here are some of the guidelines and principles that have worked for me in fantasy auctions (draft players pay attention as well; there is some overlap in the strategy):
General Principle 1 – Come to the table with a plan, but make sure it's a flexible one.
I'm always amazed when I hear stories of fantasy owners making definitive judgments and final decisions on their auction strategy (or drafting strategy) long before the event takes place, and then refusing to budge from those principles once the game begins. Huge mistake!
Sure, you might want to fool around with some dollar values beforehand, or look back to how things went last year, or figure out some formula, or form a general design of where you want to spend your money.
That's all fine. But just because your Running Back Valuation Index says a player is worth $28 does not mean you can't bid $32 on that player on auction day. Maybe you just saved some money elsewhere, and you really need that specific player because he's the last legitimate RB left. Maybe the market value on the top backs was more than you expected, and that player is really a bargain because the RBs ahead of him all went in the $40s.
It might make sense to lay the extra cash. It's all relative.
It can work in the other direction, as well. Maybe you planned on skipping the "receiver trinity" because you knew they'd be too expensive. But if the bidding on an elite wide reciever stops at some crazy low price, why not jump in?
You have to allow for some on-the-spot judgments to be made. If your draft manifesto is anything more than a general guide, then all you're really doing is handcuffing yourself to your own stubbornness.
General Principle 2 – You have to be an accountant.
It can be a pain in the neck at times, but you *must* track every owner during the auction if you want to have any success in the midgame and endgame. It's essential that you know what they've spent, how many roster spots they've already filled, and what they still need to get.
It's possible to track this without using the actual players bought (simply make a position grid and X-out the appropriate spot when a player is sold), but I recommend using the actual player names. It's up to you.
Accounting 101 turns into Accounting 202 when the midgame and endgame set in. Get in the habit of figuring out what a team's maximum bid is left – it's not a hard calculation to make.
In an auction that uses dollar increments, if your opponent has five players left to buy and $13 to do it, his maximum bid on any player is $9 – he could buy four players for a buck, then max out for $9 on the final player. For you algebra fans, it's (m-p) + $1, where m equals money left, and p equals players left to buy.
General Principle 3 – Constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the player pools.
This is very important in any league, draft or auction – make sure you stay in touch with the "personality" of every positional pool. Are all the stud quarterbacks gone? Do you still see 10 running backs you'd bid up to $5? How many of your breakthrough receivers are still on board?
Without doing on-the-spot surveying of the pools every so often, you won't know when to jump in and out of the marketplace. Try to see the trends and patterns before they become blatantly obvious to everyone else. Always be asking yourself, "if I don't get Player A, what's my Plan B? If I can't work Plan B, what's my Plan C?"
One common mistake I see a lot of players make is that they get "too social" at the auction or draft, to the point that they stop looking at the auction as a strategic competition. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for camaraderie and yukking it up with the guys, too. But when the room starts bidding up a star player that you don't want or need, take that down time and do some planning, some evaluating, some prospecting.
Don't get thrown for a curve – be ahead of it. Just like the champion poker player who is always evaluating something, or someone, you really don't want to stop thinking at the auction table (other than a periodic break now and then just to refresh yourself).
The corollary to this is that you also need to be constantly evaluating what your opponents are doing – what have they bought, what have they spent, and what do they still need? Most fantasy players are already used to doing this, so I won't belabor that point.
General Principle 4 – The smaller the league, the more top-heavy your roster can be.
When I leave a fantasy baseball auction, I usually measure my roster's strength by my weakest player. The goal is to have no weak links, no black holes. I feel in fantasy baseball you need all 23 (or 24) guys to win, more often than not.
Fantasy football rosters are a lot smaller, usually, and the starting core for fantasy football is on average less than half of what a fantasy baseball owner would typically use. With that, a star football player makes a far greater an impact on your bottom line than a star baseball player does.
The balanced-roster theme that can work so well in baseball doesn't always translate to football. If you don't have one of the primary studs, you usually can't win a football league – unless you play in an unorthodox league with gigantic rosters. (Go back and see who won your football leagues last year – you'll see the same handful of names on the cashing clubs.)
With all this in mind, my strategy for a baseball auction is usually different than that for a football auction. When it's MLB and I'm looking for 23 good starting players, I'll be patient and looking for a deep, balanced club that has no deadweight.
When it's NFL and I need to have some of the upper crust to have a chance, I'm much more likely to be aggressively bidding, early and often, when top names come out, even at the risk of having scrubs fill out the end of the bench. The smaller the league, the more important it is to get those blue chips.
General Principle 5 – Avoid doing the league's "grunt work" if you can.
You might laugh, but it is actually kind of fun to play auctioneer, and when your league is looking for a volunteer for that job, it's tempting to say yes. Alas, if you're really serious about getting the hardware, don't raise your hand. It takes away from the work you need to do, for one, and it's got a sneaky way of being tiring, for another thing.
The one good part about being auctioneer, albeit it's a little shady, is that you can control how fast players are bought and sold. Your archrival is getting a good player for a song? Sell him really s-l-o-w-l-y. This isn't something I'd ever do, but I have observed it in action. More than anything, this underscores why the auctioneer for any league should be someone who has no stake in the league whatsoever.
Your league might ask for a draft secretary volunteer, as well. For all the obvious reasons, skip this.
Now let's focus on some of the strategies specific to bidding.
Bidding Principle 1 – Vary your nomination style.
We realize that you probably talk football a lot with your buddies, so to some degree they probably know what players and teams you like and don't like. It's not a big secret, not a hush-hush thing. That said, there's nothing wrong with keeping your cards concealed at the auction table, so to speak, and with that, try to avoid being predictable if you can when it comes to nominating the next player up for bid.
A lot of auction players don't care about this – you'll see some who always chase after the player they nominate, while others will always throw out a name they don't want at all. Try to avoid falling into a pattern if you can avoid it.
All that said, when in doubt my early bids tend to be more of the second case above – in the early game I like to throw out the biggest marquee name on the board that I don't want (or perhaps don't need), for two reasons: 1, the player in question should take a healthy chunk out of someone else's bankroll – you want to see others spend money – and 2, watching the results of the bidding will help me gauge what sort of price I can expect to pay for a different star player of similar quality.
Alas, I'm certainly not a slave to that, either – if I were, I'd be too easy to read. I'll also nominate some stars that I do want, and I'm not afraid to toss out the name of a so-so player, or even a scrub, in the early game. Keep them guessing. Don't be too easy to read.
Bidding Principle 2 – When opening a bid, start with the minimum (most of the time).
This principle doesn't apply to the endgame, where overbids and financial situations often dictate opening a player for a quirky amount. But in the early and middle part of the game, you really want to start with the $1 call – or whatever the house minimum is – more often than not.
Trust me on this. You earn no points for being cute with a kooky amount to open – and in just about every auction I participate in, someone opens with a heavy bid on a player and lives to regret it. Maybe you didn't know about the injury. Maybe no one else can bid on the position and you didn't notice. Maybe the beer or caffeine has gone to your head.
Don't get cute. Start with the minimum.
The only time I can justify going against this principle (other than in the endgame) is if I'm trying the "Priceline Gambit" – throwing out what's essentially my max bid on a player, understanding that I'll get out if overbid. Sometimes a funky opener will catch your opponents off guard enough that you actually *do* get your player at that price.
Of course, in many cases, you could have had him cheaper. Old pros know how to sprinkle in the priceline gambit now and again, but it's not recommended for the auction rookies out there.
Bidding Principle 3 – If you're going to overpay, do so on a stud (or a known quality).
Okay, so maybe you had a running back set for $35 on your grid, and you wound up spending $41. You overpaid by $6 – fine. I can guarantee you feel better than the guy who had a quarterback set for $11 and wound up paying $17 for him, not to mention the guy who dumped into $8 on a lower-tier RB when other backs of that ilk went for a deuce.
Every auction will bring you some bargains and some tremendous discounts, here and there, but you'll probably going to have to overpay now and again, too. And with that in mind, be sure to use that overspend luxury on someone who's a difference-maker. Don't blow it on someone you're not sure of unless there's absolutely no way around it.
Bidding Principle 4 – Don't make promises you can't keep, or don't want to keep.
Said another way, try very hard to not make any late bid that you wouldn't be happy to win, or at least content to win. It's hard to avoid this, but you have to make the attempt, anyway.
I try to stay out of the late bidding on any player unless I see one of two situations: 1, it's a player I really want, or 2, I'm price enforcing because the previous bid was obscenely low – hence I actually do want the player at the current cost.
The reason I try to stay away from "fake bidding" just to jack up the price is that the move backfires far too often – and it totally sucks to be stuck with a player you don't want, at a price you don't like, at a time when you can't justify it. Heck, that sort of mistake can send even a smart owner on emotional tilt for the rest of the night.
If you stay silent when the bidding gets serious, it also sends a clear signal to your opponents – "I'm not in this one, so YOU can price enforce. I'm out of it." Granted, you can always jump in after the "going twice" call if the price is insanely low. But there's a lot to be said for keeping your mouth shut when it's not a player you want, or a price you can justify.
Yes, it's fun to bid and throw numbers out there, hear the wonderful sound of your own voice. But learn to get over it.
Bidding Principle 5 – Bid because it helps you, not because it hurts someone else.
This is closely related to the fourth bidding principle. Yes, it's tempting to play "screw your opponent". Sure, I understand that you figure he'll pay anything for a certain backup quarterback, say, because he's already landed that team's starter.
But what are you going to do when he leaves you holding the bag for the backup at $8, you have no need for another quarterback (and a backup at that), and that cash is really going to cripple you for the positions that you desperately need to address?
Don't assume that your opponents will run to you with trade options later in the year just because you have something they, in theory, desperately need. I've seen several owners refuse to trade for a logical position-fill player or backup for any number of rational and irrational reasons.
If you want to land a player because that player helps you, fine. But don't get caught up in targeting someone just to stick it to someone else – it will blow up in your face more often than you think.
Bidding Principle 6 – Don't blow cash over insignificant positions/slots.
A couple of young wide receivers were among my endgame targets for a recent RotoWire auction, if I could get either one of them for $1. If anyone said $2, I was content to pass – because in my mind, low-cost, high-upside wide receivers are in high supply, and I'm not going to make landing some of them for my bench a high priority.
The same goes for the kicking position – anyone who bids up a kicker in today's market is just wasting valuable cash as I see it – and usually for defense, too, though I know some leagues where I might approach that differently.
You're going to want the extra money to compete for the top-tier players. Don't blow it over your fifth receiver or backup tight end.
Bidding Principle 7 – In non-keeper leagues, final price doesn't matter.
This is where the "dollar value" geeks get in trouble now and then. It doesn't matter when the draft is over that you projected an elite tight end to be worth $17 and you actually paid $19 for him. All that matters going forward is that you own that elite tight end and a bunch of other players.
If you're not in a keeper league, don't get emotionally hyped up to what you're paying for players as the auction is proceeding. Just landed a bargain? Good for you. Just overpaid for someone? Hopefully you picked a good spot to do so. Ultimately these numbers don't mean a thing – you're throwing them all back at the end of the year, anyway.
Stay emotionally distant from that final pricetag. And once your season starts, no one has a price anymore – how the season plays out will determine who's worth a lot to you, and who isn't. Forget what you paid in August – do what's best for your team in October.
Bidding Principle 8 – Every now and then, throw them a curve.
You don't want to turn it into "Open Mic Night at the Chuckle Hut", but sometimes a little humor or out-and-out silliness can win you a bid. Give a corny reason why you're bidding on a player – his last name sounds like yours; you like his shoes; he's nice to kids; you don't have enough convicts on your roster.
While other owners are laughing, you might be sneaking a bargain through. Talk the player up. Talk him down. No one likes the auction player who never shuts up, but now and again this sort of levity is welcome in the room. And sometimes it can really work to your advantage.
Every so often it pays to be goofy with the numbers as well. Say you think a certain player is worth $15. As the other guys are going up by ones . . . $4, $5, $6 . . . maybe you should jump in with a $9 bid. You're still working with a tidy "profit" if you land that player, and yet the jump in increment can often throw an opponent off track.
This may sound like an over-simplification, but it really does happen. Just don't try it too many times – you run the risk of overpaying now and then when you really didn't need to.
Bidding Principle 9 – The ultimate jerk move – editorialize, editorialize, editorialize (not endorsed).
I'm not a fan of this in any way, but it happens in most of the leagues that I'm in, so I'm going to mention it. Table talk. Coffeehousing. It usually goes something like this:
– Sharp owner names a good, overlooked player for a buck.
– A shady rival knows that's a steal, but he can't bid. Instead, he says "wow, what a steal!"
– Some perpetual also-ran chimes in "two!"
In some leagues, this may not be frowned upon. I'm not endorsing it in any way. I'll let you guys sort it out.
Anyway, that's my take on auction draft strategy. I hope you found it interesting, if not enlightening.