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Reality Doesn't Bite
Bob Cunningham

There are as many reasons for participating in fantasy football, it seems, as there are decent wide receivers.

For some, it's about football. a chance to directly affect the outcome of a football game in which they have tangible stakes. These owners, typically, are former players and coaches.

For many, it's the competition. This type of team owner relates to the scene in the movie Days of Thunder when Tom Cruise's character, Cole Trickle, engages in a hospital wheelchair race with his main rival, both of whom were hurt in a fiery crash at Daytona just days before.

For these owners, it's not necessarily about football. but rather, the additional opportunity to spank their friends.

For others, it's about the NFL. You think that a lifelong Cardinals fan might not have an interest in a football season alternative, given his favorite team's annual also-ran status?

For still more, it's the sense of belonging to a group. the social aspect. For these guys/gals, it's not about winning, but simply about playing.

OK, so consider this. What do most of the above fantasy football fanatics have in common? Let me tell you - they desire a realistic experience.

The No. 1 benefit for most fantasy football players is the opportunity to fulfill a dual role as general manager and head coach of real pro athletes. The chance to trade, to cut, to sign a free agent. to start a sleeper, to bench a star because of a poor match-up.

This is the real beauty of this amazingly diverse hobby, which is why I am such a strong proponent of "keeper leagues."

A keeper league, for those few of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is a fantasy football league in which owners retain all or part of their rosters from year to year. For my money, it's the only way to go.

Perhaps the most enjoyable experience in fantasy football is participating in the inaugural draft of a keeper league. the realization that you've just acquired QB Kurt Warner, for instance, and that he will be yours forever unless you trade him.

Assembling the initial team in a keeper league can be the difference between a dynasty composed of several titles, and indefinite also-ran status. Still, the great part about a keeper league is the ability to build a team as you see fit for the long-term. the indisputable value of a rookie phenom who might need a year or two to gel. and the total satisfaction in watching that player develop into one of the most productive in the league.

When it comes to the utter "realness" of assembling a team just like the pros, a keeper league is where it's at, regardless of a head-to-head or total points format. or both.

Keeper League Draft Tips

The first few rounds of a keeper league draft are pretty much like any fantasy league - you're looking for the best talent available, with some consideration to the positions they play.

But once you've picked enough players to assemble a starting lineup, how you fill out your roster is crucial. The intelligent keeper league owner focuses on youth - young players with huge upside. It doesn't necessarily matter if the player is a starter now, or even at anytime during this season. It's the player's long-term prognosis that counts, and if a guy appears to be a future star, you grab him - even if it takes him riding the pine for two years before getting his chance to perform.

Keeper league owners also approach trades differently, because player-for-player swaps aren't the limit. Many trades in keeper leagues are composed of players in exchange for future draft picks. This encourages additional trade activity, which is always good for the league except in cases when a lower-echelon squad attempts to sandbag (lose intentionally) in order to gain better draft position the following fall, or worse - help a contending pal win the league in exchange for a percentage of the prize money. Leagues handle this potential problem in numerous ways, the most common of which resorts to commissioner rejection of a trade.

This shouldn't be confused, though, with a low-rung owner who trades his two or three most marketable players for draft picks and/or prospects. This isn't sandbagging. This is intelligent team management with an eye toward the future. A sandbagger can be spotted by the starting lineup he features. If he's benched Peyton Manning in favor of Gus Frerotte, for instance, you know his intentions.

Other Reality Pills Worth Taking

There are other methods for instilling the reality aspect into your league. Some leagues which utilize strictly a head-to-head format score touchdowns, field goals, etc. exactly as they are scored in real football, with no performance bonuses for yardage, etc. That means the final scores of the games will be realistic compared to the real thing.

There's an inherent problem with that format, however. When all touchdowns are scored as 6 points, for example, it means that Zack Crockett's 1-yard dive is as valuable as Warrick Dunn's 80-yard scamper. A TD specialist like Crockett, therefore, would have huge value in this particular league.

A better alternative to that is to run a head-to-head league using the more traditional scoring of TD points based on length and method, and performance bonuses for yardage, but include a divisor to achieve realistic football scores. For example, a team who compiles 110 fantasy points for the day can have that score divided automatically by, say, 3.5, to arrive at 31.4, or 31 points. A fantasy game resulting in a 110-88 final score would actually be reflected as 31-25. This is a minute alteration to a league, and yet it adds mystique and reality to the results.

More sophisticated leagues can add fines for owners who play the wrong players, lack participation, miss a deadline for lineup changes, etc. with the additional funds used to help pay for an end-of-the-year champion roast at the local sports bar.

Regardless of the preferred format, the most traditionally successful leagues incorporate a significant amount of reality-based play. it's far and away the most fun, regardless of your motivation for joining the league in the first place.