You have to worry about it with car insurance, medical insurance, customer service, banks, cell phone providers, internet providers...If you are using a service, you will have and should have some expectations. Everyone wants something different, which is why so many different companies exist in the world today, and your Fantasy Football experience is no different. You have an idea of what you want your league to look like and how you want to run it, and you have an idea of who you want in it....But what should the provider do for you? Let's take a look.
First off, I am not going to do a "this is the best provider" article. I had some requests to compare providers to help find the best fantasy sites, but the important thing is to remember everyone has different preferences, and mine might not be yours. Instead I am going to try to identify all of the things I like to see from a provider, that way you know what to look for.
The Must Have Stuff: When you are looking to join or create a fantasy football league, you have some expectations, especially after reading the fine articles that came before this one. You have an idea of what scoring system you want to use, what roster set up you want, whether you want keepers or not, and a multitude of other things...Its important to make sure a provider has them.
- Scoring Systems: Some smaller fantasy football sites do not let you manipulate scoring systems, but they are rare. All of the big ones (ESPN, CBS, NFL, FOX, etc.) let you change scoring settings. The question here is, do they let you change them in all the ways you want? Some good questions to ask/research (if you care): Can we use decimal scoring? Can we add Points Per Reception? Can we add milestone bonuses (for 100 yard games, as an example)? Can we use negative scoring? Can we reward return yards/scores?
- Rosters: Can we divide special teams and defense into separate units? Can we use Individual Defensive Players? What options do we have for Flex Positions? This last question is big. Some have a RB/WR and a WR/TE option. Some have a WR/RB/TE option, but not all. Some have an Offensive Utility Player option, which may include QBs as well. When it comes to IDP, this can mean the difference between DE & DT or just D-Line player in general. Some let you add silly stuff, like Punters and Head Coaches. Make sure you know what you want and then make sure a provider can do it for you.
- Keepers: Does the provider allow keepers? Is the amount unlimited? Can you program rules or do you have to manually make sure no one is in violation (if you have a no-more-than-1 QB keeper rule, but 3 total keepers, for example. Will the provider stop them from keeping 3 QBs, or do you have to review it as the League Manager?)
- Drafting: Some providers don't offer Auction Drafts yet. That only matters if you want one, but its good to know. Some have Auction drafts but do NOT have the supplemental salary cap rules for managing the roster. Some won't let you force teams to "pay" for their keepers. A good number of providers don't let you do "Straight line" drafts, which really gets my goat. A snake draft isn't always the answer.
- Status Updates: All providers have status updates to let you know when players are Injured, put on IR, suspended, cut, or traded. Some can email you or text you if you want. The big thing here is speed. There are a number of service providers that are hours behind, but some are days behind, and in our modern era of communication, it is unacceptable that I may have to go to a 3rd party site to find out if my player is in or out for a game. If you are a casual player and look and your roster looks good 20 minutes before kickoff, it will kill you to find out later 3 guys were out. Game-time decision players are announced an hour prior, and your provider should be paying attention. On top of this, some providers are good at it, but neglect special roster players - such as IDP updates. Just because they have real time Offensive player updates, doesn't mean they give the same care and attention to IDP.
The Bells & Whistles
- Scoring Updates: In this day and age, there is no reason to work with a provider that does not have up to the minute scoring updates. Some even have embedded highlight film or watch it live scoring replays. I don't watch my fantasy game, but I do check it during commercials, so all I care about is up to date scoring.
- Analytical Tools: Most sites are catching up here. The ability to do side by side trend and stat comparisons, compare how position groups do against certain teams, get realistic expectations in scoring predictions can be a great help whether you are casual and don't have time to do it yourself or are hardcore and want a good baseline of information to start with. Most have some kind of "draft kit" to help prepare you.
- Draft Prep Tools: Being able to pre-rank in case you miss a draft and it auto-drafts on you, being able to prioritize positions or individual players by round, those are nice. What I really like is a chart that shows me what everyone has drafted, more by position than the specific players, so I can predict whether or not the guy in front of me is thinking QB or RB. It makes me feel better anyway.
- Trophies: Electronic trophies are a nice touch, and some sites let you set them for anything and everything measurable, both good and bad. Lowest scoring game of the season? Have a trophy added to your profile that advertises how bad you are. Some let you add point values to these so you can do end of year awards based on the team with the highest trophy score...Its a fun side project.
- Embedded Financial Trackers: This helps keep money leagues straight. This can help avoid "lost" money and hurt feelings when someone thinks they paid and you think they didn't, only to find the check later.
"Other" stuff: There are millions of bells and whistles. Fantasy articles, fantasy experts, automatic "best lineup" engines that recommend line ups for you, calendars, message boards, alerts, "scout teams", Pick 'em games....You name it, it exists.
The bottom line is this: Make sure your site is going to give you ALL of the things you need to have the league you want (Roster, Scoring System, Draft Style, Keeper set up) and that it is up to date and accurate enough to support you without you having to do a lot of extra work (live scoring updates, live player status updates). Everything after that is icing on the cake and comes down to your preference. If you want to compare features, I recommend looking at ESPN, CBS and NFL.com to get a good feel for some of the built out providers, compare features, and then go looking. Unless I am doing a money league, I like my leagues to first and foremost be free... but sometimes you get what you pay for.
Fantasy Football 101 Articles to come: IDP Special Report, PPR Special Report
Other things on the back burner: Pre-Draft Fantasy Watch, A Year in Review: 2010 (5 part series), Post-Draft Fantasy Update, Fantasy Football Team Reports (8 part series, by division)