League Setups: Sizes, Schedules and Playoffs

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by David Gonos, Special Contributor

Published, 6/3/14 

When you’re setting up a new fantasy football league, there are a ton of options to figure out before the season even gets started. With so many league services to choose from, you can usually find whatever customizations you might need at one or two of them, if not all.
As you go through this, understand that once you choose how many teams are in your league, most league services will default the settings for everything else. But it would be good for you to get familiar with the nuances, and maybe even make some changes to the schedule, division makeup, and playoff settings.
While many league services have standard default settings, some are just downright strange. For instance, ESPN has two-week periods in their playoffs system. In other words, four teams in a 12-team league make the playoffs, and two teams play each other in Week Fourteen and Week Fifteen, with the winners facing off in another two-week Super Bowl. This is a nice way to keep Week Seventeen involved, but it doesn’t diminish the impact of a benched NFL star. (Even so, Week Seventeen should not be included in any playoff setup. Ever.)
Fantasy League Sizes
If you’re setting up a league, you obviously have to know how many owners you want in it. But it’s good to know what different league sizes offer to you and your league-mates. You might start with a smaller league and move up to a bigger one after a year or two, once it’s established and your friends’ friends want in.
8-Team Leagues
When you’re just starting out with a new Fantasy Football league, you really don’t want to go smaller than eight teams. The reason for that is that there are just so many good players that it’s tough to really distinguish teams as good or bad. Here are some attributes for eight-team leagues you can consider:
·       Every starting lineup is filled with superstars.
·       A standard draft would have about 120 players drafted.
·       Owners shouldn’t really use industry mock drafts to understand what might happen in their league’s draft, since a fifth-round pick in a standard 12-team league is really a seventh-round pick in eight-team leagues.
·       Great for people dipping their toes into fantasy football, with no real experience. Excellent for family leagues or leagues made up of kids.
·       Waiver wire issues pop up because everyone has stars on their roster already.
·       Very often, the worst teams in the league are still hunting for playoff spots in the final couple of weeks.
If you do an eight-team league, consider making it a two-QB league, where you start two quarterbacks a week, with three wide receivers and a flex position. This will give your league some depth.
Scheduling: Remember, you don’t want to schedule fantasy games during Week Seventeen, since many times, NFL teams bench their starters to get ready for the NFL playoffs. So one fantasy team can play the other seven teams twice a season, for a perfect 14-week regular season schedule.
Playoffs: The top four teams in the league, whether you use one division or the top two teams in each division, make the playoffs in Week Fifteen. The fantasy championship, as usual, will happen in Week Sixteen.
10-Team Leagues
You’ll notice a lot of leagues are set up this way, even though it’s not the industry standard or what fantasy football leagues have historically been over the past 25 years. My personal opinion is that some commissioner services offer 10-team leagues as the standard so they can squeeze more money out of owners. Getting six 10-team leagues gets them more money than five 12-team leagues.
However, don’t stretch your league to 12 teams just to do it. Make sure you have 12 committed owners who really want to block out time for the draft and plan to set lineups every week. If you have just 10 owners like that and you start asking your mother-in-law if she wants a team or your wife’s friend who “loves to see it when they kick a touchdown!” Just move on with 10 teams.
·       Teams are still pretty stocked with all-around talent.
·       Unless there are deep benches, it’s unlikely there’s a lot of free-agent movement in the early weeks.
·       Usually has a couple of awesome teams, with a couple of horrid teams, with six teams battling for the playoffs in-between.
The standard 10-team league is actually really good for office leagues that have some fantasy veterans and some fantasy newbies.
Scheduling: If you split your league into two divisions, each team can play their divisional opponents twice (eight games), and each out-of-division opponent once (five games). That’s 13 games in 13 weeks, which works out pretty well!
Playoffs: You can choose between a two-week or three-week playoff setup, but both should start in Week Fourteen, just to keep a balanced schedule.
12-Team Leagues
These are the standard leagues for the past couple of decades, and it seems to be the sweet spot for the running back position, which offers only 32 starting NFL tailbacks each week.
In a 12-team league where the talent pool dries up at a more rapid rate compared to the smaller leagues, you’re usually lucky if you can land three or four studs and build respectable depth. But, with the larger league size, you’re also a better bet to stand out from the pack if you fully understand your scoring system and put in the work needed to properly scout talent and keep up with the Waiver Wire. This size leagues are usually small enough for all teams to have decent depth.
Scheduling: If you split your league into three four-team divisions, each team can play their divisional opponents twice (six games), and seven of the eight remaining teams once. That’s if you have six teams make the playoffs, with three division winners and three wildcard winners.
You could also do one double-header week, in which you have each team play two teams in one week, which allows each team to play everyone at least once.
If you do a two-week playoff schedule (just four teams would make the playoffs), starting in Week Fifteen, you could have each team play their divisional opponents twice (six games), and each of the remaining teams once (eight games).
Playoffs: Usually, six teams will make the playoffs in 12-team leagues. Reward each division winner with a spot, then three wildcards, as we mentioned. The wildcards should be decided by best record, then most points scored. You could also have that sixth playoff spot reserve for a non-division winner with the most fantasy points scored that wasn’t already in the top five playoff spots. (This is for a team that just got snake-bit with a bad schedule, ends up going 6-7, but still has the second-most points in the league. He deserves a playoff spot.)
You’ll have to figure out a way to reward bye weeks to just two teams. Is it the two division winners with the best records, or is it the two teams with the best records (one might be a runner-up in the division)?
14-Team Leagues
Obviously, with the talent spread quite thinly in these large leagues, one must put in the time to research more players, and it pays to have a greater overall understanding of all 32 teams and their roster. It’s also important in these leagues, more than usual, to understand your scoring system and how it affects performance in the league. 
With so few studs available in a tougher league like this one, one or two injuries can kill you in a 14-team league. There’s also probably a higher likelihood that several teams will give up once the season is under way, since rebuilding a poor team on the Waiver Wire can be tough. Keeping owner interest can be an issue.
Scheduling: You can either go with one huge division, where the rankings are pretty straightforward, and each team would end up playing the other teams once, for a 13-week regular season.
Playoffs: Six teams would make the playoffs in this setup, starting in Week Fourteen with a Week Sixteen championship. This means two teams would get byes, and the next four battle it out in the wild-card round.
Bigger Leagues
Once you get above 14-team leagues, you’re really dealing with rare air, where owners should be ultra-knowledgeable and quick to make trades and moves on the Waiver Wires. It’s best to keep leagues like this limited to fantasy owners that are familiar with each other in fantasy message boards. You need to be able to count on these players to be active week-in and week-out, or else the entire league falls out of whack.
One suggestion I’d like to make -- say with a 20-team league -- is to break the league up into two 10-team conferences (maybe broken up by owner location – East and West?). This basically means you do two different 10-team leagues, with two completely separate drafts. Obviously, some players will be owned in both conferences, but it won’t make a difference until the end. If you have two-week conference playoffs starting in Week Fourteen, you can have a Super Bowl in Week Sixteen. This would end up with one team possibly playing another team that has a couple of the same players. It’s weird, but it’s a neat way to tie 20 owners together without having to rely on fullbacks in your starting lineups.
Hopefully, we’ve given you a good idea of which way you should go with your fantasy football league’s setup!
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