3 Key Business Negotiation Strategies from Fantasy Football

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By Eric Sugar

Like roughly 60 million other Americans, I enjoy playing fantasy football every season (well, I mostly enjoy it… depends on how I’m doing). I also spend a good portion of my workday engaging in complex negotiations – establishing agreement frameworks with our clients, doing deals between our clients and external customers, and navigating internal organizational politics.

In addition to a (fantastic) course on Argumentation that I took in college and some general transaction-oriented business classes, I’ve also seen about 2500 different deals during my tenure at Landmark. In the vast majority of those deals, I’ve leveraged very effective negotiation strategies derived from successfully executing win-win swaps of virtual athletes on my imaginary NFL roster.

As we approach playoff season in fantasy football (and end-of-year budget season in the real world), here are my top 3 tips for being more like 6-time Super Bowl winning Patriots GM Bill Belichick and less like perennial, cellar-dweller Jets GM, Joe Douglas (sorry Jets fans):

1. Start a conversation (and make sure to actually listen). On the surface, fantasy football seems like a zero-sum game – what one side gains in a trade is lost by the opponent (and it’s best to use distributive bargaining strategies to maximize your gains and minimize those of your trading partner).

But, there are a few traits that make fantasy deals different: 1) trades are complicated (multiple positons, different team needs, various player combinations, subjective player valuations, etc), 2) in most cases, you’ll be dealing with the same league members for long periods of time (and there is reputational cost to being a selfish trade partner), and 3) it is possible, and I’d argue optimal, to design win-win trades for both sides.

In this kind of situation, integrative bargaining has infinitely more benefits over zero-sum tactics – showing that you actually want to understand your trading partners’ perspective creates a much more collaborative and productive dialogue from the outset. Chris Voss (former lead negotiator for the FBI) expands nicely on this concept, essentially explaining that if the primary agenda is to pitch your side of a deal, you give permission to the other side to do the same thing… which isn’t productive for rescuing hostages, or doing fantasy deals.

In business, I almost always end up doing multiple deals with the same people on the other side of the table – when they move to other companies, change roles, or even when I try to recruit them. Treat every negotiation like it’s a deal in your fantasy league: listen to what the other side thinks they need (ie: don’t make crappy blind offers for Alvin Kamara or tell them what YOU think they should want on their team), and focus instead on gathering as much information as possible to find common needs and interests. Remember: the goal is to do a deal, not to rip someone off.

2. Don’t Negotiate Against Yourself. The advantage of being a strong listener (see #1) is that you get a ton of information to help make a smart initial offer and figure out the elements that matter to your trading partner. Making an uninformed initial offer opens you up to having to make painful concessions later in the negotiation. This is a mistake I used to make earlier in my career (and sadly, still do sometimes), where I lay out discounted pricing, or adjusted deliverables before fully knowing what the primary value drivers are for my trading partner.

The longer I’ve played fantasy football the better I’ve become at being patient and investing the time to understand exactly what the other side values before making any kind of offer, and especially before naming specific players. For example, instead of “who do you value more, Tyreek Hill or Josh Jacobs?” try digging deeper with “would you want to add more upside, or more consistency to your roster?” The latter question gives you much more information about their desired team composition and keeps you from throwing out names that can be devalued for not hitting specific needs (that you won’t even know about).

The same principle works for business negotiations – wait until you know what the customer/client/employee really values before making a specific offer. Otherwise you’re going to end up negotiating against yourself by making revised (and likely less beneficial) offers before the other side has even countered your proposal.

3. Always be willing to walk away (and know what that situation looks like). In fancy business-talk, this is called the BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), or, in English, your backup plan if a deal doesn’t get done. At this point in the fantasy season, team owners start to panic – the trade deadline is a week away, the playoffs are around the corner, you probably have some injured players, you have some underperforming players, you might have a tough upcoming schedule, etc. This is the time of the year when all kinds of crazy deals happen. Full tilt.

Despite my 25+ years of experience playing fantasy football (no joke, I started in 8th grade, converting the stats by hand from the box scores in the newspaper on Monday and Tuesday), I have certainly been in some desperate situations, especially in my league where we punish the last place team. Even in these situations, I never get into a serious trade conversation without knowing my backup options (eg: yes, I am really willing to start Darnell Mooney this week if necessary).

If you get too caught up in a deal, it’s easy to convince yourself the world is ending if the deal doesn’t get done (and you end up giving up too much or getting too little). Frame the deal as one possible alternative to your backup plan, and feel free to even share that backup plan with your trading partner (again, more information sharing is generally better when finding a mutually beneficial agreement).

As a business example, if there’s a great company that we really want to partner with, before I even pitch them, I try to set up calls with their main competitors. Not only for intel and competitive analysis, but also to gauge whether one of these companies could be a strong alternative to my preferred partner (and even start some of those initial discussions). This provides me with more confidence and maybe a bit of leverage before even starting a negotiation with my top-choice target.

Good luck to all of my fellow fantasy football fanatics this season. Hopefully you can reference this article when you have to explain to your boss (or spouse) why you’ve been spending 40 hours a week manically checking twitter for COVID-player updates, half-listening to work calls while analyzing playoff strength-of-schedule matchups, and watching YouTube videos from actual real-world physicians talking about whether Kenyan Drake suffered the dreaded high-ankle sprain or a more mild ligament sprain and for the love of god when he’ll be 100% again (asking for a friend). It’s not just fantasy – it’s a highly sophisticated, MBA-level business negotiation tactics course. Or that’s what I keep telling myself.