Fitz on Fantasy: The Tao of Trading

(Note: This is an adaptation of a column Pat Fitzmaurice wrote for Pro Football Weekly in 2012.)

There will be thousands of fantasy football trades consummated today. Maybe tens of thousands. But for every trade successfully negotiated there will be at least two or three trade discussions that ultimately lead nowhere, with the two parties unable to agree on a mutually satisfying exchange.

Some fantasy owners are simply unwilling to negotiate in good faith. These are the owners who refuse to make mutually beneficial trades and won’t make a deal unless it’s lopsided in their favor. They have to “win” every trade. A good trade is one that satisfies both sides, and some owners simply aren’t capable of making that sort of transaction. But you are not that sort of owner. You’re a wise owner, and wise owners don’t bargain in bad faith. Doing so is a waste of time, and it damages your reputation.

I make a lot of trades in my fantasy football leagues, more than the average owner. That’s nothing to brag about; high trading volume doesn’t necessarily equate to success. But when a team needs to be improved and the waiver wire won’t do the trick, I do my best to improve via trade. What I take pride in with regard to trading is that I have a reputation as a square dealer among my rival owners (or so I’m told), and that when I endeavor to make a trade with someone, a trade is usually made, and with minimal haggling.

Here’s how it happens …

There is a tenet of Taoism called wei wu wei that essentially translates as “action without action,” or “doing without doing.” This concept springs from the idea that those who are in harmony with the Tao behave in a natural and uncontrived way. In a truly harmonious fantasy football trade negotiation, there’s very little effort involved. Two owners with contrasting strengths and needs agree to help balance each other. This pureness of purpose leads to an uncontrived negotiation. Both sides agree to what’s fair and walk away happy: action without action, doing without doing.

The trouble is that in most leagues, fewer than half of your rival owners are capable of such a negotiation. You may have to foist harmony upon them yourself. (Call it Western-style Taoism.)

How do you impose a harmonious trade upon a rival owner? You do it by eliminating negotiation.

Begin with a side-by-side roster evaluation based not your own perspective but rather on the perspective of the other owner. What does he perceive his team needs to be? At what positions is he satisfied enough with the depth to consider parting with a player? Which of your players does he covet? You could come right out and ask him all of these questions directly, but then you’ve entered into a negotiation. You’re seeking to bypass negotiation and proceed straight to an agreement.

For this to work, you have to genuinely try to think like your rival owner, because if he isn’t pleased with what’s being offered, there isn’t going to be a trade. If he badly needs a wide receiver, satisfy his need. Rid yourself of the fixation with “selling high.” That assumes the other owner will hold a player in higher regard than you do based on short-term results. If you think that little of your rival owner’s tactical skills, it’s unlikely you can make a wei wu wei trade work. Give him the wide receiver he needs. Offer him Marques Colston, not a Week 1 wonder like Jerome Simpson.

And just as you should give up the notion of selling high, you should abandon any hope of trying to oversell a player with depressed value. If you’re truly trying to view things from the perspective of the other owner, you won’t try to falsify the value of any player involved in the deal. Don’t advertise the current Antonio Gates as the Gates of 2009. If you have Chris Johnson and are trying to include him in a trade, don’t waste time trying to sell the idea that Johnson is on the cusp of another 2,000-yard season. If he has Johnson and you’re interested in obtaining him, it would be silly to note that Johnson averaged 2.8 yards per carry in Week 1 and disparage the very player you’re trying to acquire. Be genuine in evaluating the value of players.

Now it’s time for you to construct the trade the other owner would want to make. If you’re going to make an error of imbalance when constructing the proposal, err in his or her favor, revise later. Make sure the proposal accomplishes what the other owner wants to accomplish at positions of need without completely sapping another positions.

Next, it’s time to bring the Yin and the Yang of this trade into balance. You’ve done your best to accommodate the other owner’s needs. Now, accommodate your own needs. Since you were genuine in player assessment, you’re already close, and maybe you’re there already. If the balance of the trade is tipping toward the other owner, figure out how to bring it back into balance.

Do you need to add players to the deal? Can things be balanced by asking for a marginally better player at one of the positions involved? Run through a few possible revisions. After each one, ask yourself the critical question: “Would he agree to this trade?” When the answer is “yes” and you’re satisfied with what you’re getting in return. Take the offer to the other owner.

This is the enjoyable part. You’ve made an earnest attempt to put together a trade that satisfies both sides, and you’re convinced that you’ve achieved balance. Tell the owner, “I think I have a way for each of us to improve our team,” and then present the offer.

If you’ve done a good job, he’ll be intrigued. He may accept after a few minutes of consideration. He may need to let the offer ferment a little while before he accepts or rejects. Fine, let it ferment. There won’t be any negotiation. When he sees that you’ve put together a wonderfully balanced deal, he’ll most likely accept, even if takes a day or two.

If he rejects the offer, accept the rejection without further comment about the deal. Remember, you’re not negotiating. With the offer you put together, there’s no reason to negotiate. An adjustment in the other owner’s favor would throw the trade out of balance. You’ve done everything possible to make a deal, and it didn’t happen. Move on. Repeat the procedure with another owner with players who could satisfy your needs.

The “Three Treasures” of Taoism are compassion, moderation and humility. I’m not sure how well the latter two virtues mesh with the fantasy football experience (not very, I suspect), but compassion is the foundation for a successful trade. If you’re earnestly trying to improve your opponent’s team, trading is easy. If you lack compassion, you’re going to waste a lot of time with fruitless negotiations.