Omnifantasy strategy tips and resources

How to play the sports betting futures market across various sports

I’ll get back to using this newsletter to write about football soon enough — I have a take in the hopper I want to write up about why I hate player comps for incoming rookies — but first I need to send one final post about the new fantasy game I introduced to you all this week, Omnifantasy. And this one, my friends, is a doozy.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, I introduced the idea earlier in the week then yesterday explained a bit more about how it works and how you can create your own league with minimal effort. As always, you can view any old emails at bengretch.substack.com.

A couple things I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post.

  1. It’s 100% free to start an Omnifantasy league, there are no ads right now, none of that. It’s just a site built for people to play a game.

  2. I got asked when the best time to draft is. There are always ongoing sports events, but right now is the best window. But I’d say the absolute end date of drafting season is the start of the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness kicks off with two crazy weekends where the field gets narrowed first from 64 teams to 16, then from 16 to just four. That’s a really tough event to be drafting during, while other results like the first Champions League matches that have happened this week are also impactful but don’t eliminate so many potential picks so quickly. Obviously there are also sports in their regular seasons right now, but those aren’t major obstacles for drafting.

  3. The 2021 Australian Open is about to finish up, but it won’t count for 2021 Omnifantasy leagues. The Omnifantasy calendar for tennis typically starts with the French Open in May, then includes the following year’s Australian Open, which typically runs in January and finishes up before the Super Bowl, which is the last event on the Omnifantasy calendar. This year’s Australian Open was delayed three weeks, but it’s not part of 2021 leagues.

Today, I’m going to share some things I’ve learned — or I think I’ve learned — from doing these drafts over the past few years. I’m going to go sport by sport and talk about some resources I’ve consulted, things I’ve considered, and opinions I’ve developed, but the reality is this is a game built around the futures market and I’m not an expert or anything. Hopefully these give you some starting points to consider your own ideas for how to play Omnifantasy, or if you’re not into that you could also certainly apply these concepts directly to the futures market.

Friend of the podcast Sam Hoppen already created a sweet visual for a draft we’re doing together that looks at one thing you should likely consider: Value Over Replacement.

This is no different than ways we consider positional value in fantasy football, and it’s certainly a good starting point.

We also discussed many of these Omnifantasy ideas on last night’s Ship Chasing, which was a great time.

We’re recording these shows live every Wednesday night at 6:15 p.m. ET, and while it’s ostensibly a football show, we’re mostly just having a good time.

I’m going to break down each Omnifantasy event individually below, but before we get into that, here are some universal resources I’ve found to be helpful. The first might be a bit of a surprise, but the site I’ve found myself on the most to research Omnifantasy is actually Wikipedia. Essentially every season for every sporting event has its own page, most of which have brackets to visualize the playoff results that are updated very quickly. Here’s the 2021 Australian Open — Men’s Singles page which I’ve been on quite a bit this week to keep the results updated for the 2020 Omnifantasy leagues that are still finishing up.

I use Wikipedia to look up results for past tennis or golf major tournaments, or playoff results for sports like NASCAR, WNBA, or MLS. For anything that might be a little more scarce, Wikipedia’s a pretty great resource.

Another thing that is fairly universal that I do across sports is try to consult sites that model seasons and project outcomes. FiveThirtyEight does some — here’s their NBA projections. There’s a site called Money Puck that does similar for the NHL. These models are good resources to find potentially undervalued teams in the betting markets or to break a tie, but as a general rule I tend to trust the actual odds over the models.

Omnifantasy draft strategy

Alright, let’s look at some specific sports, how they’ve played out, and what that might mean for draft strategy. To do this, I’m going to reference results from my oldest league, which has been around since 2015. Since we’ve used different events in different years — some sports like EURO or the World Cup aren’t annual, and there are other events that we’ve tried out but didn’t fit the format well for one reason or another — it’s difficult to just go off of ADP to discuss when a pick might have been made. So instead, I’m going to refer to picks similarly to how I would refer to fantasy football picks within a position . I’ll often refer to the 11th running back taken as RB11 in ADP; here I’ll refer to the 11th NHL team taken in a given year as NHL11. That way we can look at an individual sport in a consistent manner across years.

The point of referring to these past results will hopefully be to highlight which sports provide better opportunities for late-round winners, and which sports it makes more sense to trust the favorites. Naturally, if a sport tends to be less predictable and longshots have historically fared well, it might make more sense to wait and draft that sport later. Of course, everything in every fantasy draft is tied to cost — these would be guidelines to help you look for value, not a specific way I would play every Omnifantasy draft I’m in.

Because the draft results in my longest-running league (and most Omnifantasy leagues) tend to follow futures odds fairly closely, when I refer to the NHL11 as the 11th NHL team picked, you can be pretty confident that team was somewhere in the range of, say, the 8th to 14th best NHL odds at the time of that draft (it’s probably an even narrower window than that in most cases).

All of these past drafts happened sometime in this late January to late February window, so the below results are also transferable to the current futures markets. Sports like the NHL and MLB might provide opportunities right now to go make longshot bets, even if you’re not playing Omnifantasy, as you’ll see from past results.

The commentary below builds off my general fantasy draft theory that you should make picks when there is a significant dropoff in alternatives and avoid other picks when the relative value of a bunch of options is very similar, or we may say things are “flat” from a value perspective. I don’t draft a lot of running backs in the early middle rounds of fantasy football drafts because “secure workloads” are a farce and artificially drive up prices on options that aren’t much more valuable than the options you can get several rounds later despite what a projection might tell you … (deep breath) … and I apply similar concepts here.

Other than when in the draft to target a certain sport, the other main thing I consider is whether I think it makes sense to use a flex pick on that sport, which I’ll also discuss below.

MLB

Listed results work back from 2020 to 2015

Past winners: MLB2, MLB11, MLB7, MLB7, MLB1, MLB13
Past runners-up: MLB8, MLB4, MLB2, MLB5, MLB19, undrafted

As we know from Moneyball, the MLB playoffs are notoriously fickle. That shows up here, where the top-drafted MLB team in January has won the World Series just once in the six years of results we’re looking at, and they haven’t been the runner up any of the six years. Even if we expand that to the top three drafted teams each year, we have two winners and one runner up across six seasons. Meanwhile, four of the past six World Series winners were drafted as the seventh MLB team or later in Omnifantasy, and two more runners-up fit that mold with one being undrafted entirely. That’s pretty obviously applicable info for the MLB futures market right now.

Of course, we have to consider whether time causes things to shift. There are some big-spending teams absolutely loading up on talent in the MLB this offseason, so I’d be fine taking a stab at the Dodgers or Yankees. But as a general rule, I tend to wait on MLB until the middle rounds and then maybe target two good-but-not-great teams that have reasonable odds to win their divisions and reach the postseason. I think MLB is a great sport to flex, and I tend to check Fangraphs data — where they have projected standings as well as team WAR totals — alongside futures odds to make decisions.

NBA

Past winners: NBA1, NBA3, NBA1, NBA1, NBA3, NBA4
Past runners-up: NBA6, NBA1, NBA2, NBA2, NBA1, NBA1

The top-drafted NBA team has finished as either the champion or runner up in each of the six years we’ve done this, while the other NBA Finals contender has also been a top-six pick in the sport. Some of this might be due to the timing of Omnifantasy drafts being midseason on the NBA calendar, but the reality is NBA odds don’t shift much based on regular season results.

The Nets currently hold the second-best odds despite a pretty average record, and it reminds me of a year where the LeBron James Cavs were similarly pretty average during the regular season but they still had the second-best odds and were a top Omnifantasy pick several years ago. Elite talent wins in the NBA, and the postseason is deep enough and there are no byes in their playoff format so you don’t really need a top seed necessarily. For me, the NBA has been an “early or punt” sport and I tend not to take a flex here.

NFL

Past winners: NFL20, NFL3, NFL1, undrafted, NFL1, NFL4
Past runners-up: NFL1, NFL16, NFL9, NFL1, NFL18, NFL11

This is obviously the sport I’m most familiar with, so my strategy varies most based on what I see as the opportunities in the market year to year. I’ve done well with a couple longshots — the Bucs last year and the Falcons as runners-up as the NFL18 in 2016. I also had the Broncos in 2015 when they won the Super Bowl as the fourth-drafted NFL team. My knowledge of the sport certainly makes me more likely to flex an NFL team, but I do think there’s enough unknown about the NFL offseason at this point that there’s a difficult element to it.

I like to look at available cap space at Over The Cap, and a big thing I target is teams with quarterbacks on rookie contracts because of the flexibility that allows, or teams that look like they might be a quarterback away from their odds increasing substantially. I took the Chargers this year, as I’m high on Justin Herbert. I also flexed Washington very late in a 16-team draft. Washington has a ton of cap space plus a good, young defense and a weak division, so they are one of those teams you could see getting a significant boost in odds if they land a quarterback upgrade. That worked with the Bucs last year, but I also did similar with the Vikings the offseason they landed Kirk Cousins, and despite getting that QB landing spot correct I didn’t exactly win a prize considering Minnesota’s defense regressed and they missed the playoffs.

It’s pretty interesting that over the past six years, every Super Bowl has featured one of the top four highest-drafted teams versus a team drafted ninth or later. Of course, three of those top-drafted teams were the Patriots, while the last two were both the Chiefs. Outside the few teams like these that carry their successes over multiple years, there’s a pretty good case to wait on an NFL pick and to avoid last year’s one-year wonders who enter the offseason with strong futures odds.

NCAAB

Past winners: N/A, NCAAB4, NCAAB1, NCAAB8, NCAAB7, NCAAB3
Past runners-up: N/A, NCAAB20, NCAAB20, NCAAB3, NCAAB2, NCAAB4

This might be the first one where pulling the past results in this format is making me reconsider something. Traditionally, I’ve tended to punt NCAAB because the playoff structure is so deep and you have to make the Elite Eight to earn Omnifantasy points that it feels like an unnecessary risk. Obviously every year in the NCAA tournament we see top teams go down early, so there’s a high risk for a top pick to get no Omnifantasy points.

At the same time, it’s interesting that in the five years of results that we have, every winner was a top-eight pick. There’s certainly an advantage to being a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the tournament, and the eventual winner typically does wind up being a higher seed. There’s risk here, but you’re not lost if you’re chasing a top team.

One thing I will note, though, is that I’ve seen a lot of people tend toward flexing more NCAAB teams because the tournament is so wild. My theory here is that there are so many potential teams that can make a tournament run that the expected value of any individual late-round NCAAB pick you might make is pretty low (that’s reflected in the expected points on the site, for what it’s worth). If you take a longshot in a sport with only 30 teams, there are only so many potential options that could be that year’s upstart success story.

But in the NCAA tournament, it’s more common for undrafted teams to earn Omnifantasy points. It might be tempting to think there’s a shot to nab the next breakout team, but the reality is even if the Omnifantasy draft was 30 rounds long, no one would have taken Loyola-Chicago in 2018 (or teams like VCU or George Mason back in the day, before Omnifantasy). The potential for an undraftable team like that to steal points makes me less likely to try to find a good flex pick from the pool of actually reasonable draft-worthy options. So typically, I have waited and taken one longshot NCAAB team with no flex, but your mileage definitely may vary. My favorite resource is kenpom.com.

NCAAF

Past winners: NCAAF3, NCAAF11, NCAAF2, NCAAF1, NCAAF2, NCAAF3
Past runners-up: NCAAF2, NCAAF2, NCAAF1, NCAAF12, NCAAF1, NCAAF10

The dominance of Alabama and Clemson over the past half dozen years shows here. The three times a college football team that wasn’t one of the top three drafted options made the CFP final, it was Clemson back in 2015 (NCAAF10), Georgia in 2017 (NCAAF12), and LSU in 2019 (NCAAF11).

This one to me is, like college basketball, a tough one to flex. There are a lot of potential upstarts, so it’s another “early or punt” sport where I either get an Alabama or a Clemson early or I’m pretty much fine waiting until later and taking a stab on an SEC team that might make a run like Georgia or LSU did. Eventually Alabama and Clemson won’t be quite as good as they are now, but that time doesn’t seem to be coming soon.

NHL

Past winners: NHL1, NHL16, NHL6, NHL4, NHL11, NHL1
Past runners-up: NHL8, NHL11, NHL2, NHL12, NHL14, NHL13

As far as I understand it, the NHL is known for teams getting hot in the playoffs and making a run, often behind a goalie playing out of his mind. Five times in the past six years, a team drafted outside the top 10 NHL teams in our January/February in-season draft has managed to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s pretty wild considering we do have enough information on some teams to pretty much eliminate them as viable draft options if they are far enough down the standings to be unlikely to reach the playoffs.

The top NHL team drafted has won the Stanley Cup twice, though, and the second-highest drafted team was the runner up once. That’s little consolation though — my strategy with the NHL is to wait a bit and then target teams I can be pretty sure will make the playoffs. I like to look at the playoff structure, which has bounced around a bit, and this year because of the pandemic has things strictly cut off by division until the semifinals. I mentioned Money Puck as one resource, and I’ve looked at Jeff Sagarin’s NHL ratings as well to get an understanding of divisional strength. The NHL is one of my favorite sports to flex because there are probably a limited pool of realistic options but lower seeds that make the playoffs do seem to have a decent chance to make a run.

ATP

Past winners: N/A, ATP2, ATP3, ATP6, ATP2, ATP1
Past runners-up: N/A, ATP1, ATP2, ATP7, ATP4, ATP3

Because tennis and golf are scored differently with aggregated results across the major tournaments, one upset or one bad outing doesn’t doom a pick. That builds in a little resiliency for the top picks where they have multiple chances to find a good result.

In golf, that still might not always work out for the top options, but in tennis it tends to mean the cream rises to the top — guys like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have traditionally been worthy of top picks. Even in 2017, when the ATP6 won the event and ATP7 got runner up, those picks were Nadal and Roger Federer, who I have to assume were discounted a bit due to injury that year and that facilitated a bit of a slide in the Omnifantasy draft. I can’t say I follow the sport well enough to be sure.

Of course, that old guard is starting to age out a little bit, so tennis could experience an upheaval over the next few years. The 2020 results aren’t quite in, and the way it has worked out, the winner of the Australian Open will take down the Omnifantasy title. The three remaining competitors are Djokovic (ATP1), Daniil Medvedev (ATP4), and Stefanos Tsitsipas (ATP6). Dominic Thiem (ATP5) is in contention to be the runner up for the 2020 Omnifantasy season after he won the US Open last year, but he got bounced in the fourth round of the Australian.

So even in a year where the top options faltered a bit, the next best options in the betting market were there in contention. The futures odds have tended to bear this out, with the top options having strong odds and a few contenders being vaguely close, while most of the options outside the top five or so names tend to have very long odds to win any individual tournament. That makes ATP another “early or punt” candidate.

I’ve strayed from that before though. A couple years in a row, I took Juan Martin del Potro in the middle rounds almost solely because he won the US Open way back in 2009 when he was just 20 years old, beating Nadal and Federer in the semis and finals. Injuries took their toll on his career, but my theory was he had the talent to beat the top names, and he did wind up back in the US Open final in 2018 and finished third in Omnifantasy that year. I mention that because it’s a good example of how I use the past results as a guideline but certainly am willing to consider all options. I’m unlikely to flex a tennis pick.

PGA

Past winners: PGA3, PGA5, PGA9, PGA19, PGA3, PGA6
Past runners-up: PGA21, PGA3, undrafted, PGA12, PGA6, PGA4

Golf is a weird one, because it’s more common for a top name to not do well at all in any given tournament, so there’s the potential for a good golfer to go an Omnifantasy season’s worth of majors (plus a fifth tournament, the PLAYERS) without accumulating many points.

At the same time, there’s a pool of the very best golfers in the world, and the Omnifantasy PGA winner or runner up has come from the top six highest drafted golfers in any given year on seven out of a possible 12 occasions. There’s also been a longshot to win at least one of the tournaments each year we’ve done this, which typically propels them into the top five in the final Omnifantasy standings. Collin Morikawa did it last year, Shane Lowry in 2019, Francesco Molinari in 2018, Si Woo Kim in 2017, Danny Willett in 2016, and Zach Johnson in 2015.

Picking that guy is pretty tough from a big group of potential options. It’s probably the case that PGA should be treated like the college sports I described above, where you’re less likely to flex and either take one of the very best options or wait it out, but I’ve flexed golf before with a late-round shot. I’ve also been willing to target PGA guys higher than I maybe should.

NASCAR

Past winners: NASCAR7, NASCAR2, NASCAR4, NASCAR5, NASCAR3, NASCAR12
Past runners-up: NASCAR8, NASCAR3, NASCAR5, NASCAR3, NASCAR2, NASCAR2

I don’t claim to know anything about NASCAR, but when you look at the odds you’ll see typically seven or so top drivers and then a pretty big gap by the time you get down to around the 10th driver. And in the past, the top finishers have almost overwhelmingly seemed to come from that top pool. What’s more, the other top drivers not listed here because they didn’t finish first or second tend to at least reach the final race at a very high rate.

The one time NASCAR was won by a later pick back in 2015, it was Kyle Busch, who I believe had a broken leg that year so he was scheduled to miss half the season. He did well enough in the second half to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs, and then he took it down.

What’s interesting is most people aren’t thrilled about taking NASCAR picks early. My limited understanding is the reason the top drivers tend toward strong results is they are essentially the lead guy on their driving teams, like how Cal Naughton Jr. always slingshots Ricky Bobby to victories. Shake ‘n’ Bake, baby.

NASCAR is another early or punt option for me, and I think it’s reasonable to flex if done early.

Champions League (UCL)

Past winners: UCL4, UCL4, UCL5, UCL3, UCL3, UCL2
Past runners-up: UCL5, UCL7, UCL8, UCL5, UCL4, UCL6

The Champions League schedule is long, and during draft time they are already in the Round of 16. That means the field is already whittled down considerably, so even the seventh- or eighth-highest drafted team reaching the final is in some ways a longshot making a run.

It’s notable that the top-drafted UCL team has never made the final in our league, and the second-highest drafted team has done so just once. One reason for that could be that in each round, there is a new random draw, so there aren’t really seeds. As a result, sometimes two of the top teams can face off before the final. But for the most part, the final has still featured clubs drafted among the five best options in this sport, and all six winners have come from that group. It’s probably reasonable to flex in Champions League if you do it early, because even though the field is down to 16, the longshots don’t stand much of a chance. That said, we do know their matchups for the Round of 16, and in some cases you have two weaker clubs facing off and the certainty that one will advance to the quarterfinals. Those can be interesting targets in the middle rounds as a semi-punt option.

Then you also could get lucky with a pick like Lyon last year, who were the very last UCL selection in my league and proceeded to upset Juventus then Man City to reach the semis. Ajax in 2019, Roma in 2018, and Monaco in 2017 all did similar in making semifinal runs. Again, not an expert here, but my limited understanding is there’s certainly some variance in soccer that makes upsets possible.

MLS

Past winners: MLS17, MLS5, N/A, MLS8, N/A, N/A
Past runners-up: MLS3, MLS9, N/A, MLS2, N/A, N/A

MLS is a bit of a crapshoot. We didn’t do it in our league in 2015, 2016, or 2018, but the years we’ve done it have been pretty wild. Last year, our league flexed MLS teams fairly heavily, and wound up drafting all but four teams in the entire league. Of those four teams, three made it into the final eight and “stole” points. We’re talking three of the four longest odds in February all being quarterfinalists.

There’s not much I can offer here — it’s tough to even find reliable MLS futures odds — but I like to wait and make MLS picks late. I also don’t mind flexing because longshots can fare well but there also aren’t as many teams in this league as there are in some other sports, so from a percentage standpoint it just seems more practical that you could get lucky. That said, it’s been expanding, and it’s up to 27 clubs now.

EURO

Past winners: EURO7 (2016)
Past runners-up: EURO2 (2016)

EURO isn’t an annual tournament, so we have a limited history. Also, 2016 was the first year the tournament went to 24 countries and the knockout round expanded to include 16 teams. Previously in 2012, the knockout round was only eight teams.

At any rate, EURO was tough. Wales made a semifinal run as a late pick, and Iceland was taken even later and made the quarterfinals. We’ve also used both the men’s and women’s World Cup in the past, which employ similar structures to EURO. On the men’s side, Croatia reached the final in 2018 as the 11th country taken, while there’s been a little less variance with longshots on the women’s side the two times we’ve done it, but those tournaments were not without surprises.

One thing I look at with EURO is the pools and where those teams might line up in the knockout round. The Group of Death is pretty clearly Group F this year, which includes France, Germany, and Portugal. In EURO, some third-place teams do advance to the knockout round, but one of those teams will finish second in Group F, and then the second place finisher in Group F lines up against the winner of Group D in the first knockout round. England, one of the tournament favorites, is also the favorite to win Group D, so it seems likely England will face off with perhaps one of France or Germany right away in the knockout stage. That’s obviously not ideal for any of those countries.

Similarly, if you don’t take a top EURO club, you can look at the group alignments — Wikipedia lays it all out — to find a longshot that might have an easy knockout round path to make a run for the quarters or even semis.

WNBA

Because the WNBA only has 12 teams, my 16-person league has never been able to use it. I enjoyed it in some other leagues I did last year, but I don’t have a strong read on what to expect. The Seattle Storm won the league last year, and they were the fifth, sixth, and sixth-highest drafted team across the three drafts I did with WNBA. The runner-up Las Vegas Aces were the top-drafted team in each of my three leagues.

One thing we know is that with only 12 teams in the league, the likelihood of a pick finishing in the top eight is obviously very high. Also, if your league is close to 12 people, there will be limited drafters who will be able to flex a WNBA team. Let’s say you have 10 drafters in your league — getting two WNBA teams early to lock in a WNBA flex seems like a sharp strategy since only two people will be able to choose a WNBA team for a flex spot before the rest of the available WNBA teams will be reserved for drafters who haven’t yet taken one.

Final thoughts

That’s all of ‘em, all 13 events in the Omnifantasy field with results from past leagues. I fully expect the many sharp people trying Omnifantasy out for the first time to come up with plenty of leaks in these concepts and, more importantly, strategies of your own that I haven’t even considered. And while I tried to lay out a bunch of ideas here, the number one rule I’ve always known about Omnifantasy is this: there are so many options that no matter what you do, you’re sure to have regrets. It’s a beautiful, fun mess.

Also, now that I’ve written up these three posts to detail how to play Omnifantasy and some things to consider, I’ll likely be cooling it with Omnifantasy content on the Stealing Signals newsletter. However, I do think a free Omnifantasy newsletter could be in the works in the next week or so, where I’ll track results and try to keep everyone updated on the goings-on in the Omnifantasy world. Keep an eye out for that if you’re interested in staying in the loop.