The NFL regular season is over. And thank goodness -- as a Dolphins fan, I've had a miserable year. But now that I'm done being angry with Ricky Williams for not helping us out this season, I'm able to share with you some investment lessons that I picked up by playing fantasy football.
During the 2002 and 2003 NFL seasons, I participated in a couple of NFL fantasy football pools, my favorite being the one presented by The Sporting News. Its rules: Pick the winner for every NFL game each week. Whoever has the highest winning percentage at the end of the season wins. No point spreads. That's right. Are you pigskin heads spotting a flaw in the system?
My objective was very simple: to finish each season in the top two of my small group. I had to compete against 15 other people one season and against eight the next season. My available time to research teams was very limited: I'd rather spend my time reading 10-Qs and keeping up with Securities and Exchange Commission filings for my favorite stocks, like Home Depot
My fantasy football strategy
My limited knowledge of each team was basically restricted to whatever information was available through The Miami Herald's sports page and through SportsCenter, on Disney's
After some thinking, and borrowing heavily from my investing background, I came up with the following:
- Over an entire season, favorites are going to win more consistently than underdogs are.
- Since spreads even up favorites and underdogs, playing with no spreads offered me a competitive advantage: I could just pick the better team.
- You can find the favorites and spreads -- although I was concerned only with favorites -- in the sports page of any decent newspaper.
- The guys who develop those favorites and spreads are smarter than the people competing in the pool.
- I needed to remove emotion from my picks.
What did I do? Every week, without fail, I danced over to the last page of the sports section of my newspaper and picked the favorite for each game. In a "pick 'em" game -- one with equal odds -- I picked the home team. That's it. Yep. Doesn't this sound like index fund investing?
My competition was a motley crew. There was Danny, who always picked underdogs. There was my buddy Bob, who listened to sports talk radio all day, read all the sports pages, knew who was injured, was aware of every spread, and had been doing this for more than 20 years. And there was David, who would sometimes forget to put his picks in. He knew some about sports -- just enough to get himself in trouble. We also had Bob's buddy Peter, who made everyone believe that he knew something about sports, even though we all knew that he was a world-class B.S. artist. Then there were a couple of ladies, including Alice, who new nothing about sports and picked teams based on "feel."
During the 2002 season, I would check everybody's picks to see whether anyone did the same thing I did. Only during one week did one person have the same picks as I did. I was amazed. Why didn't anyone else follow my strategy? My guess is that people tend to overestimate their own abilities.
Two seasons came and went. The results were practically the same for both seasons. I guess that over the course of 16 games, luck eventually takes a back seat to statistics.
Bob, the sports talk radio guy, came in first both seasons. I like to call him our Peter Lynch of fantasy football. After the pool was over, I interviewed him and learned that not only was he very knowledgeable about his picks, but he was also cold-blooded. He, too, was a Dolphins fan, yet he would pick against them when necessary. (For the record, I did the same thing -- hey, the football spread told me to do so.) He represented the top of the stock-market food chain: Tons of knowledge and resources, lots of experience, emotions in check. Are you like Bob?
Why did Bob beat the point-spread experts? Well, maybe it was pure luck. Maybe the NFL's parity means that games with teams favored by one or two points are really tossups. Maybe Bob has so much talent that he should move to Las Vegas and work for the spread makers. Or maybe Bob is really the guy from Back to the Future and has inside information.
Me. Yep. Really. The guy who invested a total of two hours -- the amount of time it took me to open the sports page and write down the favorites -- over two seasons. Why did I do so well? My thoughts: (1) I had a stacked deck -- the guys in Vegas who pick the favorites really did know what they were doing. Or (2) I removed emotion from my picks, which is hard to do in sports betting. Or (3) I was consistent with my approach. Or (4), over time, favorites win more often than underdogs do.
My football pool experience reminded me that very few of us have the resources, time, and emotional fortitude to pick our winning stocks consistently, just by ourselves. However, here at the Fool, we do have our own "sports radio" equivalent, through newsletters like Inside Value and Income Investor, and discussion boards. Had you sided with either newsletter's picks since its inception, you would have soundly beaten the market average. And isn't that the whole point?
I won't talk about the folks who fell in the middle of the standings, because I didn't learn any fun things from them. But I did learn a little bit from the big losers. Drum roll, please: In last place was Alice and her "feel" picks.
Right above Alice was David. Remember, this was the guy who would sometimes forget to put his picks in. By doing so, he failed to exploit what had been a winning percentage. My experience has taught me that discipline is key to successful gambling and good stock picking. If you forget to invest because you're too busy, or because you have other priorities, you are destined to continue working until you are very old. With automatic deposits and index funding available to all of us, what excuse do we have not to be disciplined about investing?
Peter, the guy who knew just enough about sports to get him in trouble, beat David by a nose. He was an also-ran who clearly overestimated his picking abilities. He depended on very limited skills and became a football pool irrelevance. As most of us know, overestimating our abilities can make us lose a lot of money in the stock market. Have you ever invested in a stock without adequate research? Have you acted on a tip from a friend without doing your homework? I have, and it cost me a few badly scorched dollars. Successful NFL pickers, like investors, know their limitations.
Both fantasy football and investing have uncertain outcomes. But if you, as an investor, stick to picking companies that have sustainable competitive advantages, ample room to grow, and excellent management, and are shareholder-friendly and reasonably priced -- and you stay disciplined, manage your emotions, and do not overestimate your abilities, you'll stand a decent chance of coming out ahead.
Like the spread makers, market beaters help us make good, informed choices. For starters in the market, check out Inside Value's Philip Durell and Income Investor's Mathew Emmert, both of whom make their newsletters available for free 30-day trials.
Fool contributor Pedro Zuloaga prays that the Miami Dolphins draft an entire new offense for next season. He takes time away from prayer to welcome your feedback. Pedro owns shares of Home Depot, Investools, Alderwoods, and FARO Technologies. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.