Building a Championship Summer Sports Camp Staff: As Told Through Fantasy Football

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Week 18 and the end of the NFL regular season wrapped up this past weekend, and for the estimated 65 million that play fantasy football, that’s a wrap, and the champions have been crowned in their league(s). As the season comes to close, it can actually feel a little sad to say goodbye to the fantasy roster you’ve invested in: reading up on your players injury updates each week, fist pumping when your first round draft pick rips off a big play TD, and riding the rollercoaster of checking the score projections throughout Sunday to see if you’re going to squeak out a win.

My fantasy squad closed out the season with a W in week 17, good enough to get us on the podium at 3rd place (yep, I know you don’t care at all about my team so I’ll stop there). So while I can now retire my Yahoo! Fantasy app until September, I’ll still continue to obsess over another roster: the Camp Winaukee staff roster for summer 2023 - a tangible excel doc roster that I’ve built to match the skeleton of positions we need to operate.

As a long time “fantasy manager” myself (we’re going on our 10th season in my hometown league, appropriately titled for any fantasy league - “League of Super Complainers”), I can’t help but see the parallels between managing a fantasy roster and staffing a summer sports camp…so if you’re feeling a post-season fantasy football void, huddle up and we can keep it going for a bit longer.

League Format

League format is your starting point. It determines most of the rules and the roster framework of a fantasy league: number of teams in the league, number of players on your roster, what positions you play with, how deep your benches are, and what your draft style is…there are a lot of options.

There are three primary league types: a re-draft league (far and away the most common), a keeper league, and a dynasty league. A re-draft is where you start fresh each season and pick a whole new team of players. A keeper league is a league that carries over from year to year, and managers are allowed to ‘keep’ a designated number of their players (usually 2-3 or so) before everyone picks the rest of their team for that season. A dynasty league is similar to the keeper league; however you keep a much larger portion of your roster from one year to the next, and sometimes all of the players if you wish. The staffing-camp league type is undoubtedly a dynasty league. Each year we do everything we can to retain our best staff members and hold onto them like the prized gems that they are. I can tell you first hand that having a returning waterfront director all lined up going into the next summer is as comforting and valuable as owning Christian McCaffrey (my first round pick this year and perennial superstar) in fantasy. This is the goal of every camp (or should be at least): find talented, reliable, high character people that share the same values as your camp and fit into the culture you want to create…AND that are available to return summer after summer.

Unfortunately, retaining staff in seasonal roles is one of the hardest but most critical components of camp staffing. Think about it - if you’re building a dynasty fantasy football team, do you want to draft the 32 year old running back that’s likely going to retire in the next couple of seasons, or the 1st round rookie RB with a multi-year stud horizon ahead of him? Camp is no different, except longevity is usually more about summer availability rather than the hamstrings losing their burst. Ideally, you hope everyone that comes to camp can continue to return (and that you want them to return), but certainly it becomes more and more important in leadership roles.

There is a bit of a compounding interest effect on your camp synergy with each year and each member of your leadership team retained. Often this naturally plays out and falls into place due to most leadership positions being filled with people who have a bit more experience and an established work situation or career that lends them to be available in the summer. Although life takes us in all directions and sometimes that summer availability changes, there is a way to increase the likelihood of retaining these studs…give them an unforgettable experience and a reason to want to come back! No special secret here, but it’s one of those truths that can be overlooked if you get too caught up expecting to settle into a five year plan out of the gate. If people are treated right, they feel valued, appreciated, and like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, they will often find a way to come back. So dynasty roster or camp roster, building from a strong returning base is absolutely the foundation of your team; but we still have the rest of the roster to fill out…it’s time to Draft!

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Draft Day: player projections, breakouts, and creating a cohesive roster

Drafting is for many, the most anticipated day of the fantasy season, when you select the players that you are going to start your season with. For Winaukee, this mirrors our fall months in which staff referrals and CampGroup (our parent company) applications are compiled for an initial pool of hires. With rehires now slotted into place, it’s time to round out the rest of the roster. Camp referrals are like your early round draft picks. The best correlation of success for first time camp employees are those who come with a recommendation from reliable and trusted colleagues in the field. There are very few parallels to working at Winaukee and living the summer camp experience, giving colleagues invaluable credibility as a source to connect the outside world and the camp world. They know the challenges, demands, expectations, and culture that will be placed on a new employee and if they have the tools to flourish in that environment.

As a fantasy draft gets into the later rounds, the range of possible outcomes for those drafted players increases - otherwise they would be early round picks too. Some would argue that this is where the most intriguing decisions happen and are the ones that have the biggest swing in outcome. In fantasy football and in camp, your proven superstars are typically going to live up to their reputations. The challenge is to find the breakout players that elevate your team to the top. Pick up a rookie running back like Kenneth Walker III in the late rounds that blossoms into a RB1, and that can be a league winning move. Find a football counselor from a website application and a limited resume, who is a positive role model in the bunks, and brings the energy as a Color War leader…that’s a game changer for your staff and more importantly, for some kids’ summer.

Finding the late round gems in both situations is all about using context to project performance. Going into the 2022 season, the Minnesota Vikings brought in a new offensive coordinator, Wes Phillips, who spent the previous three seasons with the LA Rams. Foreseeing that Phillips would implement a more pass-heavy offense, resemblant of the Rams, led many to project a breakout for Vikings QB Kirk Cousins and WR Justin Jefferson. The fertile environment produced as Cousins finished with his most passing yards in five years as a Viking and Jefferson finished just shy of breaking the all-time receiving yards record.

Cousins has been in the league for a decade but never considered anything more than average in fantasy; this year he finished as the #6 best fantasy QB. Did his skill set really improve this late in his career? Doubtful. But he was set up in a situation that allowed him to get the most out of his potential. Those situations exist with camp applicants too, and being able to accurately assess them and put them in a 2022 Wes Phillips offense can determine the extent of their success. A counselor prospect with limited coaching experience but eagerness and work ethic, can have a Kirk Cousins season. Winaukee has a longtime tennis director, Islam Ulhaq, who is second to none – putting that green but determined and committed tennis counselor under his leadership is the Cousins/Phillips marriage that can thrive, whereas the same type of counselor may struggle with lesser guidance. Obviously we will continue to strive for it, but unfortunately not all sports are going to be led by activity heads with almost three decades of camp experience like “Izzy”. Conversely, finding a counselor with an exceptional pedigree in their sport but inexperience in the residential components could carry more weight in coaching and be paired with one of our most seasoned Row Leaders to ensure his support in the bunk. In fantasy football (and any team really – sport or business), having singular pieces will never collectively outperform those same pieces if they are beautifully woven together to work in concert.

Managing the roster: injuries, the waiver wire, and free agents

If you’ve played fantasy football then you’ve experienced the soul crushing moment when one of your players gets injured with a season-ending injury because the grim reaper comes for all of our teams at some point. That disappointment happens in staffing too and we call it a “drop” – when someone is all lined up to come to camp and then for one reason or another, they drop out and you have a fresh gap in your roster to fill. And unless we’re talking about Tom Brady, who apparently is just going to play on forever, retirements are another means to lose a player from a dynasty fantasy team. At camp, it may not be retirement as often but commonly staff will naturally move on to other opportunities since they frequently are in the midst of finishing their education and pursuing a full-time position.

Regardless of the reason for the loss, a spot has to be filled, and that means it’s time to scour the waiver wire. The waiver wire is the list of free agent players (not on anyone’s team) that are available to add to your team. In deciding who to add to a team, there are a number of sources to consider – most people are going to look at statistics (whether that be previous weeks or years) and many will look to “expert rankers” (the people that make their career doing fantasy football analysis and projections – maybe you’ve heard of Matthew Berry?). For Winaukee, every application that comes in goes into the free agent pool – whether that comes through the website, a CampGroup applicant, a referral, a direct email, a school connection, or from a job site. The resume on those applications then takes on the role of the statistics and references act as a sort of “expert ranker”. Analyzing a player’s stats and an applicant’s resume serves the same purpose: to give you an idea of their previous performance, what their competencies are, and if it will be predictive of future success in the role that you need them for. Stats and resumes don’t always tell the full story however, and consulting expert rankers and references can provide that context, providing you insight into an applicant’s tendencies, attitudes, and pertinent information about what you can expect from them as an employee.
Having great systems in place, whether it be fantasy or staffing, to evaluate both stats/resumes and rankings/references is the mighty putty to fill those holes. It doesn’t make the sting of losing a favorite any less, but season goes on regardless; so as Brad Pitt put it while portraying Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball, “adapt or die”.

Every day at camp is like watching RedZone (an NFL show on Sundays that is non-stop highlights from every game all at once…yeah, it’s intense) and seeing how your squad is going to perform. You’re invested in their performance but also their own personal experience at camp and will do whatever you can to support them and see them shine the way you envisioned they would when you signed them. And after pointing out all of the similarities between fantasy football and camp staffing, that is the best difference – at camp you’re blessed with the opportunity to build actual relationships with the team you put together… I suppose there’s also no risk of your team falling into last place and having to do a league punishment – my favorite is having to spend 24 hours in a waffle house with each waffle eaten subtracting an hour off your time.

Always looking forward to the next season!

Camp Winaukee is proud to be considered one of the best summer camps in America and a top employer for summer jobs and internships.