Last weekend was a typical one for the teams near the bottom of the NBA standings as the season approached its three-quarters pole. Over the course of 48 hours Feb. 23 and 24, seven woeful teams holding first-round draft picks and jockeying for position to claim one of the coveted first few slots played a total of 10 games — and lost them all by an average of nearly 15 points.
If it wasn’t clear already — and to people paying attention, it certainly was — “tanking” season had arrived in the NBA. The race to the bottom — the contestants being the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, seven bottom-feeders all bunched within two games of each other — was on. (An eighth team, the Brooklyn Nets, is also in contention for the league’s worst record but has no incentive to lose after trading this year’s first-round pick.)
A few days later, it was revealed that NBA commissioner Adam Silver had sent a memo to all 30 teams the week before, warning he was prepared to bring down the “swiftest and harshest response possible” on teams caught purposely trying to lose games.
Silver’s memo was triggered at least in part by recent comments made by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was fined US$600,000 after admitting he told some of his players, “Look, losing is our best option.”
But the NBA is not alone. To varying degrees, the NHL and Major League Baseball — and to a lesser extent the NFL — are also dealing with controversies involving the practice known as tanking, loosely defined as the systematic writing-off of entire seasons by franchises hoping to rebuild for future success through the draft.
Though few would accuse any players or coaches of purposely losing through their in-game actions, the steady rise of tanking as a franchise-building model has called into question the binary nature and ethical foundation of sports — that each game is, at its most basic level, a contest between two teams trying their best to win — and has presented fans with a difficult choice between supporting their favorite team’s long-term mission in hopes of a big future payoff, or getting fed up with the short-term misery and bailing out.
Although the competitive and economic models mean the practice has a difference look in each league — in the NBA, for example, it is easiest to transform an entire franchise’s fortunes through the acquisition of one transcendent player — the fundamental incentive is the same in all: The worst teams generally get the top draft picks.
That tie-in has been present for decades. What has changed, and perhaps fuelled the rampant spread of tanking as the preferred strategy for mediocre teams, is the wave of analytics-driven executives taking over the front offices of pro sports teams, at least as conversant in cost-benefit analysis and risk management as in points, assists and strikeouts. It has created a sort of groupthink in which it has become accepted wisdom that finishing at the bottom is, on average, better than finishing in the middle of the pack.
“The last thing you want to be is caught in between,” said Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, whose team undertook a massive rebuild in 2016 that has transformed its farm system from one of the worst in the game to one of the best. “You don’t want to be a club that’s not good enough (to win) a championship, but at the same time is just stuck in the middle.”
One or two teams tanking each season might be an unobtrusive, acceptable reality, but with analytics now fuelling its spread, leagues are seeing scenarios where one-third or more of their teams are writing off entire seasons at the same time. Scott Boras, baseball’s most powerful agent, has taken to calling it “twelve teams a-tanking.”
A “team can say, ‘We don’t particularly want to win for a three- or four-year period, because we can go get draft picks,’” Boras said. “That is not a reason to come to the ballpark. That’s not major-league-standard baseball. It’s something different now. … We (should) never want to reward non-competitiveness. It’s a cancer. It damages the brand of baseball.”
In the NBA and NHL, which have hard salary caps and floors that force teams to spend a defined minimum on payroll, tanking is little more than a case of bad optics. But in baseball, which has no payroll floor, the spread of tanking as a business model — and the bare-bones payrolls that some teams field as a result — has helped fuel a growing labour crisis, with relations between the league and its union at their most rancorous in years.
The offseason’s slow-moving free-agent market had players and agents questioning whether teams were colluding the tamp down salaries, and this week, the MLB Players Association filed a grievance with the league accusing four teams — the Oakland Athletics, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays — of failing to spend revenue-sharing funds on building their big-league rosters.
The league has said the claim, which will be heard by a panel of arbitrators, is “without merit,” and commissioner Rob Manfred has defended the practice of “rebuilding” — for obvious reasons, he cringes at the term “tanking” — as being a proven model for building and sustaining a successful franchise. Like many, Manfred points to the examples of the 2016 Chicago Cubs and 2017 Houston Astros, both of which bottomed out with 100-loss seasons a few years before winning their World Series titles.
“I don’t buy into the concept that when a club adopts a strategy of rebuilding that that should be characterized as ‘tanking,’” Manfred said last month. “I think that our clubs, all of them, want to win … The question is: What strategy are they going to adopt over what period of time to put themselves in a position to win? … It’s not always apparent to outside observers what the plan is for winning and what the timetable is for winning. We’ve always had cyclical sport. Clubs have gone through cycles in an effort to be competitive.”
As Billy Beane, the Athletics’ executive vice-president of baseball operations, put it when asked about the Cubs’ and Astros’ tank-jobs, “The criticism needs to be wrapped around the idea of, well, it did work. It was also executed by some really smart guys.”
Most executives, at least publicly, still refer to the strategy as the option of last resort.
“Rebuilding is never anyone’s first choice,” said Los Angeles Dodgers president Stan Kasten, who has experience running teams in the NBA, NHL and MLB. “It’s hard and it’s painful, on everybody. … All of us in sports, our preferred choice is to win this year. If that’s not realistic or doable, the fallback, Plan B is, ‘Let’s win next year.’ If that’s not doable, ‘Let’s win in year three. Let’s win as fast as we possibly can.’ … In most or all cases, (tanking) is the fastest way to get there. That’s what people are missing in this debate.”
Because baseball’s draft is historically less reliable in producing impactful players, and because even the best players exert a smaller influence on game outcomes than their counterparts in basketball and hockey, rebuilds in baseball often take longer. Teams spend years accumulating enough young players and draft picks to construct the foundation of a future champion.
Kasten, as president of the Washington Nationals from 2006 to 2010, oversaw the teardown that resulted in 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 and the subsequent drafting of No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, among other moves. By 2012, the team was a perennial contender that now has won its division in four of the past six seasons.
“We got lucky with those two (picks). Getting the front office and the scouting and player developments systems in place — that was the key,” Kasten said. “Without that, those two players wouldn’t have mattered as much. This isn’t the NBA. In the NBA, you draft LeBron (James) and you go to the (NBA) Finals every year. In baseball, you need 25 (big league) players and 200 more in the minor leagues just to get a foundation in place.”
The cost of tanking can be severe in terms of eroding your fan base, but the payoff can be euphoric.
Between 2011 and 2013, the Astros lost an average of 108 games and nearly half its annual attendance at Minute Maid Park. At one point, their games on local television drew ratings of 0.0 — essentially, no one was watching.
“Our goal was and always will be to build a championship team and sustain it for as long as possible,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “And the best path to get there was by focusing on young players and the draft and acquiring as many of those (young players and draft picks) as we could. And to do that, we had to trade away some veterans who frankly weren’t helping us win that much anyway.”
But by 2017, the Astros’ enviable collection of young talent, largely acquired during that awful stretch of 2011-13, was ready to win, and the franchise spent aggressively in payroll and trade-chips to acquire the complementary veteran pieces necessary to round out a championship roster. In November, the Astros won the franchise’s first World Series title.
A sophisticated fan base, when frustrated to the breaking point by perpetual mediocrity, isn’t always turned off by the notion of tanking. Fans of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers were largely on board with the extreme tank-job the franchise undertook from 2013 to 2016, with “Trust the Process” — the rallying cry of former GM Sam Hinkie — becoming a fixture on T-shirts around the city and part of its pop-culture landscape.
Two years after turning the corner on their rebuild, the 76ers — led by young standouts Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric — are in position to make the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed, with even bigger and better things ahead.
In Buffalo, fans of the NHL’s Sabres famously cheered an overtime goal that dealt the home team a loss near the end of the 2015 season, when they were angling for the top overall draft pick and a chance to get phenom Connor McDavid. That season, the Sabres traded away their best defenceman (Tyler Myers) for an injured player (Evander Kane) who wouldn’t play another game that year and also dealt away their starting and backup goaltenders.
Though the Sabres indeed wound up with the NHL’s worst record, the Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery, the top overall pick and the rights to McDavid. The Sabres were content with the consolation prize of Jack Eichel, but while Edmonton made the playoffs in 2016-17 with McDavid, both teams are among the worst in the league this season.
In February, with the New York Rangers saddled with an aging roster and well out of a playoff spot, the team’s management sent a letter to fans telegraphing its plans to rebuild — which it did with a flurry of moves at the NHL trade deadline that sent five veterans packing and netted the Rangers a combination of young players and draft picks.
“While this is part of the game, it’s never easy,” the Rangers’ letter read. “… We ask you to remain by our side as we undertake this exciting new chapter filled with promise and change.”
The concept of a reverse-order draft, as a way to distribute talent equitably and give lesser teams a shot at the best incoming talent, was first instituted by the NFL in 1936. The Basketball Association of America, which later became the NBA, held one in 1947, followed by the NHL in 1963 and MLB in 1965.
But it wasn’t long before middling teams figured out you could game the system and move yourself to the top of the draft list by losing lots of games. “Maybe I have to lose the battle to win the war,” then-San Diego Clippers owner Donald Sterling said in 1982, comments that earned him a $10,000 fine. “I don’t think we’ll have to work that hard to have the worst record in the league.”
After the 1983-84 Houston Rockets, mired six games under .500 in early February, suddenly went 9-27 the rest of the way to climb to the top of the draft order — when the top available players just happened to include Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan — the NBA switched to a lottery to determine draft position the following season. (The Rockets, meanwhile, won a coin flip and chose Olajuwon.) Over the years, with teams still willing to tank for a decent shot at the top pick, the formula has been tweaked to give the losingest teams increasingly longer odds.
In 2019, largely as a response to the 76ers’ extreme tank job of 2013-16, the NBA will again tweak its lottery formula to give the three worst teams the same odds — 14 per cent — of earning the top pick. But this year’s draft lottery will follow the current formula, with the worst team having a 25 per cent chance — thus, the current race to the bottom. The NHL also has altered its draft-lottery formula over the years to reduce the odds of the worst team getting the top pick.
But with NBA free agency dominated by large-market “destination” teams, the best (or only) chance for everyone else to acquire premier talent remains through the draft. And as long as the draft order is tied, even loosely, to a team’s win-loss record, there will remain incentive for middling teams to tank, according to Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist, author and professor at Smith College.
“It’s still going to be a case where, if you’re not going to finish in the top half of division and you’re not going to the postseason, you start looking to next year,” Zimbalist said. “And one thing you might do if you’re looking to next year is trade veteran players to a team that is going to the postseason. And another thing you may want to do is take a long look at your young players. As long as the (draft) incentives are there, there will be motivation” to tank.
Zimbalist’s suggestion: a promotion-relegation system, similar to that in European soccer, where leagues are divided into lower and upper divisions, with teams being promoted or relegated depending upon annual performance. But even Zimbalist acknowledges such a radical step is unlikely, which means in the United States, we may just have to live with some form of tanking.
“Would the sports world be better off if every team began every year thinking they had a chance to win it all?” he said. “Sure. But you’ll never get there.”
— with files from Tim Bontemps and Isabelle Khurshudyan