Kendrick's Korner: Tanking in Professional Sports

Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons (right) hugs teammate Joel Embiid in celebration after a basket. The Sixers famously "tanked" for many years, and consequently now enjoy the play of young stars like Simmons and Embiid, obtained through high draft picks. (Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Creative Commons)

This week, the elimination of  “tanking” seemed to be on the agenda of every major professional sports league.

Monday, the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance against four teams for failing to fairly spend their revenue share on player contracts. The accused teams, which include the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins, committed a textbook example of tanking.

Tanking, essentially, is an effort undertaken by teams to lose games and perform worse in the short term to improve the team’s ability to win in the long term. This is often done by trading players who are in their athletic primes for young prospects who theoretically will perform better in the future, as well as playing worse game-to-game to plummet in the standings and receive higher draft picks at the end of the season.

By trading star players like Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen, the Marlins and Pirates effectively cleared cap space and positioned themselves to reap the ultimate reward of losing: affordable top talent by means of high draft picks.

As a Houston Astros fan, I was not all that offended. While I do not really have a great recollection of going to Astros games between 2011 and 2014, the delayed gratification of watching them win the World Series this year nearly made the management-induced seasons of misery worth the journey. Still, the traditionalist in me thinks intentional losing efforts threatened the integrity of the game. This isn’t the WWE; this is America’s Pastime.

Meanwhile, in the NBA, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBA legend Julius Erving on a Monday morning podcast that he instructed team management to intentionally lose games for the remainder of the season.

Then, reports found the Mavericks front office, along with several other teams, allegedly utilize statistical data, otherwise known as inverse analytics, to construct losing lineups. As much as I wanted to look down upon these inverse analytics, when I turned on the Mavericks game, I watched them narrowly lose to the win-desperate Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime.

The reality is that for players and coaches playing for the next contract, there is absolutely no incentive to throw games. So, why is there such a negative stigma around tanking in professional sports?

They are, in fact, a business, one which requires math and science to evaluate risk and allocate costs in hopes of generating future profit. While the underlying financial aspect seems cold, the beauty of professional sports is that fans are the customer base.

If a team is continually terrible, fans can influence the team’s bottom line, expressing their frustration by refusing to watch games, buy tickets, or wear jerseys. On the flip side, if a team performs well, ticket prices and memorabilia sales skyrocket, resulting in a win-win for all stakeholders.

I understand there are other factors to management decision-making, such as accounting for league revenue share. However, if a team’s management consciously decides to tank, they are likely considering the long term best interests of the fans, which is to compete for a championship in the future.

I suggest that professional sports leagues take one of two routes. They could embrace the linguistic transformation of tanking into rebuilding or as the Philadelphia 76ers say, “trust the process.” As the “House of Highlights” social media phenomenon illustrates, fans love watching young players develop into superstars even if the team is bad.

Alternatively, leagues could restructure the draft incentives, such that teams wouldn’t necessarily gain the best draft picks by losing, which would make the best option for struggling teams not to lose even more.

All in all, tanking seems more like a PR headache than an actual issue of healthy competition, as teams are merely trying to find a competitive advantage in the future.