Tanking, the deliberate strategy employed by sports teams to lose games in order to gain a competitive advantage in the long run, has become a controversial topic in the world of sports.
While some argue that tanking is a legitimate strategy for rebuilding teams, others believe it undermines the integrity of the game and harms the overall fan experience.
Below we look into the reasons why teams engage in tanking, explore potential solutions to prevent it, and examine specific measures taken by the National Basketball Association (NBA) to address this issue.
Why Teams Tank
There are several reasons why teams resort to tanking as a strategy:
Tanking allows struggling teams to secure high draft picks, which can be instrumental in rebuilding their roster and improving their chances of long-term success.
Salary Cap Management
By intentionally losing games, teams can shed expensive contracts and create salary cap space to pursue marquee free agents in the future.
In leagues with a draft lottery system, finishing with a poor record increases the odds of securing a higher draft pick, potentially landing a franchise-altering talent.
In some cases, tanking can be financially beneficial for teams.
Lower attendance and decreased revenue from ticket sales can be offset by revenue sharing mechanisms or increased profitability through reduced player salaries.
The Florida Marlins were infamous for getting rid of the players that got them the 2003 World Series title to save on payroll.
How Tanking Can Be Prevented
Tanking poses significant challenges to the integrity of sports leagues.
To prevent teams from intentionally losing games, several measures can be implemented:
Revised Draft Lottery System
Modifying the draft lottery system can reduce the incentive for teams to tank.
One approach is to assign draft picks based on a team’s performance over multiple seasons, rather than solely on their record in a single season.
Increased Revenue Sharing
By implementing stricter revenue sharing mechanisms, leagues can reduce the financial incentives for teams to tank.
This ensures that all teams have a more equitable chance of success, regardless of market size or revenue generation.
Imposing harsher penalties, such as fines or loss of draft picks, on teams found guilty of tanking can act as a deterrent.
This sends a clear message that tanking will not be tolerated and can help maintain the integrity of the competition.
Improved Team Evaluation
Advanced analytics and statistical models can be employed to detect abnormal patterns of team strategies.
In a relegation structure like European football (e.g., Premier League, La Liga), teams that finish at the bottom of the standings are demoted to a lower division, resulting in significant financial and prestige losses.
This system incentivizes teams to compete at their highest level throughout the season to avoid the severe consequences of relegation.
Solutions in the NBA
The NBA has taken proactive steps to address the issue of tanking.
Here are some notable solutions implemented by the league:
Revised Draft Lottery Odds
Starting from the 2019 NBA Draft, the league introduced new rules that flattened the odds for the teams with the three worst records.
This change reduces the incentive for teams to intentionally finish with the worst record.
The NBA has made efforts to increase transparency in the draft lottery process.
The drawing of the lottery balls is now conducted publicly, with representatives from all teams and media present, ensuring a fair and transparent selection process.
Stricter Anti-Tanking Measures
The league has implemented stricter penalties for teams found guilty of tanking.
In 2018, the NBA fined the Dallas Mavericks $600,000 for evidence of tanking during the 2017-2018 season, sending a strong message that tanking will not be tolerated.
Focus on Player Development
The NBA has emphasized the importance of player development to discourage tanking.
By providing resources and support for teams to develop young talent, the league aims to incentivize teams to focus on long-term growth rather than short-term gains through tanking.
Do Players and Coaches Participate in Tanking?
It’s essential to differentiate between the roles and motivations of players, coaches, and management.
Management’s Role in Tanking
- Future vs. Present: Management has to balance the interests of present-day competitiveness with future success. If a team is performing poorly in a season, management might decide that it’s more beneficial in the long run to secure a high draft pick than to win a few more games.
- Roster Decisions: One way management can influence tanking is by trading away star players for future assets or by not investing in high-quality players for the current season. They might also decide to give more playing time to younger, inexperienced players to evaluate their potential, even if that means losing more games.
- Financial Considerations: Sometimes, financial motivations might drive management decisions that align with tanking. For instance, shedding high salaries or avoiding expensive free-agent signings can save money, even if it makes the team less competitive in the short term.
Coaches and Players
- Professional Integrity: Coaches and players are competitive by nature. They train hard, prepare for every game, and their professional pride is on the line every time they step onto the field or court. It’s against their instincts and professional ethics to intentionally lose or underperform.
- Job Security: Coaches and players are often judged by their performance. A coach who loses too many games might get fired, and a player who doesn’t perform might get cut from the team or receive a less lucrative contract in the future.
- Effort on the Field: While management might make decisions that make it harder for a team to win (like trading away a star player), the players on the field will still give their full effort during games. They play to win, regardless of the broader strategic decisions made by the front office.
While “tanking” is a strategy sometimes employed by sports team management to prioritize future success over short-term wins, coaches and players typically remain committed to giving their best effort and trying to win every game.
The concept of tanking is more about organizational strategy than the decisions or effort levels of athletes and coaches.
What’s the Difference Between Tanking and Rebuilding?
Tanking and rebuilding are both strategies employed by sports teams, but they differ in approach and intent:
This is a deliberate effort by a team to lose games, often to secure a higher draft pick or better position in player selection processes.
The focus is more on immediate outcomes, like getting a top draft pick, rather than long-term team development.
This is a broader, long-term strategy where a team acknowledges that they aren’t competitive currently and takes steps to improve over time.
This might involve trading away older players for younger talent, developing rookies, or acquiring assets for future trades.
The intent isn’t to lose games deliberately but to focus on future competitiveness.
Where is the line between NFL teams rebuilding and tanking?
When Baseball Teams Trade Away Players at the Deadline, Is This a Form of Tanking?
When baseball teams trade away players at the deadline, it can be perceived as a form of tanking, but it’s more nuanced than that.
Here’s a breakdown:
Rebuilding vs. Tanking
Trading away established players, especially star players, at the deadline is often part of a “rebuilding” strategy.
The team might recognize that they’re not in a position to compete for a championship in the current season, so they trade away players to acquire younger talent or draft picks that can help them in the future.
While this can look like tanking, it’s more about repositioning for future success than intentionally trying to lose games.
Baseball, unlike some other sports, doesn’t have a salary cap, but it does have a luxury tax threshold.
Teams might trade away high-salary players to avoid exceeding this threshold or to free up money for future signings.
If a player is approaching free agency and the team believes they won’t be able to re-sign him, they might opt to trade him at the deadline to get some return value rather than risk losing him for nothing in free agency.
Not all deadline trades are about the future.
Sometimes, teams trade away players to address immediate needs, such as bolstering a weak position or acquiring a player with specific skills (like a left-handed reliever).
While management might see these trades as strategic moves, fans and players might perceive them as giving up on the season, especially if the team is in contention.
This can lead to the perception of tanking, even if the intent is different.
Baseball’s long season and lack of a salary cap mean that there’s often a significant disparity between the top and bottom teams.
Teams that recognize they’re out of contention might start looking to the future earlier in the season, leading to trades that can be perceived as tanking.
Trading away players at the deadline can be seen as a form of tanking, but it’s often more about repositioning for future success, managing finances, or addressing immediate needs.
The line between strategic rebuilding and tanking can be blurry, and perceptions can vary based on the specific context of each trade.
How Do Players Feel About Tanking?
Players’ feelings about tanking are diverse and complex, but several general sentiments can be observed:
Frustration and Discontent
Many players are inherently competitive and play sports with a deep-rooted desire to win.
Knowing that their organization might be making decisions that don’t prioritize immediate success can be frustrating.
Players train hard and make personal sacrifices to compete at the highest level, so the idea of not striving for wins can be demoralizing.
Concerns about Job Security
Players are often judged by their performance, and consistent losing can reflect poorly on individual athletes, even if the team’s struggles are by design.
Players might worry that being part of a losing team will harm their reputation, decrease their market value, or even jeopardize their position on the team or in the league.
Understanding the Bigger Picture
Some players, especially veterans, might understand the long-term strategy behind tanking.
They might recognize that while losing is tough in the short term, it could lead to acquiring key players or assets that will make the team more competitive in the future.
Impact on Team Morale
Continual losing can wear down team morale, even if players understand the rationale behind tanking.
It can be challenging to maintain a positive and cohesive team environment when victories are infrequent.
Some players might have mixed feelings about tanking.
On one hand, they might see the potential benefits for the team’s future.
On the other hand, they might feel that it goes against their competitive nature and the spirit of sportsmanship.
Public Statements vs. Private Feelings
It’s worth noting that players might not always express their true feelings about tanking publicly.
They might want to avoid controversy or maintain a united front with the team’s management.
However, privately, they might have strong feelings about the strategy.
While some players might understand the rationale behind tanking as a long-term strategy, many feel conflicted because it goes against their competitive nature and desire to win.
The impact of tanking on players can vary based on their career stage, personal ambitions, and the specific context of their team.
How Do Fans Feel About Tanking?
Fans’ feelings about tanking are varied and complex, often influenced by numerous factors including the specific context, the duration of the tanking period, and individual beliefs about the integrity of competition.
Here’s a breakdown of some general sentiments:
Frustration and Disappointment
Many fans watch sports for the thrill of competition and to support a team they believe is doing its best to win. When a team appears to be intentionally losing or not putting its best foot forward, it can lead to feelings of betrayal and disillusionment.
Understanding the Long-Term View
Some fans, especially those who closely follow the intricacies of team management and strategy, understand the potential benefits of tanking. They might be willing to endure a few poor seasons if it means acquiring top draft picks or freeing up salary cap space for future stars.
Fans invest time, emotion, and often money (through tickets, merchandise, and media subscriptions) into supporting their teams. When a team is perceived to be tanking, some fans might feel less inclined to spend money on that team, feeling that they aren’t getting a good return on their investment.
Concerns About Competitive Integrity
For many fans, the integrity of the game is paramount. They believe that every team should be trying its best to win every game, and tanking runs counter to that belief. This can lead to broader concerns about the state of the league and the sport in general.
Emotional Attachment to Players
When tanking involves trading away beloved players, fans can become upset, not just because the team might perform worse, but because they’ve developed emotional attachments to those players.
Hope and Optimism
On the flip side, the draft picks or young players acquired during a tanking phase can provide hope for the future. Fans might become excited about the potential of these young stars and the possibility of a brighter future.
Some fans are skeptical of tanking as a successful strategy. They might point to teams that have been in perpetual “rebuilding” modes without much success or argue that a losing culture is hard to overcome, even with top draft picks.
Cultural and Regional Differences
Fans from different regions or with different cultural backgrounds might view tanking differently. For example, in some areas, there might be a stronger emphasis on always doing one’s best and competing with honor, while in others, the strategic aspects of team management might be more appreciated.
Do Teams Openly Admit to Tanking?
No, teams typically do not openly admit to tanking.
Publicly acknowledging a deliberate strategy to lose games would be a breach of the competitive integrity of the sport, could alienate fans, and might even result in sanctions or penalties from the league.
About the closest open admission was the Philadelphia 76ers’ “The Process.” This was a controversial multi-year strategy that involved deliberately fielding non-competitive teams to secure high draft picks in pursuit of future success.
Here’s a deeper look into why teams avoid admitting to tanking:
Every league expects its teams to compete to the best of their ability.
Openly admitting to tanking would violate this principle and could lead to disciplinary actions from the league office.
Fans support teams with the expectation that the team is doing its best to win.
Admitting to tanking can alienate and frustrate fans, leading to decreased attendance, lower merchandise sales, and reduced viewership.
Players are competitive by nature and play to win.
Publicly admitting to a strategy that involves losing can demoralize players, potentially leading to internal conflicts and a toxic locker room environment.
Leagues might impose penalties on teams they believe are tanking.
This could include fines, loss of draft picks, or other punitive measures.
Sponsorships and Partnerships
Corporate sponsors and partners might be less inclined to associate with a team that openly admits to not competing at its best.
This can have financial implications for the team.
Ambiguity of “Rebuilding”
Instead of admitting to tanking, teams often frame their actions as “rebuilding.”
This involves trading away older, more expensive players for younger talent or draft picks.
While the short-term result might be a weaker team, the stated goal is to build a stronger team for the future.
Admitting to tanking would be a public relations nightmare.
It’s much easier for teams to discuss focusing on the future, developing young talent, or undergoing a “rebuilding phase” than to admit they are trying to lose games.
While teams might not admit to tanking, many analysts, fans, and even players can recognize the signs.
Actions such as trading away top players for future assets, resting star players, or giving extended minutes to less experienced players can all be indicators of a team prioritizing future success over current wins.
However, these actions are always framed in terms of long-term strategy rather than an explicit intent to lose games.
Q&A – Tanking in Sports (Why Teams Do It, How to Prevent It, Solutions in the NBA)
1. Why do teams tank in sports?
Tanking refers to the strategy where a team intentionally underperforms or loses games to obtain a favorable position in the draft or other future benefits.
This is often seen in leagues where the worst-performing teams get the highest draft picks, providing an incentive to lose games deliberately.
So tanking is generally done in the interest of:
- rebuilding their roster
- managing salary cap space
- strategic positioning in draft lotteries, and
- financial incentives
2. How does tanking affect the integrity of the game?
Tanking undermines the integrity of the game by encouraging teams to intentionally lose games, which goes against the principles of fair competition and can harm the overall fan experience.
3. What are some measures to prevent tanking?
Potential measures to prevent tanking include revising the draft lottery system, increasing revenue sharing, imposing stricter penalties on teams, and improving team evaluation methods.
4. How has the NBA addressed tanking?
The NBA has implemented solutions such as revised draft lottery odds, increased transparency in the lottery process, stricter anti-tanking measures, and a focus on player development to discourage tanking.
5. What is the impact of revised draft lottery odds?
Revised draft lottery odds reduce the incentive for teams to intentionally finish with the worst record by flattening the odds for the teams with the three worst records.
6. How does increased transparency in the draft lottery process help?
Increased transparency ensures a fair and transparent selection process, as the drawing of the lottery balls is now conducted publicly with representatives from all teams and media present.
7. What penalties can be imposed on teams found guilty of tanking?
Penalties for tanking can include fines, loss of draft picks, or other punitive measures to discourage teams from engaging in this practice.
8. Can tanking be completely eliminated from sports?
While it may be challenging to completely eliminate tanking, implementing preventive measures and enforcing stricter penalties can significantly reduce its occurrence and discourage teams from engaging in this practice.
9. How does the NBA focus on player development discourage tanking?
By emphasizing the importance of player development, the NBA incentivizes teams to focus on long-term growth rather than short-term gains through tanking. This encourages teams to invest in developing young talent.
10. What are the benefits of tanking?
Benefits of Tanking:
- Higher draft picks: Tanking can secure top positions in drafts, allowing teams to select elite, potentially franchise-altering players.
- Financial flexibility: Shedding high-salary players can free up cap space for future acquisitions.
- Rebuilding: Provides an opportunity to develop young talent and establish a foundation for future success.
11. What are the drawbacks of tanking?
Drawbacks of Tanking:
- Fan disillusionment: Regular losses can alienate and frustrate the fanbase.
- Organizational culture: Prolonged losing can instill a culture of acceptance of defeat among players and staff.
- Financial repercussions: Decreased fan engagement can lead to reduced ticket sales and merchandise revenue.
Tanking in sports is a controversial strategy employed by teams to gain a competitive advantage through deliberate losses.
While teams engage in tanking for various reasons, including rebuilding and financial incentives, it undermines the integrity of the game.
To prevent tanking, leagues can implement measures such as revising the draft lottery system, increasing revenue sharing, imposing stricter penalties, and improving team evaluation methods.
The NBA has taken proactive steps to address tanking, including revised draft lottery odds, increased transparency, stricter anti-tanking measures, and a focus on player development.
While tanking may never be completely eliminated, these measures can significantly reduce its occurrence and maintain the integrity of sports competitions.