A simple system to eliminate “tanking” in pro sports leagues
All of the major American sports leagues have had instances of teams “tanking” to reach last place and get a strong draft pick to rebuild the team in the last ten years. There’s an easy way to fix it.
If you know what tanking is and understand how the leagues’ draft orders work, I’ll save you from reading the rest of this and explain my system in one sentence: the highest ranked team to not make the playoffs gets the first overall draft pick.
If you want a more in-depth explanation or need more background, read on!
Most leagues give the first overall pick in the entry draft (and hence the most promising rookie player) to whatever team finishes last in the prior regular season. This leads to tanking, a team that knows they’re going to be mediocre at best that year giving minimal effort in order to secure that lucrative first pick, especially when there is a highly touted standout rookie to be had. Suck for Luck, the last five or so years for the Buffalo Sabres, etc. We’ll take it as a given that this is something leagues want to avoid happening — even if teams aren’t doing it blatantly, fans root against their favorite teams and perceive that tanking is happening, none of which is good for enjoying the fun of pro sports to whatever extent you want to enjoy such things. Ideally, we want all teams competing at full effort all the time, and for the fans to know it.
As gamers, we know that if you want players to avoid certain actions and emphasize other actions, you disincentivize one and incentivize the other. The leagues have messed around with trying to do this by creating goofy, overly complicated weighted draft lotteries and the like, none of which actually solve the problem and only serve to make things needlessly opaque and less fun for fans. This is mind-boggling when there is such a simple solution at hand.
Here’s my solution in more detail: all the teams that make the playoffs in the regular season get the same draft picks they normally would, ie whoever finishes first overall gets the last pick in the draft, and so on. However, the usual draft seeding is flipped for all the teams that fail to make the playoffs. The first non-playoff team gets the first overall pick. The last place team will get a pick right around the middle of the draft. Here’s how it would look with a fictional 20-team league in which 8 teams make the playoffs (in red):
In a typical season, the Waldos, Hawkers, Mutts and a few other teams are going be fighting like hell for that last playoff spot. Under this system, the Hawkers will suffer the disappointed of not quite making it, but it will be soothed by that first overall draft pick. And the other non-playoff teams, even if they aren’t in contention to make the post-season, will still be battling through the end of the regular season, since each spot they move up in the standings gives them a better draft pick. So instead of the Whatevers laying down for their last 20 games to make sure they finish last, they’ll be fighting to gain ground on the Champions. And when they do finish last, it will truly be because they suck, not because they were trying to game the system.
For the playoff teams, things are unchanged. The playoff seeding of each league already gives these teams incentive to move up in the standings (through byes, home field advantage, or match-ups against lower-seeded opponents), so nothing needs to change there.
There are always unintended consequences, of course, but in this case it seems pretty minor. The last place team is less likely to experience a dramatic shift in fortunes by drafting a star player, but that’s a pretty massive gamble anyway. Since they get a pick around the middle of the draft order, they still have a good chance at improving and rebuilding, plus it makes it easier to move up if they want to make some draft day trades (or down if they want to grab some top talent for the immediate future).
I offer this system freely to all the major pro leagues under the stipulation that they refer to it as the Grabster System. Go Supervans!