A nationally recognized expert on professional sports draft strategy, Professor and Chair of Economics Akira Motomura gladly took the opportunity to comment on NFL teams tanking for a better draft pick in NRC Handelsblad, the Netherlands' paper of record. This story below is translated from the original Dutch and was published on Sep. 12.
It was clear that Miami Dolphins would not be good for this year's American football season. The Florida club was not strong last year, although they still won seven of their sixteen games. But this past off-season, player after player left including their quarterback, the leader of their attack since 2012.
And then last Sunday came: 59-10 loss against the Baltimore Ravens, a result that even an average American grade-school would be ashamed of, and now multiple players would like to leave the team. Not only because the Dolphins were so bad, but also because the players now suspected that this year's roster was deliberately weakened by management. This is called tanking in the United States: destroying and emptying the organization in order to rebuild it from the ground up.
In North American sports it is a more subtle, tactical way of cheating. Deliberately being bad to become good again. This often happens by consciously putting together a weak team.
That tanking occurs primarily in North American competitions in this way has to do with their design. First, teams don't get relegated, so poor performance doesn't matter for keeping your place in the competition. At the same time there is the concept of the 'draft', in which teams select young players from high schools and universities. That process is done in different rounds and is organized in such a way that the worst teams get first choice. The battle for the highest spots in the draft is big.
If the Dolphins were to win the least number of games this regular season, they could be the first in the draft next year to pick up a talented quarterback and build a new, good team around him. And in return for many of the players who left them before the season, the Dolphins also received more choices in the upcoming draft(s).
But don't ask teams if they tank, because the concept is controversial. Admitting to it is a stab in the back to your fans and players. When Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, admitted in the beginning of 2018 that it was a strategy for his team to lose, the organization of the North American professional league (NBA) fined him $600,000 (€543,000).
That is why after the loss of Sunday, Dolphins coach Brian Flores denied that the team was tanking in strong terms. That would be "disrespectful." Instead, coaches prefer to talk about rebuilding.
Good tactics or not?
The question at hand is how successful tanking is. There are examples of teams that looked to be tanking and then had success. For example, the Houston Astros, for years one of the worst baseball teams in the US, won the World Series in 2017 with a new, young team. In basketball, the Philadelphia 76ers, who after years of poor performances recently made it to the playoffs, are often mentioned.
But rebuilding through the draft offers no guarantee, says Akira Motomura, professor of sports economics at Stonehill College in the US. He did research on the NBA in 2016 and discovered that tanking alone does not really pay off, because not every player who is chosen early in the draft ends up a success story. That also applies to the NFL, the American football league.
"There are numerous very high NFL picks, including #1s, who had mediocre careers or worse. Tom Brady’s the classic opposite example – picked 199th in the draft – and now regarded by many as the best quarterback ever. ”
Although examples are often cited of teams who succeeded after first destroying their team, there is really more to it than that, says Motomura. "There are other teams that are getting high draft picks in successive years and that don’t improve much. So if tanking is going to ‘work’ in a specific case, a franchise still has to do a great job with picking players and developing them. My coauthors and I [reached the]... interpretation [...] that good management and coaching matter more than the mode (draft, trade, free agency) by which players are acquired.”
Hard actions are being is taken to disincentivize tanking, because it can always be disguised—unlike pure match fixing, which of course is prohibited. The NBA and the NHL (ice hockey) already have a draft lottery, which ensures that the worst team does not automatically get the first choice. Through lottery reform, the NBA now ensures that the chance that the worst teams get the first choice in the draft is only 14 percent, decreasing the likelihood that tanking pays off.
This is independent of how ethically responsible tanking is to the players and especially to the fans. "Ethically, tanking is always wrong. That it happens a lot does not make it right,” says Stephen Mosher, professor of sports management at Ithaca College and a specialist in sports ethics.
If teams still want to tank, then that is most accepted at the end of a season. "If a team is already eliminated for the playoffs, then everyone assumes that not putting your best players in place is a strategy for future success. Then it is not really seen as tanking. "
That it continues to happen is part of the nature of the sport. "The higher the institutional level, the greater the chance of cheating. In professional sports here the goal is to make the club worth as much as possible. So tanking, provided that it benefits a club, will remain tolerated as long as it is well concealed.”