The 2020-21 NFL regular season came to a close on January 3, and the perennial strategy of tanking came into question yet again. Although tanking, or intentionally losing, in professional sports is controversial, it is in a team’s long term interest to do so. Tanking gives teams greater access to highly-ranked collegiate players in the draft, while winning has no tangible benefits for teams with no realistic chance at the playoffs.
The primary objective of tanking is to secure a higher draft pick. This, in turn, means that teams pick higher not just in the first round of the draft, but in every round, enabling them to access higher quality talent. Take the Philadelphia Eagles, for example. When they lost their Week 17 NFL regular season game against the Washington Football Team on January 3, they secured the No. 6 overall pick for next season’s draft, as opposed to the No. 9 overall pick if they had won.
Although many claim that the tanking strategy often fails, it is worth the risk when teams have nothing to lose. With higher picks, teams can draft dynamic playmakers who could improve the team’s record and lead them into a deep playoff run in future seasons, possibly even a championship. As a result, fans would be immensely satisfied and the fanbase of the team would likely grow, negating the initial disappointment fans would have in tanking. And fans understand this: in Week 13 of this year’s NFL regular season, when the New York Jets were the worst team at the time and blew a game against the Las Vegas Raiders to remain winless, 73% of Jets fans were happy with the loss, according to a SB Nation Reacts survey. Die-hard fans would rather see their teams prioritize their future than invest effort in an unattainable goal.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, tanked this season and finished with a 1-15 record and the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. They can now draft Clemson University Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is considered to be the best college football quarterback prospect in a generation. The allure of selecting Lawrence first overall is also attracting top head coaching talent to the team. On January 14, the Jaguars signed Urban Meyer as their newest head coach; he has the third-highest win percentage in the history of college football with 85.3%.
Furthermore, analytics supports the tanking thesis. In the NBA, from 1985-2012, the average wins above replacement players (WARP), which measures the value a single player has for his team, was greater for higher draft picks. Even when the NBA changed the rules of its lottery draft system starting from the 2019 draft, the overall trend remained the same.
In the end, sports teams have one goal in mind: to win a championship. But often, teams’ hopes of a championship diminish towards the end of the regular season as the harsh reality of poor performances sets in. So, should they aimlessly keep pushing with no outcome in mind, or tank in order to prioritize their future? The answer is clear: tanking for long-term returns.
As the NFL regular season draws to a close, eyes begin to drift to the prospects of next year’s season. While those at the top may continue to fight for playoff spots, many of those at the bottom instead undermine the basic values of honorable competition by engaging in tanking — a controversial topic involving intentionally losing that should be banned.
In sports, there has always been one obvious objective: competitors play to win. While it’s true that a team can have a chance at better draft prospects by tanking, doing so not only violates this foundational principle, but also serves as a slap in the face to an entire fanbase’s pride and dignity.
Fans are the main supporters of professional sports leagues, both financially and emotionally. In return, they expect to see a hard-fought, entertaining match where athletes compete to their best of their abilities to win. Choosing to intentionally lose means teams disregard their fans’ voices by refusing to provide an entertaining atmosphere and the thrill of competition. In a poll taken by the New York Post in 2019, 64% of fans said when one of their teams was tanking, it diminished their interest in the team. Additionally, 67.4% said leagues should implement rules to discourage tanking during games. Clearly, tanking denies fans their money’s worth out of the expensive tickets to the games and subjects them to rightful frustration with their team — after all, nobody would be willing to pay to watch a predetermined failure.
Not only does tanking hurt the fans, but it also unfairly impacts the hopes and futures of other competitors. Take the Philadelphia Eagles recent game against the Washington Football team during Week 17 of the 2020-21 regular NFL season. By tanking, it’s true the Eagles secured a No. 6 draft pick as opposed to a No. 9 pick in the next season’s draft. However, it’s also true that because the Eagles practically gifted the National Football Conference (NFC) East title to the undeserving Washington Football Team, they denied a rightful playoff ticket to the New York Giants, a team which otherwise would have had the best record in the division.
Choosing to tank and disrespect the very nature of competition can also cause internal damage to athletes involved. In order to tank, coaches often substitute weaker, rookie players who they know will contribute to the team’s loss. As an inexperienced rookie, this can be extremely demoralizing and likely limits the potential of the player by placing mental barriers. One can only imagine how damaging the psychological impact can be from knowing you’re a subpar athlete used for the sole purpose of failing.
Additionally, while some would assume the outcome of intentionally losing would be enough to offset the various negative impacts on athletes and fans alike, it turns out the strategy is not a guarantee. It took the Phoenix Suns, — a historical joke of an NBA team for consistently getting one of the worst records in the league — successive tanking since the 2013-14 NBA season to finally become a playoff-contention team. With no guarantee of a better draft pick, the idea behind tanking is thus rendered essentially pointless. In fact, a study by the Journal of Sports Economics using data from the 1995 to 2013 NBA found, “Having more picks in the Top 17 slots of the draft does not help and tends to be associated with less improvement.”
Tanking introduces a blatant disrespect to the foundation of professional sports. With no guarantee of a better draft pick to negate the egregious consequences towards the fans and professional athletes themselves, it should be a no-brainer to ban this practice.
Do you think professional sports teams should be allowed to tank during games? Why or why not?
“I think professional sports teams shouldn’t be allowed to tank during games. Tanking in sports goes against the hours of practice that players have put in. It also contradicts the appreciated mentality of giving it your all. As an athlete myself, I can’t stand to see coaches not allowing teams to perform at their full potential. Outside the team, tanking is unfair to fans. They get hyped up and passionate for a game only to see a coach sit out a star player. Game tickets aren’t cheap either, and I think fans deserve to get the most value out of their money.” — Vedant Mohan, 11
“I think it depends on the sport and what type of draft system they use. Personally I like tanking, but I’m biased because I’m a fan of a small market baseball team that needs to tank since they can’t sign good players. I think it should be allowed in the MLB and limited in other sports. But ideally, the MLB would change its system—not completely but halfway.” —Nisheet Panda, 10
“I think teams should be allowed to tank because it gives them more opportunities for better seasons in the future when they aren’t doing well currently. If they aren’t able to obtain the newer and younger talents with earlier draft picks, they will be caught up in an endless cycle of losing/not doing well.” — Amanda Deng, 9
“From a moral standpoint, tanking shouldn’t be allowed because it goes against the whole point of playing sports, which is to try your best no matter what. A recent example is the Philadelphia Eagles, who benched their quarterback in the last half of a week 17 primetime game against the Washington Football Team. The benching might have resulted in a better draft position, but the players in the organization were very unhappy about this lack of effort. Pederson was fired a few days later.” — Aadrij Upadya, 9
Cover Image by Sports Editor Anika Arora