Winning at Losing

I’m tired of law and the news so let’s talk about something different this week: tanking. This is a topic I’ve been obsessing about lately mainly because it bears so little relation to everyday life. Everyday life, after all, is what most of us want to get away from.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of tanking, it’s a term used in organized team sports that means losing on purpose. If you come in last in a professional sports team league such as basketball or football, you get the top pick (or the best chance at the top pick) of new players for the next season.

In other words, in league sports, you’re rewarded both for winning at winning and for winning at losing. If you’re stuck in the middle, you could be stuck there forever. It’s a life of frustration.

Having spent many years rooting for teams that were pretty good but not good enough to win a championship and not bad enough to get to draft top-rated players, I could well understand the difficulty of being in the middle. For a long time, middle-of-the-road teams simply plugged ahead and did the best they could. It was admirable but futile.

But now tanking has become fashionable. There are races both to the top and the bottom (which, in turn, hopes to become the top). In baseball it’s gotten so prevalent that the players’ union has filed grievances against four tanking teams.

Compare this to the lives the rest of us live. Can you lose a dozen personal injury trials in a row so you’ll have a better chance at winning a big class action next year? Can I write six months of boring columns (kind of like this one) so I can win a Pulitzer? Obviously, no one does that. It doesn’t work.

From a game strategy point of view, tanking makes sense. It gives you a chance of winning, but it’s a disaster for fans watching the games. Either your team is hopeless – and that’s no fun – or many of the games your winning team plays are against teams falling over themselves. That’s not fun either.

Would, say, the Golden State Warriors, have such a great record if they weren’t playing intentionally bad opponents?

I’ll admit there’s some comedy/entertainment value to watching two tanking teams attempt to lose to each other. Think of the blooper reels at baseball games. Entire games could be like that.

But, overall, tanking is a bad idea for those of us in the audience, so I’ve come up with a list of recommendations for the major league sports leagues to remove the incentive to lose.

Repick teams every year. Teams are arbitrary collections of players from all over the world anyway, so why insist on keeping groups together? The only way they represent your city is by wearing uniforms. You might as well pick new teams every year so that everyone gets a chance at good players.

You draw lots for the draft order and the team that goes last picks twice and starts a reverse order draft. You get interesting and maybe unexpected combinations of players every year.

And there should be a special celebration for the player who gets picked last. You don’t want him or her to feel bad.

Negative bonus incentives. Every time a team loses, players and coaches get their pay docked and the team management has to pay a fine. The fines go to the fans of the winning teams. (Imagine coming home from a game with more money than you left with.)

Reward the middle. Incentivize some interesting strategic decisions by rewarding the teams closest to making the playoffs with top draft picks. Do you go all out for the playoffs or do you tank just a little to barely miss them? How do you avoid tanking too much? This could get very complex.

Stop keeping score. Everyone gets a participation trophy.

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