The Issue of Tanking in Professional Sports


The Issue

Professional sports leagues are most successful for all parties involved when the league is competitive. Many also tend to have drafting systems that incentivize losing. For example, in the NFL the team with the worst regular season record is given the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Theoretically, this should make the league more competitive as the worst performing teams would be allowed the young talent of their choice, but it creates a system of rewards that can result in ulterior motives. Any team would rather win the Super Bowl than the first overall pick in the draft, but for many teams, the first overall pick is within a closer reach. If a team is currently in a scenario where they are unable to make the playoffs with their current level of talent they often believe they will be better off losing the remaining games for a higher draft pick. Teams in the position of consistently being a borderline 

playoff team are in the worst position as they are unable to compete for a title yet they do not receive high enough draft picks to gain elite talent. This is counterintuitive as one would think a worse team would be in worse position yet the draft structure rewards the worse team. While the teams often reap benefits from tanking, it is not the individual teams who are at fault. The draft rules create a system of incentives that leads to this. Teams are not right to take advantage of it but if it is within the rules teams are bound to take advantage of it. As it is often said, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Each league is at fault for the prevalence of tanking. Even the lottery system in the NHL and NBA does little do disincentivize tanking. The worst team still has the best odds to win the lottery. The chart to the left shows the odds each NBA team had at certain draft picks in the order from worst to best record of lottery teams. Tanking harms the integrity of the league as a whole and is destructive for the players, fans, and everyone involved. This also takes away from the purposes of sports for youth.


The most well-known cases of tanking are the Philadelphia 76ers and the Cleveland Browns past decade. The 76ers previous GM even coined the phrase “Trust the Process” which seems to refer to having faith in years of losing in hopes of eventual

success. The image to the right displays a cartoon meant to make fun of the 76ers previous GM’s philosophy. Both have been historically bad teams but have recently been more successful and showing signs of hope. The 76ers won under 29% of their games over four years and the Cleveland Browns have had two winning seasons since 1996. Both teams have had consecutive first overall picks which have to lead both teams to stockpile young talent with the 76ers making it to the second round of the playoffs. The Browns continue to show flashes of potential while waiting to take a quarterback of the future so they

could continue to lose while gaining more surrounding talent. The Browns had three first-round picks last year and will have two of the top threepicks this year. This is an absurd amount of assets for one team to have and if used efficiently will result in years of domination. If teams were not allowed to receive top draft picks several yearsin a row then the teams could develop their young talent without taking the talent that other lacking teams need more.

League Impacts

This is destructive to the leagues in every way. It results in losses of fan bases, viewership, and revenue. This hurts every team in the league overall other than the few that are tanking. The system assumes that the team with the worst record is the least talented team and most in need of talent. Theoretically, this would be ideal, but humans respond to incentives. When the incentive of draft picks is greater than winning that’s when issues arise. Tanking teams provide issues to all throughout the league and makes many games lack the excitement of a potential victory and seems more like a WWE type of fixed outcome. It is extremely troublesome when fan bases are cheering for their teams to lose in cases such as, Suck for Luck (referring to losing games in favor of being able to select Andrew Luck in the upcoming draft) or Fail for Cardale (the same situation but with Cardale Jones). The image to the left shows some of these fans participating.

Game Theory Representation

The following matrix represents the current situation of teams in leagues in which worse records are rewarded with higher draft picks. In this matrix, the Browns are standing in place of any tanking team. They have the option of either tanking for the future or being mediocre now. Other teams can also choose to tank or try and compete. If other teams tank the overall competitiveness will drop and the NFL will lose revenue. If just the Browns and few others tank because all the teams will either be competitive now or be building for a successful future. The majority would be either in a good position now or in the future. If the Browns tank and many others tank then the overall competitiveness of the league will drop and many games will be pointless. This is the worst possible situation. The payoffs to the NFL are not affected by the Browns decision as 1/32 teams cannot severely impact them, but they are hurt if many teams tank regardless of the Browns actions. The 3s are given to both parties because all are in the best case scenario as few teams overall tank and are competitive and the few that do are bad now but will be better in the future. The Browns receive a payoff of 1 if they try while few tank and many try because they would struggle to compete with lacking talent, but if many teams tank they receive a payoff of 2 because they have more games against tanking opponents and are able to win more games. If the Browns tank and many others do as well this is the worst case scenario and nobody can build for the future and few are competitive.


Browns Few Many
Tank (3,3) (0,0)
Mediocrity (1,3) (2,0)


The Pareto optimal outcome and Nash Equilibrium and always best for everyone is the Browns tanking and few others tanking. This current state is obviously an issue as any outcome in which a team is best off aiming to lose is wrong.


Negative Externalities

   Professional athletes are looked at as role models. They are held to a standard to have a positive influence on young athletes pursuing their sport. While only a select few can play professionally, all those who play benefit from sports in that it helps them grow physically and mentally, build relationships, learn sportsmanship, learn to work with others, and most importantly, learn to dedicate themselves towards goals. All o

f these principles benefit individuals in every stage of their lives, far beyond their days of athletics.

Potential Solutions

Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy proposed that rookies should enter the NBA through free agency rather than a draft. This would eliminate any incentive to lose and would also result in players being paid what they are worth through a free market style of bidding. The issue with this is that star players will crave large markets teams like the Lakers and Knicks will continue to land star players unlike in the draft players can be forced to go to any team. Truly struggling teams could also have little hope as the rookies would be less inclined to go to a losing team than a winning one. This could result in losing teams becoming consistently bad which would destroy the franchise and fan base. The main idea of this model would be to make only incentives for winning.

FiveThirtyEight asked for proposals to fix the NBA Draft and received over 7000 ideas. The most plausible ideas included playoffs for those teams eliminated from playoff contention which would take place after the season but before the playoffs to contending teams would have time to rest. Under this system, the winner of the tournament would get the first overall draft pick. This system has no prevalent flaws and has the potential of working, though players playing in this tournament don’t have a ton of incentive to play and veterans with nothing to prove might refuse to play.

Others proposed several systems that would basically randomize the draft order and have no reflection on the team’s record at all. This would lead to similar concerns of truly bad teams having no way of becoming successful. It also seems wrong that a team could win a title and then have the first overall pick in the draft the following offseason without any loss of talent from their championship roster.

The ideal system must include aspects from several of them. The incentive of losing must be eliminated and harsh penalties must be imposed on teams suspected to be purposely losing. Worse teams should still have the opportunity to draft top talent, but the intention of every person in an organization should be to win every game. Teams also should not be able to get top picks several years in a row, especially in a league like the NBA in which few players can play at a time.


It is clear that tanking is harmful to almost everyone involved in professional sports, but it is the league’s fault for creating this system of incentives rather than the teams that do the tanking. This issue put the integrity of professional sports into question which is a significant part of American culture and can tarnish the reputations as well as restrict the benefits of the leagues. This system also sets up the philosophy that talent is necessary for success while in reality, it is hard work and dedication that results in success and is essential to instill in the young people looking up to professional athletes. People of all ages also benefit from the underdog mentality that even those less favored to win have the ability – incentivizing losing reduces this. Very many studies suggest that children playing sports will help them in many aspects of their development including improving their self-esteem and academic performance. Reducing their inspiration to perform takes away from their own incentives to participate. It is a ridiculous thought for any league to think that a reduction in competitiveness from top to bottom will be successful. Unfortunately, each league is private and the public cannot force leagues to change their policies. The best ways to try and eliminate tanking would be to start petitions, withhold viewership and therefore league revenue, or contact league representatives in any way. If enough fans call the ethics of the league into question then there is bound to be change.  A social media discussion board will be posted to discuss this issue and how it can be changed.


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  1. April 29, 2018 by Aidan.Pak

    Really cool topic! I also am not a fan of tanking, but I love the way you went about proving why it is wrong!

  2. April 29, 2018 by Cassidy.Mott

    Hi! I thought that your project was super interesting, and I had heard a lot of people talking about it but did not know a lot about it. I think that you did a good job of explaining what it was and why it was wrong.

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