Tanking in sports and its detrimental effects

By Owen Matthews, Tim Kalinowski, and Noah Amaral

As every professional sports season comes to an end, the non-playoff team’s struggle. They go into games knowing that a positive outcome doesn’t help their chances. Take a team that’s two games out of a playoff spot going into week 18 in the NFL. A hard-fought win against a playoff-bound team does nothing to improve your chances for the season. So why are teams trying? Well, some aren’t. 

Tanking has been an open problem that many professional sports leagues have had to face over many seasons. Teams purposely finish a season horribly to better put themselves into a position to get the best asset possible from the draft the following season. Leagues like the NFL have been given praise for managing to control the balance between teams that are just bad, teams that have tanked to be where they are, and how the draft order is selected. Other leagues, including the NBA and NHL, have openly shared their frustration with the issue. Teams are not upset about losing.

“You’re kind of just that middle team. You’re not getting a high enough pick to really get that player that’s going to help you and you’re not really good enough to go on that deep run,” says Cole Shelton, sportswriter and avid sports fan. “When teams are in the middle too long, they realize they gotta go one direction or the other” 

The temptation is real. When you have a seven-foot, four-inch French superstar in Victor Wembanyama to look forward to for the next draft, why wouldn’t you better your chances at securing him? Players like Wembanyama in the draft is when this problem occurs. Teams sitting in last-place spots are looking for pieces to improve. Looking for a player that would be the face of the franchise. But instead, teams who sit out their star players, trade away key pieces of their team and purposely don’t try. They are the ones getting a better shot at these high draft picks. 

“You look at basketball last year with Wembanyama. Hockey with Bedard. There were pretty clear teams at the end of the year, when they knew they weren’t going to make the playoffs, were not fielding the best team because they were hoping to get some more losses and get a better chance at getting one of those players” Shelton says. 

Altogether, the idea of tanking is a smart move from an organizational standpoint, it doesn’t always work out. With months in between the end of the NBA season and the NBA draft, almost everything can go wrong. A player’s draft value can drop in an instant and a team can look dead in the water. Risky decisions don’t always pan out for even the most knowledgeable of teams. But are they betting on their knowledge or is it luck?

“The draft is so hard. You’re drafting a kid at eighteen years old and projecting what they’re going to be like at twenty-five. This is where you see a lot of those top guys don’t pan out,” says Shelton, explaining his reasoning on why tanking successfully is difficult. 

While good for an organization, tanking affects the fanbase of your team very negatively. Fans come to watch their team win, but when they are dead set on higher draft picks for next season, the losses will pile up. This is resulting in many empty arenas and stadiums across the professional sports leagues. Struggling organizations, like the Toronto Raptors, need to find their median in producing a high-level basketball team while also improving their chances at a good draft next season. But looking into the market of a team is most crucial. The Raptors being the only NBA team in Canada helps give them more incentive to tank. They know they have a loyal and large enough fanbase to still put fans in seats. But what does this mean for the smaller market teams? 

“It is tough those lean years if you are not a big market. Like when the Maple Leafs were kind of tanking for Matthews, they have a strong enough market where their still going to sell out every game” says Shelton. “But for those kind of small market teams, like Oakland and the Pirates in baseball, it is a lot harder when you aren’t good because it’s just less incentive to go and spend people’s money on a team that’s probably going to lose.”

The controversy of tanking is going to be around for a while. We don’t often hear teams come out saying they aren’t going to try, but it’s noticeable. The only way the issue is going to be solved is if the leagues take the temptation away entirely. It can be done, but only if the leagues want to. The controversy will really set in if a team tanks at the end of a season and ends up getting a generational talent that was rightfully not theirs. Until then, the joke is on the fans paying to see their team lose. 


Which teams bit off a little more than they could chew during there tanking? A few teams in recent years stick out more than others… 

Infographic by Noah Amaral