America is much better than England. We left the whole “King and Queen” nonsense and never looked back. Now we are awesome, and the coolest people in England want to spend all their time over here (see: Spice Girls, David Beckham, Ricky Gervais, Adele, Austin Powers). More fun, nicer weather, better food, and cleaner teeth. A feeling best summed up by our country’s two current Poet Laureates Matthew Richard Stone and Randolph Severn Parker III when they penned “America, fuck yeah.”
While we wallow in our own bottomless pit of awesomeness, however, England has solved something that we can’t seem to figure out. And the worst part is it has to do with something that our country takes the most pride in – our sports.
The English Premier League functions much like the American Indians did with the buffalo. They utilize every part of the animal and waste nothing. The EPL has figured out how to squeeze every last drop of drama and entertainment from the very worst teams in the league. The battle to prevent being relegated to the lower division is arguably as entertaining as the battle for the league championship. The worst three teams in the top league at season’s end are forced to play in an entirely different league the following year – which has mountains upon mountains of negative implications with players, fans, and money.
This creates an incredibly dramatic end of the season that causes the worst teams to play some of their best futbol all the way to their final game – thus making it exciting for the fans. Without the presence of a player draft each year – the English soccer structure is mainly based on youth academies and deep pockets – the league has completely solved the problem of tanking. Teams cannot tank; their livelihood depends on it. Fans of any team in the league will never have a game in which they don’t want their team to win.
When people debate which sport or teams have “the best fans,” English soccer and American college football usually come up. They have “the most passionate fans.” Well there is a reason for that. Not coincidentally, both of these fans are NEVER faced with a situation where they would want their team to lose. There is a never a scenario in either sport where you could even fathom wanting your team not to prevail.
So why don’t we try harder to get our other sports to that point?
The rookie draft is the wildcard here, because these sports don’t have it. The draft is the catalyst to the problem. But don’t think we haven’t identified this problem before and attempted to fix it. We have a lottery in both the NBA and NHL. The NFL doesn’t have as much of a problem because of the shortened season and the fact that it would take a zombie apocalypse a la “The Walking Dead” to take down interest in the juggernaut of a league (and I wouldn’t be shocked if for an episode Rick and Shane had to traverse through the walker-infested Atlanta to catch a Falcons game).
Quick Tangent: Let’s spend a moment on “The Walking Dead” here. What a show. Very few on TV that you can argue are better right now. If you aren’t watching “The Walking Dead” right now, here are five reasons to know if you should:
- If you loved “Lost” and also hated “Lost” at the same time.
- If you like when the main character of a show – who is also a cop – caps two 8-year old girls in the head in less than two full seasons and he is viewed as the shows protagonist and moral center.
- If you like watching “Man vs. Wild” because you think it might help if you ever get stuck in the jungle and had to survive by yourself. This is that times 1,000.
- If you like Brady v. Manning, Magic v. Bird, Maverick v. Iceman, Jack v. Locke or any other alpha-male rivalry.
- If you like a show where only 1 character is off-limits to be killed at all times.
Back to the topic at hand…Our lack of creativity in this matter has been lazy. The lottery system doesn’t work and teams still tank to get the best odds they can possibly get. Odds shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Some have suggested a sort of “tournament” for the teams not in the playoffs competing for the right to the #1 overall pick. While this would be, as Bill Simmons calls it, “entertaining as hell,” it isn’t feasible. It still levels the playing field and loses the point of having the worst teams get the best players. In this situation, however engaging it may be to fans, it makes the worst teams in the league compete against teams that barely missed the playoffs with no advantage. Problem not solved.
For a while I put tanking in the pile of “questions with no answers” along with “should we pay college players?” and “is Hillary Swank attractive?” but I think I may have finally found an answer.
It came from a likely place: the G8 Summit of sports analytics, the “The MIT Sloan Conference,” which was held last week in Boston. One man, Adam Gold, a graduate student at Missouri, proposed his solution to tanking.
Before I go into what it is – I have to tell you that I LOVE IT. I really love it. I love it so much that if it grew old and forgot who I was because it had Alzheimer’s I would go to its nursing home every day and read it a story I wrote about our life hoping that one day it would remember me.
The basic breakdown is this (and think of it in terms of the NHL and NBA, and maaaaybe MLB): As soon as a team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, their record is wiped clean and they begin to accumulate wins in their remaining games. Out of all of the teams who are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs – which is eventually everyone who does not make the playoffs at some point – whoever has the most points (NHL) or wins (NBA, MLB) gets the #1 overall pick.
So for instance, if the Bobcats are mathematically eliminated this year with 20 games remaining on their schedule, their record in those final 20 games will count towards their draft order. They have 20 games to win as many as they possibly can. Let’s say they go 7-13. The Nets, on the other hand, get eliminated with 10 games left. Now if they go 8-2 in those 10 games, they would get the #1 pick over the Bobcats if they were the teams with the best two records “post-elimination.”
This accounts for a fair system for teams that aren’t good for the bulk of the season, but it also prevents teams from tanking at the end. It essentially gives relevance to the final part of the season for almost every team. Your mathematical elimination, which in the past would signify the end of your season, would really be the beginning of an entirely new season, where winning was incredibly valuable. The worse off you are, the more games you get to accumulate wins (or points in the NHL).
Everyone stays involved, everyone stays on top of their game, and teams cannot tank. You just can’t. If your team even attempts to tank, you would get unequivocally blasted from fans, analysts, and anyone involved with the team. And no matter what, as a fan, you would never have the Sophie’s Choice of whether or not you want to betray your fan-hood and root for your team to lose.
Late-season ticket sales would jump for teams who previously were “out of the race.” These games would be televised and would spawn a whole new wrinkle for the NBA, NHL, and MLB to market. The league wins, the fans win, the teams win, and the players who are going to be drafted win – they go to a team that earned the right to pick them and may be better off because they played well at the end of the year.
We never want a situation where teams and players are intentionally losing – whether it is noticeable to the naked eye or not – and this would essentially get rid of it.
For some perspective: in the NBA last year, it was argued that the Timberwolves tanked at the end of the year to attempt and get the highest pick possible. They had 19 games after they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and went 2-17. Any way you slice it, they weren’t fighting tooth and nail to win those games. It was brutal to be a Timberwolves fan those last 19 games, and no one was showing up to watch because of it. They ended up picking 2nd in the lottery. With the new system, they would have been knocked all the way down to selecting 10th overall because of their lack of effort at the end – a vastly different situation. Derrick Williams turns into Jimmer Fredette.
And speaking of the Kings, they went 9-11 in their 20 games post-elimination last year, and because of that, they had the 5th worst record and had a bad draw in the lottery: they got the 10th overall pick despite having the 5th worst record. The 9 wins they had post-elimination however would have been the most of any non-playoff team. They would have been rewarded for their success late in the year and would now have Kyrie Irving running the show. Slightly different outcomes.
Think about some of the drama in the games down the stretch. Let’s go back to the LeBron draft. It’s the last night of the 2003 season. The Cavs and the Raptors are tied for the most “post-elimination” wins and they play each other. Winner gets #1 pick, loser gets #2. You would watch that game. The teams are playing their ass off for that game. And the winner is rewarded with LeBron James. That game is televised, it gets great ratings, and the fans get to root like hell for their team to win. Like I said, I LOVE THIS IDEA.
Check out this table that would determine the NHL Draft last year in this new way:
The tie would be broken by 1. Most post-elimination wins 2. Least post-elimination regulation losses. 3. Worst record pre-elimination
The Oilers, who were the worst team in the league and won the lottery, had 3x as many games as a team like the Blues to accumulate points. The Oilers, one could argue, utilized the “tanking” strategy effectively and were rewarded because of it. If they knew that they had 12 games to get as many points as possible, the outcome could have been the same, but it would have been because they played well. If you told the Oilers they would have 12 games and the Blues had 4, there is no reason, no matter how bad the Oilers are, that if the Oilers knew they were playing for something that the Blues would have more points. The Blues in this scenario ended up picking 11th while playing well down the stretch and getting nothing for it except a random selection in the lottery.
Every team’s effort would be maximized – which is all we really want as fans. Teams that are in the playoffs will continue to play at their highest level possible. Teams on the fringe will be doing everything they can because their hopes are still alive. And now, there will be only a small chunk of time (between when a team is aesthetically out of contention to when it is mathematically out) where teams would essentially have nothing to play for. Maybe a few teams would tank those games to try and get to that “Elimination Point,” but after that, the more they lose the worse off they are. (“Elimination Point” is also the title of a Wimbledon-themed murder mystery starring Jean Claude van Damme that needs to get made.)
The lottery is a broken system. It is in place in an attempt to prevent teams from tanking because it makes it uncertain where your draft position will be based on your record. However I would argue it would cause more teams to want to lose because of the possibility of getting the #1 overall pick. In the NBA and NHL, where the #1 pick is enormously more valuable than the #2 pick, this is a nonsensical way to decide who gets that pick. Either do it straight up like the NFL or don’t do it at all. The lottery is a confusing and unhappy middle to the problem. So let’s take a page out of our hygienically-deficient friends across the pond, adopt “The Post-Elimination System,” and use the whole buffalo.