Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Monday, April 09, 2007
Why Does Tanking Occur in the NBA but Seemingly Not in Other Leagues?
In response to my post last Thursday on NBA teams purposefully losing games to increase their odds of drafting Greg Oden or Kevin Durant (a post that generated some wonderful reader comments and posts on other websites), George Mason University law professor and Volokh Conspiracy contributor Todd Zywicki asked me the following question:
Why do you think it is that the "tanking" concern seems to arise uniquely with respect to the NBA? There seems to be no concern about tanking in the NFL for instance and it is not uncommon to see a team spring an upset the last week of the season and knock them down a few spots in the draft.I e-mailed him back the following five possible explanations, which I have edited to incorporate his insight:
1) Impact Player & Lack of Close Substitutes explanation: It seems that there are certain drafts where there is at least one player who many believe projects as a future NBA superstar. With the caveat of complete subjectivity, I recall the last 10 drafts as follows in terms of players who, at the time, projected as superstars, followed by a significant drop-off in expectations:
2006: weak draft, no superstar projections
2005: weak draft, no superstar projections
2004: Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor, and then a big drop off
2003: Lebron James, Darko Milic, Carmelo Anthony, drop off (I don't remember Dwayne Wade, who went #5, projecting as a future superstar).
2002: Yao Ming, drop off
2001: Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Eddy Curry, drop off [maybe no superstar projections here?]
2000: weak draft, no superstar projections
1999: Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Lamar Odom, drop off
1998: weak draft, no superstar projections
1997: Tim Duncan, drop off
But Professor Zywicki raises a great point: the NFL draft is just like the NBA Draft in that it often has a few guys at the top who are coveted, followed by everyone else, and yet allegations of tanking are much less common in the NFL. But his other point about close substitutes in the NFL draft also appears explanatory: there is likely more depth in a typical NFL draft than in a typical NBA Draft, meaning acceptable substitutes to top players in any NFL draft can usually be found throughout the first round, and sometimes even in the second and third rounds. Also, it strikes me that NFL teams often trade down in the first round, while that doesn't seem to occur nearly as often in the NBA, and that would appear to lend credence to a lack close substitutes in a typical NBA draft.
2) The NBA Is a League for Superstars explanation: One might argue that unlike the NFL and its focus on teams (e.g., the New England Patriots), the NBA is more individualistic and individual players get more attention. I suspect this is in part because we see NBA players' faces and expressions on the court, while NFL players are largely obscured in their helmets, and because there are only 10 players on an NBA court, while there are 22 on an NFL field. And maybe this also relates to the close substitutes idea and how there are fewer close substitutes in an individualistic NBA, while close substitutes are more possible in a team-based, organic NFL. But this explanation has some flaws, too (look at all the individual attention Peyton Manning gets etc.).
3) One Player Can Change an NBA Team explanation: The Spurs go from 22 wins in the 95-96 season to 56 wins in the 96-97 season after drafting Tim Duncan [along with getting a healthy David Robinson back].; the Magic go from 21 wins in the 91-92 season to 41 wins in the 92-93 season after drafting Shaquille O'Neal. This type of rapid, draft-based improvement would seem harder to do in the other sports. Along those lines, if either the Bobcats or Celtics draft Greg Oden, I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar upswing in wins next season. In contrast, it just doesn't seem that one great player will change an NFL team. Sure, Reggie Bush made the Saints better, but there were a lot of other new players who arguably had more of an impact (e.g., Drew Brees, Marques Colston, a healthy Deuce McCallister)
4) The Comparative Gambling Interests explanation: I would hate to think that this is relevant, but if an NFL team throws a game, there would probably be far more outrage than if an NBA team were to do the same. The bookies, gamblers, and Vegas types have too much on the line on every NFL game.
5) Nobody Cares explanation: Not many people follow bad NBA teams, and since each game is only one out of 81, people probably pay much less attention to each NBA game than they do to each of an NFL team's 16 games. Also, the NFL seems to promote their product better (i.e., most NFL games are on Sunday, which for many Americans has seemingly become a day built around NFL football, and there is always the sweet Monday night game to follow; in contrast, NBA games happen every night and there is no real build-up to any one game--this may make it easier for an NBA team to throw a game).
In summary, and as Professor Zywicki notes, we essentially have two categories of explanations: 1) the incentives are greater to tank in the NBA or 2) the costs of tanking are lower (e.g., either easier to get away with or less outrage if they tank). Even if both factors are small, they seem to push in the same direction.
But are our explanations correct? Are there are other explanations? And does tanking, in fact, occur more often in the NBA, or do we only see it more often because it is more noticeable?
Update: Other Takes
In addition to the outstanding reader comments to this post, several writers on other websites/blogs have responded:
"I think all the possible explanations suggested by the professor are at play here. There certainly is a perception in the NBA that if you can just land that one player, you can completely turn your team around. . . . If tanking is unique to the NBA vis-a-vis the NFL--and I'm not convinced that it is--then it is because winning matters in a more meaningful way in the NFL than in the NBA and because losing NBA teams think that one player can turn their entire franchise around in a way that NFL teams don't."
"Sports Law Blog's Michael McCann recently did a fine job breaking down the usual reasons behind the sort of hand-wringing that follows every supposed "distasteful" loss by a potential lottery participant. While there is absolutely nothing to disagree with in McCann's breakdown, I think he's giving the hand-wringers a little too much credit . . ."
"Professor Michael McCann of Sports Law Blog had a post on the recurring concern about whether bad NBA teams "tank" late in the season in order to secure a better draft pick. Concern about this phenomenon is what led to the unique "lottery" system in the NBA. I wrote him asking why this concern continually arises in the NBA and not other pro leagues. Michael has written a long and persuasive response to my query . . . In a nutshell, his argument is that the benefits of tanking are higher in the NBA and the costs are lower. Seems persuasive to me . . ."
"Four columns I really enjoyed this week: 4. The Sports Law Blog did a good job of breaking down every possible reason why tanking occurs in the NBA and not other sports. I think it's a little more simple: The NBA season is so damned long, it lends itself to throwing in the towel ... especially if there's a franchise rookie coming out. But I liked all their theories."