The Art of “Tanking” in sports
If you’re a big sports fan, you’ve probably seen the names of Trevor Lawrence, Connor McDavid, the whole Slafkovsky or Shane Wright debate, and, recently, Connor Bedard. It all comes down to the art that is seen as almost taboo in sports but is still a part of every sports season. Tanking is a word often thrown around for the lower-placed teams, but what does it mean?
Tanking by itself is deliberately losing games in order to get a better chance at a potential franchise-changing player in the upcoming year’s draft. This year in the National Hockey League (NHL), the biggest talk, especially around the Montreal Canadiens is the promising talent of Connor Bedard making waves with the Regina Pats in the Western Hockey League (WHL), a junior league in Canada. He is predicted to be the first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft. However, some leagues perform under a lottery system. The NBA and NHL have been using it since 1984 and 1995 respectively, thus not giving the last-placed team a definite chance of getting that first overall pick.
Major League Baseball (MLB), part of the Big 4, along with the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the NHL, also recently implemented a draft lottery system at the end of the 2022 season. The NFL is currently the only league left that does not use a lottery system. The draft order is, therefore, made with the final standings.
So, in that case, if it’s up to a lottery for a majority of the sports, why would you tank? Well, the odds get higher the lower you finish, but it does not guarantee you get the first pick.
Take, for example, the 2015 NHL Draft, the year of generational talent Connor McDavid. That lottery was won by the Edmonton Oilers, who had the 3rd best chance at winning the lottery, finishing 28th out of 30 teams at the time. The Buffalo Sabres, who finished last, fell to 2nd in the draft despite having the best odds at landing the first overall pick (20%). Edmonton only had an 11.5% chance to land the first overall pick, thus landing Connor McDavid. This process creates some sort of randomness that doesn't ensure that the last team will automatically get the first pick. The Sabres were horrible that year, and so were the Oilers, but you could see the Sabres being more lenient toward losing games.
Tanking is obviously considered illegal, going against the integrity of the sport, and is why it is frowned upon in the sports world. The Montreal Canadiens currently sit 26th out of 32 in league standings at the time this article is being written.
Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL mentioned in an interview with Sportsnet in January 2023 that "You’re not going to lose games to increase your odds by a couple of percentage points. That’s silly. And frankly, suggesting tanking, I believe, is inconsistent with the professionalism that our players and our coaches have. Nobody tanks."
NHL fans consider this claim by the commissioner to be false, as was proven a bit later when Mason McTavish of the Anaheim Ducks, who currently sit 30th out of 32 in the standings at the time of this article, texts his Team Canada teammate Connor Bedard after every Ducks loss the odds of landing the first overall selection he mentioned in an interview "I get a (Mason McTavish) text all the time if they lose."
If we shift towards another sport, the NFL games, which do not use a draft lottery system, become a bit more entertaining for fans as they battle in a so-called “Tank Bowl” – a nickname made famous by sports YouTuber UrinatingTree who covers just about every sport in a humorous fashion. It’s easier to gauge in the NFL because of the lack of a lottery. If you have the worst record that year, you land the first overall pick.
So, your team struggles and you see there’s a shiny prospect in the upcoming draft. Sell your assets and players, get your draft picks, and proceed to subtly lose to get more chances at this opportunity to obtain a franchise-altering player. Embrace the Tank!