NBA teams will "tank" for draft choices. Why don't NFL teams do the same?
Two recent posts from the Sports Law Blog talk about NBA teams losing games on purpose. They do that in order to finish worse in the standings, and improve their chances of getting an early pick in the draft.
In the NBA, the draft order is determined by lottery; the worse a team's record, the more lottery tickets it gets for high picks. If a team isn't going to make the playoffs, it might be in its interest to try to lose, or at least not try so hard to win. Nobody deliberately tanks, but coaches may make extensive use of second-tier players, for the ostensible reason that they need to evaluate them for next year.
The first post talks about ways to stop this from happening by changing the incentives. For instance, if all non-playoff teams had an equal shot at the lottery, regardless of record, there would be no reason to lose. Or if every rookie was a free agent, you wouldn't need a draft at all.
The second post is, in my opinion, more interesting. It asks why we see "tanking" happen in basketball, but not in other sports. It doesn't happen in the NHL or NFL. Plus, the NFL doesn't use a lottery, so you'd think the tendency to lose meaningless games would be stronger, not weaker.
The article comes up with five reasons the NBA is unique in this regard:
-- in the NBA, there's often only one or two impact players, and then a steep dropoff in quality. So a number one pick could be extremely valuable, while the number two pick is not a lot of use.
-- the value of a superstar in the NBA is much higher than in other sports, because there are only five men on the court, and top players may see action for almost the entire game.
-- teams who draft a superstar often improve by a huge margin in the following season. (This seems to be simply a consequence of the previous point.)
-- since there's not as much money wagered on NBA games as NFL games, there's less outrage when teams don't try hard to win.
-- "nobody cares" when bad teams lose; there are 82 games in the season, so no game is that big an event.
My vote goes to the first two points. And I'd add a third:
-- it's easier to lose a game in basketball than in other sports. You only have to substitute five players, rather than 30 or 40 in the NFL. There's a big dropoff between superstars and bench players, so the players you sub in are substantially worse. And, finally, in the NBA, a substantially worse team will almost always lose to a substantially better team – there just aren't all that many upsets.
This makes the task of losing a whole lot easier. And that's important; if you're going to take flak for obviously trying to lose, at least you want the strategy to work.