Being a sports fan is not merely a capitalist relationship between a fan and the organization, although it is important to remember that the exchange of money is implicit in supporting any team – we buy the tickets, we buy the jerseys, and we watch on TV (therefore attracting advertisers). So, outside of the nebulous definition of what a team is – a community-based regional representative on the national stage – we are supporting a producer. Fundamental to any relationship with a producer is the expectation that the product itself will be good. If the product sucks, you stop buying it, right? Well, not quite.
Today in sports, it has become perfectly acceptable to support a horrible product. I should know; I’m a fan of two teams (the Buffalo Sabres and Chicago Cubs) that are explicitly trying to be as bad as possible. And not just as a casual fan – I’m fully invested in these teams, yet do not care (or am pleased) if they lose.
This phenomenon is known as “tanking,” and it has been around for quite some time, though coverage and acceptance of it has seemingly never been higher than it is today. The basic idea is that the simplest, cheapest way to build a team is through drafting young talent in the prospect draft. The easiest way to draft the best talent is to be the worst team in the league, which in all four major North American sports leagues gives a team the best chance to gain the first overall (or, at least, a top five) draft pick. With enough of these top picks, a team will be able to cheaply and dependably rise out of the basement and back to championship caliber. Tanking has been plausibly compared to the business tactics of Mitt Romney, who took failing businesses, gutted them to lower costs, and then eventually garnered profits off of them. In a way, a fan of a tanking team is being asked to root for Mitt fucking Romney. The fan is the pawn in a strategy that may eventually garner results, as the team guts its own roster Romney-style.
Sports fans are taught to value a win over all else, to live and die to see their team win as much as possible.
In that case, I’m a dupe. I already fantasize about the lineup the Cubs will trot out onto the field in 2016 – with a bunch of top prospects! – and the group of players the Sabres could have by that same year. I fervently want the Sabres to be bad again next year so that they can draft Connor McDavid, a forward prospect so good he’s been nicknamed “McJesus,” presumably for his franchise-redeeming qualities. They’ve got me hook, line, and sinker, dreaming of a not-guaranteed future while currently supporting a deliberately awful product.
For a team to get to get this awful usually involves the trading of any good players whose contracts are expiring (who might jeopardize the tanking, and are leaving soon anyway) and fielding the worst roster possible, often through phantom injuries that shelve good performers at critical times. In essence, the goal of tanking is to go as low as possible in order to gain from parity-promoting draft systems that reward the worst teams every year. What’s pernicious about this strategy is that it takes the typical idea of a fan’s hope for the future and extends it for years. It also fundamentally reverses the way a fan watches the game – a fan is accepting of a bad product because it will eventually create a good one. In that case, a loss is as good as a win.
Watching the Buffalo Sabres this year as a fan has been a radical experience. Sports fans are taught to value a win over all else, to live and die to see their team win as much as possible. In the context of the tank, though, every loss that secures our spot as the worst in the league is seen as good. This effectively creates an ambivalence for every game during the season – winning is fun, but losing is fine, if not better. Because if the Sabres can get the first pick this year or the next, they eventually will have the top-ranked talent necessary to win the Stanley Cup. That is what is being sold to fans – the suffering will all be worth it.
Never mind that similar plans have not always worked out for other teams. One just needs to look at the current Edmonton Oilers or New York Islanders to see teams that bottomed out and have stayed there.
What’s being capitalized on is a fan’s capacity for hope despite everything else. The Chicago Cubs’ haven’t won a World Series since 1908, and yet ownership can sell fans and the media on the fact that the latest round of “rebuilding” (the euphemism du jour for tanking) will eventually bring the long sought-after championship. The media has been complimentary of the plan; Rany Jazayerli, a baseball writer for Grantland, described the Cubs current strategy – outright tanking – as “going well as long as you don’t focus on the Cubs’ win-loss record […] The new front office made the conscious decision not to worry about wins and losses until there’s a chance […for a] playoff spot.” And fans, too, because of the natural predilection to hope against literally more than 100 years of contrary evidence, have mostly bought in.
Teams are allowed to do this because it truly is the best way for a team to get better. Signing free agents on the open market has proven to be risky and cost inefficient; and since draft systems reward the worst teams, why not try to be the worst if you can’t conceivably win the championship? The owners of professional sports teams have a vested interest in keeping a draft system that rewards bad teams, because it keeps the opportunity for fan hope alive – the bad team is always one or two drafts away from becoming a contender. Although some proposed changes for the draft – including, in basketball, a system that would assign every team’s draft picks for the next 30 years – have been floated to remove the incentive to tank, none have gained widespread traction. There’s no reason for owners to accept any other system, because the current system allows them to be aggressively bad for years without a ton of fan discontent. For instance, the Philadelphia 76ers are mired in a 26-game losing streak as of writing this article, tied for the longest in the history of basketball, no one’s been fired, and the fans, while checked out of this season, haven’t shown much widespread ire.
In the end, general managers who create bad teams and fans who support them are not to blame; what’s really to blame is the current system that incentivizes losing. Owners will not get rid of this system without a fight, though, as the current draft system keeps alive the idea of parity, in which any team can conceivably compete for the championship in any year. What’s being played upon at all times is fans’ optimism and hope, the propensity for fans to return en masse year, after year, after year. And now it’s even easier, as we’ve been sold a system that allows us to truly love the losses in order to be happier in some far-off future. After the pain, maybe then I can be happy.