Is it ever OK for sports teams to lose on purpose?
I’m sure we’d all say, “Probably not”. After all, there’s a very real reason that gambling is strictly forbidden in baseball, and there’s a very real reason one of the game’s greatest players — Shoeless Joe Jackson — will likely never get in the Hall of Fame. It has to do with losing on purpose.
But is it OK for a team to be purposely assembled by management with the goal in mind of being bad?
Well…if you’re in Buffalo, the answer is almost certainly a resounding “YES!!!”
Our NHL team in these parts, the Sabres, is virtually beloved. It’s entirely possible that hockey fandom is a bigger thing here than football fandom, although I suspect that’s because the Sabres had a brief period of being awesome eight or nine years ago while the Bills have been crappy for fifteen. But right now, the Sabres are awful. With one more loss, they will clinch the worst record in the NHL this season, and most fans here are fine with that.
Because the NHL Draft has not one but two astonishing prospects lined up to very likely go first and second in the first round. If the Sabres finish dead last, one of those two kids will end up playing in Buffalo. These guys (Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel) are referred to almost universally as “generational” players, the kinds of players who only tend to come along once every ten years or so. We’re talking Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux territory here.
But why would the Sabres be interested in both of those guys if they finish dead last? Well, that’s because the NHL does not do what the NFL and Major League Baseball do with their drafts. Those leagues slot their drafts strictly according to order of finish: the top pick goes to the team with the worst record, second pick to the second-worst, and so on, using various tie-breaker formulas to distinguish between teams with identical records. The NHL, instead, uses a lottery to determine the top pick, so this year (the lottery rules change next year, for some reason), the team that finishes dead last has only a 20 percent chance of picking first, that team is guaranteed to pick second if they don’t get the top pick. Which means that the team finishing dead last is guaranteed one of these two amazing players, who are both the type of talent that hasn’t resided in Buffalo in many moons, or maybe ever.
And the Sabres this year are bad. Really bad. Cataclysmically bad. Some sports people have determined that the Sabres are, statistically-speaking, historically bad. Ouch.
And they’re this bad, this year, on purpose.
Is that wrong? Is it wrong for a sports team’s management to purposely field an awful team?
Well, here’s the thing: I don’t think it is.
First of all, there’s nothing new at all about this. In hockey terms, they call it “tanking”, but a football team would likely refer to the phenomenon as “bottoming out”; you see it fairly often, when football teams whose rosters are aging and getting prohibitively expensive have a big purge of talent, resulting in a pretty bad team that has decided to go into “rebuilding mode”. Rebuilding almost always involves being pretty bad for at least a year or two (or so the team hopes; NFL history is replete with rebuilding projects that failed, resulting in another rebuild three or four years after the first one). “Bottoming out” is a pretty common idea in the NFL, and in fact, in recent years a lot of local sports commentators have called for the Bills to “bottom out”, so they might pick higher in the draft and maybe land on the best quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, the Sabres are definitely rebuilding. They have jettisoned virtually every high-priced player and every player who was due to become an unrestricted free agent, often in return for draft picks. This, too, is nothing new; baseball teams have been doing this for years. Over there it’s commonly called “having a fire sale”, when baseball teams that are pretty much out of contention start trading away players who are either going to be free agents or who command a high enough price in return that a team can use a trade to restock its minor league system with prospects. Are such teams “embracing losing”, as some have accused the Sabres of doing? I find it hard to see how. Same with the football teams who have elected to enter a rebuilding process. Is it “embracing losing” to enter into a period where losing is almost certain?
And why is it that sports commentators — columnists for the Buffalo News are notorious for this — so often call for rebuilds, call for “blowing it up and starting over”, call for “bottoming out”, only to harshly criticize the team when the process of rebuilding, blowing it up and starting over, or bottoming out results in a period of losing?
Who knows, but it seems to me that there are conflicting impulses at work here. We expect the players on the ice, or the field, or the diamond, to always put out their best effort. But the problem is that sometimes the best effort of management actually involves being bad for a while. The players may expect to win each time, but management has a different job, and sometimes it means being bad for an entire year in hopes of landing a very, very good player on the other end of it.