Time for Change in the NHL and NBA

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I was saying Boo-urns!
I was saying Boo-urns!

Recently, Buffalo Sabres fans in attendance for “Tank Night” were cheering openly for their team to lose to the visiting Arizona Coyotes. When the Sabres tied the game near the end of the third period, the goal announcement drew boos from the home crowd, as did the horn signaling the end of regulation (presumably because the Sabres earned one point by sending the game to overtime).

In the NBA, some fans of the 76ers, Knicks, Timberwolves, and Lakers have all taken to rooting for their teams to lose. Desperately looking for silver linings to terrible seasons.

Just think about the absurdity of it all. Thousands of people are paying money to go to a game and loudly cheer for their home team to lose; going out of their way to jeer the men who are doing the best that they can to represent their adopted (or sometimes actual) hometown with pride.

For what? A better percentage chance of drafting a prospect who may or may not become a superstar in a few years?

While I understand the rationale behind the misguided thinking of these “fans”, it’s sad and disrespectful.

The fans are not entirely to blame, however. It’s the leagues themselves that put many fans in the unenviable position of wanting to see their teams lose today in the hopes that it will lead to a brighter theoretical tomorrow. By continually rewarding the teams at the bottoms of leagues with the best draft picks, fans are forced to turn negative in order to remain positive.

That’s why the time has come to make major changes in the way that the NHL and NBA are structured.

Now, when discussing the topic of “tanking” for the sake of high draft picks, one of the first things that always gets brought up is the idea of promotion and relegation. Simply put, you have two (or more) leagues which fall under one umbrella but are on different tiers. To make things easy let’s call them League A and League B. At the end of the season, the bottom teams in the League A are relegated to League B, and the best teams from B are promoted to A. Seems easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not. The first problem is that current club owners will almost assuredly vote down any proposal which would even whisper at the possibility that their franchise could be relegated to “B” status. That’s probably the biggest hurdle that would need to be cleared with any kind of major restructuring, and you can bet no owner is gonna vote in favor of anything that might take money out of his pockets.

The next problem is competitive balance, or a lack thereof. This is the issue that plagues leagues like the English Premier League where the same few teams end up winning from year to year. Now, it wouldn’t be quite as small of a group in the NHL or NBA, because there are a lot of large cities here with strong hockey and basketball histories. So there would probably be about 10 teams that would routinely have a shot at winning a championship. The rest of the teams, however, would just flail helplessly somewhere between mediocrity and relegation.

For the B teams who get promoted, they would most likely just end up bouncing between both leagues every few years. The economic impact of that type of instability on a pro sports team in North America would be catastrophic.

So if a promotion/relegation system won’t work here, what can we do to prevent teams from intentionally trying to lose?

My first suggestion is to use a two-tiered challenge system. This is similar to promotion/relegation, but doesn’t require the automatic advancement and banishment of teams from the two leagues. Essentially, any top team from the B league may challenge any bottom team from A to a best-of-seven series at the end of the regular season. Should the B team win, they’re promoted to A, with the guarantee that they cannot be relegated for the next three seasons. Should the B team lose its challenge, they cannot challenge another A team for the next three seasons. This would prevent teams from making challenges unless they really thought they were good enough to win, and if they do win it offers a little bit of stability over the next few seasons to help them be competitive.

The main obstacle would be getting owners to agree to it. There would likely have to be some sort of revenue sharing as well as an agreement that offers financial compensation to current owners whose teams lose a challenge and get demoted to the B league, especially considering how much money these franchises are worth now.

The other suggestion I have is simply to change the way the draft is done. Instead of giving the top draft picks to the worst teams every year, schedule all of the drafts in advance. So, if there are 30 teams, each team is guaranteed to get a #1 pick once every 30 years. It’s not sexy, but it means that there is absolutely no benefit at all to losing on purpose. Of course teams would still be allowed to trade picks, but this way you know exactly what pick you’re trading and exactly what pick you’re receiving.

Obviously there are going to be drawbacks to these systems as well, but I do believe that they present workable solutions to prevent the types of embarrassing displays of “fandom” like we saw in Buffalo on Thursday night.

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