After the alert popped up on my phone I sat for a moment in silence. The New York Knicks lost — again — this time to a rising Philadelphia 76ers team. The reality of the Knicks losing a game was not much of a shock; the frequency of losses to wins is what began to blow my mind.
I could not remember the last time the Knicks had won a game. So, I pulled up the teams schedule on my phone and began thumbing backwards. Nothing in March. Finally, there it was: February 22. That was the last time the Knicks put up a W. It’s been nearly a month, but it felt more like three months.
After a hopeful start, the Knicks hovered around the .500 mark and the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff field through last Christmas. After the season-ending ACL injury to Kristaps Porzingis in early February, the losses began to accumulate — fast. Since February 6, the date of Porzingis’ injury vs. the Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks are 1-15. That is not a typo.
The Knicks had lost nine straight games and those mid-season whispers about a playoff bid have evolved into the curious, yet compelling, discussion of “tanking,” or as The Washington Post referred to it, “sports’ dirty little secret.”
Well, it’s no longer a secret; nor is it exclusive to the NBA. “Tanking” has been thrown around in the MLB and NFL too.
It is not a new phenomenon, either. The earliest related effort happened was nearly a century ago when the Chicago Black Sox we’re guilty of “fixing” the World Series. That is not only cheating, but the ultimate act of “tanking.”
While there is no known hard evidence that professional teams have intentionally lost games in an effort to improve their draft ranking, franchises have discussed openly their strategy, couched in softer language as “the process” (see Philadelphia 76ers) and the Houston Astros “grand experiment.”
Remember the Sports Illustrated cover story published on June 30, 2014 about the Houston Astros? Go back and read it again — closely. SI reporter Ben Reiter wrote, “Bo Porter (then the Astros manager) understands the necessity of losing … (Jeff) Luhnow intellectually understands why his Astros must lose …”
From 2013-2015 the Astros expected to lose. The ownership and front office were confident that the bumps, and bruises, and scars of three consecutive 100-plus loss seasons would resolve itself, giving way to long-term success. Losing was a “necessity” to future success; that was the plan, anyway.
Fortunately, for Houston it paid off last season when the Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to capture the first World Series in franchise history. The Astros on field success released the franchise from any additional “tanking” debates.
The Philadelphia 76ers began their rebuilding strategy around the same time as the Astros. In 2013, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie urged fans to “trust the process.” The suggestion — or strategy — led to a heavy debate on the subject of “tanking.” Was that what Hinskie was suggesting? How do you explain that to fans, season ticket holders, media/broadcast deals and sponsors? NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wanted Hinskie fired.
Last month commissioner Silver publicly acknowledged he is aware of the issue saying:
“Over the past several seasons, discussions about so-called ‘tanking’ in the NBA have occurred with some frequency, both in the public discourse and within our league … The former can be a legitimate strategy to construct a successful team within the confines of league rules; the latter — which we have not found and hope never to see in the NBA — has no place in our game. If we ever received evidence that players or coaches were attempting to lose or otherwise taking steps to cause any game to result otherwise than on its competitive merits, that conduct would be met with the swiftest and harshest response possible from the league office.”
Silver’s statement, along with the growing audible din surrounding professional sports in general, is deeply concerning.
The NFL Cleveland Browns are not so lucky. The team has suffered through nine consecutive losing seasons and three winning regular season records since 1990. During that same period the Browns have lost 10 or more games 17 times. Adding insult to failure, the Browns announced last year they were a franchise that is “not focused on wins and losses.” And how did that translate with season ticket holders?
Brad Kullman, author of the book Losing (To Win), suggests eliminating the “incentive” to lose. For example, in the NFL recording the worst regular season record has its benefits. Teams are gaming the system to stockpile talent via the draft. In a recently published story in the Washington Post Kullman wrote:
Losing at the highest level of professional sports should never be rewarded and it should certainly never be celebrated. We must demand that the worst teams make every effort to at least become mediocre — to earn a top draft pick.
In an NFL “integrity-based” draft the top 10 picks would go to the teams with the best records that miss the playoffs, in order of finish, best to worst.
In 2018, professional (and collegiate) sports is a multi-billion business. Every NBA, NFL and MLB franchise is now valued at more than one billion dollars. According to Forbes, the most valuable professional U.S. sports team is the Dallas Cowboys ($4.2 billion), followed by the New York Yankees ($3.7 billion), New England Patriots ($3.4 billion) and, yes, the New York Knicks (3.3 billion).
As salaries, media/broadcast deals and ticket prices continue to skyrocket, is it also possible that select franchises are actively suppressing their potential short-term success in hope of creating long-term fortune? How long — and to what depth — is franchise ownership, teams and athletes conspiring to intentionally lose?
I am not sure the truth will ever see the light of day.