Playing to win: how the AFL can prevent tanking

There is a way to ensure poor performing teams such as Greater Western Sydney and Melbourne play to win. AAP/Lukas Coch

The AFL’s recent decision on whether the Melbourne Football Club “tanked” to secure draft picks in 2009 has left many confused.

While ruling that the Demons “did not set out to deliberately lose in any matches” in 2009, the AFL still fined the club $500,000 and has suspended then coach Dean Bailey and football operations manager Chris Connolly.

The system that led to the Demons’ suspected tanking, which awarded teams that won fewer than four games a priority pick in the subsequent draft, has since been abandoned by the AFL.

But the temptation to tank persists in the current draft system. Put simply, the team that finishes at the bottom of the ladder gets the highest draft picks. In the final few weeks of the season, then, there remains an incentive for poor performing teams to lose to ensure they attain (or maintain) the earliest possible selections in the draft.

There has to be a better way to ensure fans of poor performing teams can guarantee they can watch their team at least try to win at the end of the season. In that spirit, I’ve come up with the following proposal to discourage tanking.

How it works

This system is based on the premise that all clubs commence the season with the aim of playing finals football and maintain that aim for so long as they are a mathematical chance of making the finals.

For the purpose of draft selection, clubs are ranked in the order that they are eliminated from finals contention, regardless of their position on the ladder at the end of the season.

A club is eliminated from finals contention when, at the end of a completed round, the number of games remaining for that club is fewer than the number of wins or draws required to secure the lowest position on the ladder designated for finals qualification.

Where two or more teams fall from finals contention at the end of the same round (irrespective of the number of games won), the team with the best record in head-to-head games played between the clubs throughout the entire home and away season will secure the higher position in the draft.

Rationale

Presuming the original premise holds true, clubs have the incentive to try to win matches while they are still in contention to make the finals.

Number one draft pick in 2008, Jack Watts tackles Matthew Kreuzer, the number one pick from the year before. AAP/Joe Castro

And the disincentive to win matches (particularly late in the season) is removed even after clubs are eliminated from finals contention. In the situation where the club is the only one eliminated from finals contention at the end of a round, their subsequent win-loss record cannot alter their position in the draft.

The tie-breaking procedure will ensure that where two or more clubs are eliminated from finals contention in the same round, those clubs still have the incentive to win matches against each other in order to improve their head-to-head records while their results against all other teams will have no bearing on their ultimate position in the draft.

So clubs will have no incentive not to win matches in order to improve their draft position. More importantly, no club would ever be perceived to acquire any advantage by “tanking”.

Applying the proposal to the 2012 Season

So how would the last football season have played out under these rules for the bottom three teams?

At the end of round 15, Gold Cost was seven games behind eighth-placed St Kilda with eight games left to play, therefore mathematically still in finals contention.

By the end of round 16, Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast were seven games behind eighth place with seven games to play. But both clubs were out of finals contention because ninth-placed North Melbourne had the same record as St.Kilda (eight wins to seven losses) and these two clubs were to meet later in the season. Either team winning that match (or even if they drew) would ensure Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast could not make the final eight.

Former Melbourne head coach and current Adelaide assistant Dean Bailey, received a 16 week coaching ban for his involvement in the Demons’ tanking scandal. AAP/Julian Smith

Because the two teams were eliminated at the completion of the same round, they would then vie for picks one and two in the draft according to their head-to-head record. They had already met in round seven (Greater Western Sydney winning 94 to 67) and were due to meet again in Round 20, where Greater Western Sydney would take a 27-point advantage into the game.

So both teams would have had the incentive to win, but the Gold Coast would have had to win by 28 points or more to earn the superior draft selection.

At the end of Round 17, Melbourne were seven games behind eighth-placed North Melbourne with six games to play, so were eliminated from finals contention. At that point, Melbourne would secure pick three in the draft regardless of any other results before the end of the season.

The table below shows how the picks would have been distributed among the bottom ten teams under the proposed system, as compared to the current system.

PickCurrentProposedRound Secured
1GWSGold Coast16
2Gold CoastGWS16
3MelbourneMelbourne17
4Western BulldogsWestern Bulldogs18
5Port AdelaidePort Adelaide18
6BrisbaneBrisbane20
7RichmondRichmond21
8EssendonCarlton22
9CarltonEssendon22
10St.KildaSt.Kilda22

The finalists secure their order in the draft according to the order they are eliminated from the finals. Teams eliminated in the same week of the finals are ranked in order according to which of the two was ranked lower on the ladder at the end of the home and away season.

The bottom three teams collectively won five games in the final seven rounds without affecting their draft positions. Significantly, despite the fact the Gold Coast defeated Greater Western Sydney in round 20, this proposal would eliminate any suggestion that had Gold Coast lost the game, it might have done so to ensure they finish below GWS to secure an earlier draft pick.

In Round 21, Melbourne went into its game against Greater Western Sydney just one win ahead and, under the current system, may have had a disincentive to win to secure an earlier draft pick. Under this proposal, both clubs had already locked in their respective draft positions and the disincentive, perceived or otherwise, would be removed.

Playing to win

Some may argue tanking does not exist. Others looking at the 2012 example may point out that the final draft positions under the current system do not deviate significantly from that which would be derived from the proposal. But whether it actually occurred in 2012 or not, there is a public perception in some quarters that tanking does exist, and has occurred for a number of years.

My proposal definitively removes incentives, perceived or otherwise, to engage in tanking. It also preserves the integrity of the game.

But most importantly, it ensures that fans of Melbourne, the Gold Coast or Greater Western Sydney, can go to games knowing their teams have nothing to lose by winning.