Thought Bubble: hate tanking? try promotion and relegation

Nick Bays, Columnist

Oh yes, the classic conundrum. Your team is not in a great place in terms of cap or salary space. Not to mention, you do not have a plethora of good draft picks at the moment. Maybe that’s due to last season trades that didn’t pan…

Nicholas Bays is a fifth year sports media relations major and can be reached at 217-581-2812. (Rob Le Cates)

But regardless, it is not a great record.

Suddenly, an idea comes rolling in on its unattractive, yet intriguing threads: tanking. “Tanking” is essentially the practice in a sports league that has player drafts and salary caps in which a team will intentionally (whether its blatant or not) try to lose in order to rebuild their team through acquiring better draft picks in next year’s draft.

Tanking itself is a controversial issue. Yes, it can sometimes help a team rebuild, but not always. Not to mention, it’s essentially an organization that you may love and root for essentially giving up and deciding that winning in the now is no longer important.
This brings up the concept for today’s article: promotion and relegation. And while it’s not a 100% easy solution to tanking whatsoever, it’s certainly an ambitious way to solve it.

We have seen tanking happen in American sports on a multitude of occasions. In the NBA, we saw it with the Philadelphia 76ers and “The Process” in which they tanked to try to retool their team and rebuilt with an emphasis on younger stars with high potential.
Or, for the fans of gridiron football, let’s rewind the clocks a few years ago for the “Tank For Tua” season. If you recall, Tua Tungovailoa was a phenomenal left-handed, national championship winning precision passer from the University of Alabama and was considered an elite level prospect.

Because of this, there was a joke going around NFL circles online called “#tankfortua” in which fans speculated on which teams were trying to lose in order to secure the opportunity to draft this talented college football icon. The Miami Dolphins would eventually draft Tua and attempt to turn him into their franchise quarterback.

And before I continue, I think Tua is awesome and I hope he can stay healthy and keep being an absolute baller.

There are some success stories with tanking, but there are also many failures. Some would argue that The Process failed in Philly. Not to mention, some NFL teams have tanked with hopes of getting that life changing quarterback (like the Houston Texans with David Carr and the Oakland Raiders with Jamarcus Russell) with little or no success and potentially set a franchise back for years.

Along with tanking being a huge gamble, it’s also not exactly super fun to watch if it’s your team. When your team is tanking, buckle up. You’re in this for the long haul, especially if it doesn’t work.

This reminds me of the Los Angeles Lakers near the end of Kobe Bryant’s tenure. After his Achilles injury, it was clear the Lakers could not win another ring. So, they instead began signing mediocre players in hopes to tank their record and get some solid players as a result.

Ugh! I remember it like it was yesterday. While I’m not the most avid basketball watcher, I do like the sport, and I’ve been a Lakers fan since 2010. So, watching those mid 2010s teams purposefully struggle was incredibly excruciating and made me want to rip my eyes out before eventually turning on Pau Gasol highlights and losing myself in a far gone past.
Essentially, tanking is brutal, not fun to watch, and can even set your organization back. However, in a draft and salary cap system, how do you get around it?

Well… what if you did not? What if instead of salary caps and leagues built around drafts, we scrapped all of that and introduced tiered professional systems for sports? What if we disincentivized tanking by making it completely useless to lose?
Introducing the overly complicated and incredibly strange solution to eliminating tanking: promotion and relegation.

Welcome to the Thought Bubble. And before you email my editor screaming for me to never write about sports again, hear me out.

In most countries around the world with professional soccer, their leagues are not stagnant. Instead, the leagues are broken up into tiers ranging from semi-pro local leagues all the way to the top dog, big money professional leagues like the Premiere League in England or the Bundesliga in Germany.

At the end of every season, the teams that are the best in one league will get promoted to the league above them while the teams in the next league that finish at the bottom will get demoted to the lower league and replace the upcoming team. This “funnel” continues to send the best teams to the top league until eventually those at the top are fighting to stay there.

Basically, let’s say we had a DEN Soccer Association that consisted of three leagues: DEN 1, DEN 2, and DEN 3.
At the end of every season, the top three teams from DEN 3 would be promoted to DEN 2 with the bottom three teams from DEN 2 would be relegated to DEN 3. Then the top three teams in DEN 2 would be promoted to DEN 1 while the bottom three teams in DEN 1 would be relegated to DEN 2.

This would happen every season to ensure that the best teams are playing in the top leagues and the teams that can’t keep up are sent to a “fairer” playing field.

“Alright, Mr. Bays, that’s neat and all. But how does that eliminate tanking?” I’m glad you asked.

So, the idea is that if the worst teams in a league were to be demoted to a lower league, like if the NFL demoted a team to the XFL or USFL and one of those leagues got to send a team up to the NFL, it would essentially make tanking pointless because then you wouldn’t be able to have the safety net of staying in the top league with the best money and still being a fairly attractive destination for players.

To do this, our sports leagues in the United States would essentially need to eliminate drafts and salary caps and instead start building up and promoting lower professional divisions that consist of teams that are willing and ready to compete to move up league by league after each season to get to that top point.

“Why would drafts and salary caps go away?” Well, it would be incredibly difficult to maintain a player draft and salary cap of the same player pool across various leveled professional leagues. That’s why those ideas would have to be scrapped.
Instead of player drafts, teams would just be looking to try to sign the best players they can and trade their players to try to get other players. You get the point.

In eliminating the draft, you would basically eliminate the biggest desire to tank in the first place: securing a bad enough league record to get a chance at good picks in the next draft.

“Is there even a sport or league in the United States that could even make that work, though?” Honestly, I don’t think so.

Wait! Don’t click off yet.

I don’t think there’s any sport that would bother doing it in the United States because the player draft and salary cap models have worked so well to help these leagues grow. There’s no real incentive for them to tear it all down to prevent a couple teams each season from tanking.

However, there is one sport in the United States that I think could pull it off “relatively” easily if it wanted to. And that sport is baseball.

If you look at baseball in the United States, it already has an incredibly well developed minor league system that already sees players from the MLB be sent down for training and development all the time. Not to mention, these leagues are full of MLB hopefuls that are not easily dismissed. Basically, even the minor leagues in baseball aren’t messing around.

Competitive teams with good player development tracks along with rich histories for each team that could potentially bring MLB baseball to some of these MLB deprived communities, I genuinely think baseball could make it work if it really wanted to.

“Does soccer in the United States not to that?” Correct, it does not. The MLS is the top men’s professional league followed by the USL Championship, USL League 1, and USL League 2. The NWSL, the top women’s professional league, is still trying to expand its own league and develop its non-top flight professional scene.

And none of these leagues promote or relegate teams. Instead, they follow similar draft and salary cap rules like most other American sports leagues.

So, at the end of this long-winded rant, what is my proposal? Essentially, if you want to eliminate tanking from some of your favorite sports, there is an extreme and over complicated answer: allow for teams to be promoted/relegated to other leagues depending on their record and eliminate the salary cap and player draft to make sure tanking has no incentive.

Would this work? Nope, no chance. And I’m okay with that.

Player drafts are exciting, and seeing teams make clever moves to get players while still obeying the salary cap is so much fun. However, tanking frustrates me. I don’t really like it. And while I do not think it is worth restructuring our beloved leagues to match this promotion and relegation style (which I love in the soccer leagues I follow that do it), I do think serious conversations about tanking are worth having with any potential solutions worth discussing.

Thank you for reading this week’s edition of Thought Bubble. Thought Bubble is a weekly recurring sports column that is designed to humorously discuss sporting ideas that, while perhaps ridiculous, are intriguing, nonetheless.