Tank talk only stains the game
by John Furgele
The NHL and NBA have major image problems and it’s not because their athletes are getting arrested and doing other low life things, it’s the image that the games are being compromised. Sports are supposed to be an escape from the modern stresses of living in what I call the grind of everyday life. People work, child rear, pay bills, stress out over money and so on and so forth, but for many, kicking back at 8 pm to watch a hockey or basketball game provides some entertainment before going to bed and repeating the grind the next day.
The NBA has the problem of “resting” its stars. I don’t remember guys like Dave Cowens, John Havlichek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan missing games when they were healthy. Now, the San Antonio Spurs travel to Miami and they leave Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker home to rest while they’re JV team plays the road game. That’s just one of the problems. Sure, the season can be a grind, but what about the fan who orders tickets three or six months in advance for that game? He or she might spend $300 per ticket and when the day finally comes, the stars are resting. We all know that players get injured and that’s entirely different than being a healthy inactive.
The NHL also has had a tough year. There are two can’t miss prospects in this year’s draft. One is junior star Connor McDavid and the other is Boston University forward Jack Eichel. In the NHL, the team that finishes 30th (last) has a 20 percent chance of securing the number one pick and is guaranteed the number two pick. If you finish 29th, all bets are off. Currently, the Buffalo Sabres are in 30th place, two points behind the 29th place Arizona Coyotes. The talk of tanking has dominated the talk shows in Buffalo and on Twitter and social media. When I see and hear professional journalists lament a win or talk tank, it makes me sad. And, how do the Buffalo Sabres players feel? The fans actually wan t them to lose so they can finish 30th. These are guys that live in town and go to stores.
The Sabres recently hosted the Coyotes and according to the people that covered the game, it was eerie. When Arizona scored, some cheered, knowing that each Coyote goal would help cement Buffalo’s 30th place standing. When the Sabres scored, there was mixed cheering. Most fans didn’t outwardly cheer against Buffalo, but deep down, they cheered against the team that a year ago lost so much that people wanted heads to roll.
In many ways, you can’t blame the fans. Fans pay good money (too much) for sports events and with salaries and revenues skyrocketing, don’t think your cable bill is going to stay the same either. The Sabres have never won a Stanley Cup title and that’s going back to 1970, when the entered the league. In fact, they have only played in two finals in 1975 and 1999, so their frustration has merit. It is easy to see why Sabre fan wants to finish 30th. The thinking is logical. Finish 30th, get one of these studs, build around him and contend for the cup for a decade. In true Easter fashion, it’s sacrifice now for the greater good.
The Philadelphia 76ers are doing the same thing, in fact, management has told the fan base that they don’t expect to contend for the NBA title for five more years. They have been accused of tanking, yet the league does nothing to dissuade them—and other teams—for doing so. Unfortunately for the 18-58 76ers, the Knicks have only won 14 games.
Players don’t tank, let’s be clear. They have too much pride and are much too competitive to do that. There’s a reason why they’ve made it to the NBA and NHL (NFL, MLB, too) so to suggest otherwise is silly. I also don’t think management encourages tanking one iota. What they do though is assemble as bad a team as they can so they won’t win many games. You could put the Triple A Buffalo Bisons in the American League East and though they’ll try as hard as they can, they might win 50 of the 162 games. As they say, you can put lipstick on a pig, but what remains is still a pig.
Once again, image is the issue. There will always be bad teams. Who doesn’t love the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their 0-14 record and then 0-12 to start 1977? Were they not beloved? But, we know that the one thing that Buccaneer team didn’t do was tank. They tried, but in a word, they stunk. When tanking becomes the subject of eight hours of sports talk (four in the morning, four more in the afternoon), that is wrong. We all know that sports talk radio has veered away from talking about games because that doesn’t provide enough flash anymore, so rather than talk about the quality of the draft, the talk is tanking, finishing 30th and getting McDavid or Eichel.
If you’re NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, you have to be going crazy inside. Love him or hate him, he has done the owners well. They have a decent TV deal in the United States and Canada, player salaries are up as is revenue, but tank talk stains the game. The image is that the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers want to lose so they can get the future superstar. In sum, the league is rewarding awful and that hurts. The goal is to try to win each and every night you play. Yes, you might have to play the backup goalie some nights and the guy who has a slightly sprained ankle can take a few games off, but when you hear things like “three more games,” and we’re home free in 30th place has to gnaw at those that run the league.
The answer is simple. Don’t reward the 30th place team. In the NHL and NBA, 16 teams make the playoffs, 17 thru 30 do not. When it’s time for the draft, put 14 balls in the hopper and draw them out one by one. The first ball drawn gets the first pick, the last one gets the 14th. Many will say it’s not fair if the 17th team gets the number one pick to which I say, oh well. Life isn’t fair my friends. Doing this ensures that tanking will no longer be an issue and fans can go to NBA and NHL games knowing that trying to win is the goal. The Sabre fan can go to games not caring about 18th place or 26th place and not staying up late to see how the Coyotes do when they play the Los Angeles Kings.
The NFL should do the same thing, because tank talk also happens. When the Jets beat Tennessee and then Miami in the last game of the regular season, the talkers in New York lamented by saying there goes any chance of getting Winston or Mariota. Once again, this is both sad and absurd. Do you think Geno Smith, the struggling Jet quarterback wants the team to tank and get Winston? Of course not, but the fans; they do want that. The NFL should do the same. Put teams 13-32 in the hopper, all with an equal chance of getting the number one pick. Imagine what that would do on Draft Day? The 13th place team with the higher pick could trade down and the dealings on draft day would be off the charts.
The world will move forward if teams keep tanking for years to come, but if you’re running a league, there are enough issues to keep one busy and tank talk could be eliminated very easily. The NBA owners were reluctant to do away with the weighted lottery system where the crummier teams have a better chance of getting the higher and highest pick, and that’s a shame. Here’s hoping that they will come to their senses and realize that tanking takes away from what most sports fans want and that is a breather from the daily grind.