Indiana Pacers: NBA tanking is a result of market-size inequities

Adam Silver (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
Adam Silver (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images) /

The NBA is looking into the Dallas Mavericks who obviously tanked a game to avoid barely making the playoffs and lose their top 10 pick in the upcoming draft.

And while this seems like a clear-cut case of just deciding not to play a game, it brings up an interesting question. Is tanking bad? Is trying to lose games on purpose against the spirit of the game?

At first glance, as a fan, I say yes. Fans show up to watch and root for their team to win a game, spending hard-earned dollars to do so. But there seems to be a disconnect between team priorities and fan priorities. And this makes sense.

Fans who go to a game have a goal of seeing their team win. NBA franchises have a goal of making money (which usually involves winning long term/having players that fans will pay to see). Now this is where the inequity between large and small market teams begins to rear its ugly heat.

You see, large markets attract players that fans are more willing to pay to see. Because of this, small-markets are forced to make decisions about how to bring fans into the arena. At first glance it may seem like trying to win every game may be the best bet for that.

Let’s take a hypothetical to prove the point.

Let’s say you are an avid lottery player. You put in some amount of money in hopes of a return. If the guaranteed return was between losing $1 and winning $2, would you play the game? Some might, but most probably wouldn’t even bother. But what if you had the chance to lose $1 or win $1,000 (owning an NBA team is a relatively safe business). You are much more likely to play the game at that point.

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And this is where small-market teams find themselves. They could try and win every game always, never being able to attract superstars, and have a chance at winning up to $2 every time they play the game. Or they could tank in the regular season to have a chance at the $1000 lottery ticket. The difference is, the only way small-markets teams win the lottery, is in the draft. Large-markets can win the “lottery” in both the draft and free agency.

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