The solution for AFL ‘tanking’

Tomorrow marks one year since the AFL announced sanctions against Melbourne Football Club over the ‘tanking’ scandal in which the Demons were fined $500,000. 

So could the whole episode have been prevented with better policy that would have removed the incentives for them to play so poorly in the later stages of seasons 2007 and 2009 just to secure a higher-order Draft pick?

La Trobe University sports economist Dr Liam Lenten believes so. He explains: ‘I think incentives are an extremely powerful force in sport, as elsewhere. If we can get the policy right, it is possible to greatly reduce the incidence of tanking and other improprieties in sport – like doping and match-fixing.’

Dr Lenten, from La Trobe’s School of Economics, evaluated current AFL Player Draft policy and the effect of merely changing the rule that determines the order of picks to ‘least number of games played before a team is eliminated from the finals’ – rather than ‘least number of games won at the end of the home-and-away season’, which is the case at the moment.

‘Such a policy has of course never existed,’ Dr Lenten explains, ‘so we cannot observe its true effect on behaviour. However, I have figured out a scientific way to estimate what the policy is likely to do, based on existing match data.’

Identifying anti-tanking incentives 

As an economist, his primary interest is in the incentives involved. ‘Once a team is eliminated from finals contention under this proposal, they would know immediately which order Draft pick they have – thus they have no reason to try and lose any of their remaining matches,’ he says.

Using econometric modelling and regression techniques, he estimated what would happen under this rule change. Using a database of over 2,000 regular season AFL matches from 1997 to 2009, he compared winning outcomes of two groups of matches, where one group simulated the effects of this proposed rule change while the other represented the current rule.

His results indicate that the probability of victory of a team that cannot make the finals playing against an opponent that can, would increase on average by about 40 per cent under this rule, depending on factors such as evenness of the teams, round of the match, opposition incentives, home-ground advantage and weather conditions.

Based on this evidence, he says there is a strong case for implementing such a change in rules. His findings have already attracted interest of key sporting figures such as Carlton Coach Mick Malthouse and Matt Finnis, CEO of the AFL Players’ Association, he adds.

Dr Lenten stresses there are also financial benefits of such policy change for the AFL, its teams, and players. They include increasing attendances at late-season games involving lower-ranked teams, greater competitive balance, and improved sponsorship outcomes from reduced negative publicity about tanking.

Media contact 

Dr Liam Lenten Tel: + 61 3 9479 3607, E-mail: l.lenten@latrobe.edu.au

Image credit: Flying Cloud 

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