AFL conditions ripe for tanking

Opinion by Liam Lenten

A cursory glance at the Australian Football League ladder reveals the hallmarks of conditions ripe for rampant "tanking" in the final month of home and away action.

This is where teams underperform deliberately so that they rank higher in the pick of new recruits in the AFL annual draft process.

The worse a team performs in one season, the better its pick for the next.

The bottom three teams - St Kilda, Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney - all sit on four wins each, separated by mere percentage.

With them only now eliminated mathematically (even if weeks ago for practical purposes) from finals contention, the attention for each of these clubs may have just shifted to conspiring a well-timed loss or two. Even other teams in the bottom eight may improve their pick considerably with some dubious selections and tactics.

With more congestion at the foot of the table comparative to other recent previous seasons, the rewards for tanking are potentially much greater conceivably a promotion from pick three to one - a colossal boost for any cellar-dweller that sees list rebuilding through elite youth as the primary avenue to future finals success.

More worryingly, Melbourne is scheduled to play two fellow stragglers, Brisbane and GWS, in the final five rounds.

It is easy for those with short memories to overlook the spectre that still hangs over the competition because of the 2013 Melbourne "not quite-tanking" scandal, especially as it has been unceremoniously usurped by supplements programs as the big ticket issue in the game since.

While the crime and time both appear to have been seemingly relegated to the pages of AFL history, we must be eternally mindful of the perverse incentives that the draft creates for teams - once out of finals contention - to play poorly during the season's latter stages. This vagary of the draft, a policy designed to help facilitate equalisation and thus fan interest, is one well-known in American major league sports.

The NBA policy response, later adopted by the NHL, was to introduce a lottery system in 1984, meaning that finishing "stone motherless" no longer guaranteed top pick.

Unfortunately, this also diminishes the ability of the draft to allocate the best emerging talent to the teams that need it most.

Along with my collaborator, Noel Boys from the University of Melbourne, the scandal motivated me to look at other alternatives, such as using a basic economic fundamental the presence of uncertainty distorts rational decision-making.

Expediting the resolution of this uncertainty to before the last few games - when tanking is most likely to occur should improve outcomes.

With this in mind, the "policy reform" we believe to be most compelling is the idea of assigning the order of draft picks according to chronological elimination (mathematically) from finals, rather than final ladder position.

Under this policy, the bottom handful of teams would have their pick determined with up to a handful of games remaining, removing any draft-induced perverse incentives.

Using econometric modelling and regression techniques, we estimated what would happen under this rule change, focusing specifically on seasons 1997-2009, due to the stability of the composition of teams in the league during that period.

In work currently under peer review, we compared the outcomes of 18 matches that simulate the proposed policy against 163 matches that represent the status quo.

Our results indicate that the probability of victory of the team of interest (one that cannot make finals) would on average increase by more than 50 per cent under this rule.

Our findings have already piqued the interest of some key figures in the sport, such as Mick Malthouse and Matt Finnis.

This proposed rule change ticks a number of key boxes required for acceptance by administrators and fans alike - high transparency, ease of understanding and it represents a small change.

Moreover, it would yield a copious range of benefits, including demand by fans for late-season games involving lower-ranked teams, knowing that they are going to see a fair-dinkum contest as well as improved sponsorship outcomes from reduced tanking-related negative publicity.

Dr Liam Lenten is a senior lecturer in the Centre for Sport and Social Impact.

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Image: Russell Charters