Most major Australian sports have their iconic annual event. Cricket has its Boxing Day test, tennis and golf have their respective Australian Opens, rugby league has the State of Origin series, rugby union the Bledisloe, and AFL, it now seems, has the Tanking Debate, usually commencing near Round 15 or 16 and running to the end of the season proper.
The T-word has been all over the Melbourne newspapers and various footy websites this week, perhaps most startlingly in the form of Terry Wallace's admission that in Round 22 of 2007 in the Tigers clash against St Kilda, a game in which the Tigers led by 3 points at the final change but went on to lose by 10 points:
"while he had not "tanked" during the Trent Cotchin game in Round 22, 2007, he had let the contest run its natural course without intervention"
That stain on the competition's reputation (coupled, I'll admit, with he realisation that the loss cost MAFL Investors an additional return of about 13% for that year) makes it all the more apparent to me that the draft system, especially the priority draft component, must change.
Here's what I wrote on the topic - presciently as it turns out - in the newsletter for Round 19 of 2007.
Tanking and the Draft
If you’re a diehard AFL fan and completely conversant with the nuances of the Draft, please feel free to skip this next section of the newsletter.
I thought that a number of you might be interested to know why, in some quarters, there’s such a fuss around this time of year about “The Draft” and its potential impact on the commitment levels of teams towards the bottom of the ladder.
The Draft is, as Wikipedia puts it, the “annual draft of young talent” into the AFL that takes place prior to the start of each season. In the words of the AFL’s own website:
"In simple terms, the NAB AFL Draft is designed to give clubs which finished lower on the ladder the first opportunity to pick the best new talent in Australia. At season's end, all clubs are allocated draft selections. The club that finished last receives the first selection, the second last team gets the second selection and so on until the premier receives the 16th selection."
So, here’s the first issue: towards season’s end, those teams for whom all hopes of a Finals berth have long since left the stadium find that there’s more to be gained by losing games than there is by winning them.
Why? Well say, for example, that Richmond suddenly remembered what the big sticks are there for and jagged two wins in the last four games, leaping a startled Melbourne in the process, relegating them to position Spoon. The Tigers’ reward for such a stunning effort would be to (possibly – see below) hand Melbourne the sweetest of draft plums, the Number 1 draft pick, while relegating themselves to the Number 2 pick. Now, in truth, over the years, Number 1 picks have not always worked out better than Number 2 picks, but think about it this way: isn’t it always nicer to have first hand into the Quality Assortment?
Now entereth the notion of Priority Picks, which accrue to those teams who have demonstrated season-long ineptitude to the extent that they’ve accumulated fewer than 17 points over its duration. They get a second draft pick prior to everyone else’s second draft pick and then a third pick not that long after, once all the other Priority Picks have taken place. So, for example, if a team comes last and wins, say, four games, it gets Pick #1, Pick #17 (their Priority pick, immediately after all the remaining teams have had their first pick) and then Pick #18 (their true second round Pick). If more than one team is in entitled to Priority Picks then the Picks are taken in reverse ladder order.
Still with me?
Now, the final twist. If a team has proven its footballing inadequacy knows not the bounds of a single year, having done so by securing fewer than 17 points in each of two successive seasons, then it gets its Priority Pick before anyone else gets even their first round pick. Once again, if more than one team is in this situation, then the tips are taken in reverse ladder order.
So, what’s the relevance to this year? Well, last year Carlton managed only 14 points and this year they’re perched precipitously on 16 points. If they lose their next four games, their first three draft picks will be #1 (their Priority Pick), #4 (their first round pick), and #20 (their second round pick); if they win or even draw one or more of their remaining games and do this without leaping a ladder spot, their first three draft picks will be #3, #19 and #35. Which would you prefer?
I find it hard to believe that a professional footballer or coach could ever succumb to the temptation to “tank” games (as it’s called), but the game’s administrators should never have set up the draft process in such a way that it incites such speculation every year around this time.
I can think of a couple of ways of preserving the intent of the current draft process without so blatantly rewarding failure and inviting suspicion and rumour. We’ll talk about this some more next week.
In the following week's newsletter, I wrote this:
Revising the Draft
With the Tigers and the Dees winning last week, I guess many would feel that the “tanking” issue has been cast aside for yet another season. Up to a point, that’s probably a fair assessment, although only a win by the Blues could truly muffle all the critics.
Regardless, as I said last week, it’s unfair to leave any of the teams in a position where they could even be suspected of putting in anything other than a 100% effort.
I have two suggestions for changes to the draft that would broadly preserve its intent but that would also go a long way to removing much of the contention that currently exists.
(1) Randomise the draft to some extent.
Sure, give teams further down the ladder a strong chance of getting early draft picks, but don’t make ladder position completely determine the pick order. One way to achieve this would be to place balls in an urn with the number of balls increasing as ladder position increased. So, for example, the team that finished 9th might get 5 balls in the urn; 10th might get 6 balls, and so on. Then, draw from this urn to determine the order of draft picks.
Actually, although it’s not strictly in keeping with the current spirit of the draft, I’d like to see this system used in such a way that marginally more balls are placed in the urn for teams higher up the ladder to ensure that all teams are still striving for victory all the way to Round 22.
(2) Base draft picks on ladder position at the end of Round 11, not Round 22.
Sides that are poor performers generally don’t need 22 rounds to prove it; 11 rounds should be more than enough. What’s more, I reckon that it’s far less likely that a team would even consider tanking say rounds 9, 10 and 11 when there’s still so much of the season to go that a spot in the Finals is not totally out of the question. With this approach I’d be happy to stick with the current notion that 1st draft pick accrues to the team at the foot at the ladder.
Under either of these new draft regimes, the notion of Priority Picks has to go. Let’s compensate for underperformance but not lavish it with silken opportunity.
My opinion hasn't changed. The changes to the draft for the next few years that have been made to smooth the entry of the Gold Coast into the competition probably mean that we're stuck with a version of the draft we have now for the next few years. After that though, we do have to fix it because it is broken.