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No more rewards for losers: The solution to the AFL's tanking problem

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Roar Rookie
24th August, 2023
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North Melbourne coach Alastair Clarkson says his team are “hell-bent” on winning against the Gold Coast Suns, but there’s a big reason that’s hard to believe.

He’s 85 kg, 185 cm and his name’s Harley Reid.

No North Melbourne supporter wants their team to win when they take on Saturday afternoon. It’s a problem for the AFL – an elephant in the room.

The Kangaroos shouldn’t have to try to lose after all, they’ve lost 20 games in a row while they were presumably trying to win. If North Melbourne were playing GWS or the Western Bulldogs, teams with finals at stake, their lack of motivation to win would be a huge issue for the integrity of the competition. The league already has a compromised fixture, with clubs playing eleven opposition teams once and six twice.

Alastair Clarkson.

Alastair Clarkson. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The accusation of tanking isn’t one clubs take lightly. In 2012, then Melbourne coach Dean Bailey and General Manager Chris Connolly were found guilty of charges relating to the club tanking games late in the 2009 season, in order for their club to receive a priority pick. There is little doubt of what was going on in the greater scheme of things yet somehow, the club was found not guilty of tanking.

Whether they threw the magnets around or rested key players, the Demons had nothing to gain by winning. The system put them in a lose-lose position.

But what are the possible solutions to tanking? The NBA and NHL long ago adopted a lottery system, where teams who fail to qualify for the playoffs are given a percentage chance of “winning” the number one pick based on their final positions. The lower you finish in the standings, the higher your chance of picking first in the draft.


The problem with the draft lottery system is that it hasn’t stopped teams from tanking. Every year teams ship out their best players at the trade deadline in the hope of sinking to the bottom of the standings, if only for a chance at landing a high draft pick.

Harley Reid of the AFL Academy in action during the match between the AFL Academy Boys and Carlton VFL at Marvel Stadium on May 13, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Likely no.1 pick Harley Reid playing for the AFL Academy. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The most infamous modern example is the “trust the process” Philadelphia 76ers (so infamous they spawned a saying that has gone on to lose all meaning) whose fans endured years of losing so that their team had the privilege of drafting Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz with back-to-back number one picks.

Their strategy of losing to win was based on numbers. In order to increase their chances of winning a championship, they needed the best players and to get the best players, they needed to lose. North Melbourne have employed a similar strategy to the Sixers, but without much competition for mediocrity, they haven’t had to so obviously be bad on purpose.

In 2006, the current Philadelphia 76ers General Manager, Daryl Morey co-founded the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which is held every year in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2012, researcher Adam Gold presented his solution to disincentive tanking and in the process, encourage winning.

His proposal was to give the first pick to the team that wins the most games after being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. The team with the second most wins after elimination would receive the second pick and so on.


In theory, the worst team would be eliminated earliest and have the most chances to accumulate wins.

Using the 2023 AFL season as an example, West Coast were eliminated from finals contention after round 17 and North Melbourne after round 18. Both teams are bad and could use the top pick as the foundation for a rebuild.

The teams went head-to-head in round 20 in what could have been a Harley Reid Cup blockbuster, rather than a meaningless dead rubber that the Kangaroos are now glad they lost by five points. After their win against the Bulldogs, West Coast now have two wins, with the only other team to win a game since elimination being Hawthorn.

Under this method the bottom seven teams would enter the final round of this season with the carrot of a top three pick dangling in front of them, while West Coast would have secured pick one in dramatic fashion last week. North Melbourne supporters would be desperate for their team to win on Saturday, for the chance to earn pick two. Of course, the Kangaroos may have tried harder to win any of their final seven games if they had a reason to.

In the end, it’s a meaningless Saturday afternoon game that few will bother to watch. It’s a game that North Melbourne should want to lose for the long-term. If the AFL employed the Sloan solution, they may need to be “hell-bent” on winning, in order to win big come draft night.