Exploring Incentives to Lose in Professional Team Sports: Do Conference Games Matter?, pp. 192-207

Brian P. Soebbing
Brad R. Humphreys
Daniel S. Mason

Many sports leagues use unbalanced schedules where teams do not play each opponent an equal number of times each season. In many leagues, teams that do not make the playoffs have the opportunity to improve by drafting highly skilled amateur players in the next entry draft, but the opportunity to pick first in the draft provides teams with an incentive to intentionally lose games. This has been a concern in the National Basketball Association (NBA), where the draft format has been altered three times since the 1980s. This research examines the strategic behavior of eliminated teams against conference and nonconference opponents under four NBA amateur draft formats. The results show that different draft formats present different incentives for eliminated teams to lose in conference games. Leagues need to recognize the unintended consequences of changes in league draft policies. Mitigating these consequences is difficult, but important in order to attain the goal of joint profit maximization.