Newswise — Not long after Labor Day, the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched their 19th consecutive losing season—the longest stretch of futility in any major professional American sport. Yet, thanks to revenue sharing, television contracts and other non-gate income, Pirate owners have been making millions of dollars annually. In fact, the cost of signing top-flight players to lucrative contracts would take a deep bite out of annual profits, leading some analysts and economists to conclude that if the Pirates turned themselves into winners, they wouldn’t be helping their bottom line.
“The situation with the Pirates is just one example where a team would benefit more from losing than winning,” said Stephen Mosher, professor of sport management and media at Ithaca College. “Many of the owners of franchises intentionally lose money because it helps the bottom line for their other businesses. Thus, NBA Commissioner David Stern can claim half the NBA teams show a net loss.”
The losing-is-better-than-winning scenario, Mosher said, is playing out right now.
As the Major League Baseball season winds down and the wild card races heat up, several teams are confronted with the real possibility that deliberately losing games is in their self-interest,” Mosher said. “For example, should the New York Yankees, now that they have clinched the America League East, play their last week of games with Boston and Tampa Bay in such a way that they maximize the likelihood that the Rays will earn the wild card?”
After all, said Mosher, the reeling Red Sox have had the Yankees’ number this season, winning 11 out of the 15 games played, so it would seem the Yankees would prefer to play the Tampa Bay Rays (6-9 against the Yankees) in the American League Championship Series.
Also, should the Indianapolis Colts, who are infinitely less formidable with their star quarterback Peyton Manning out indefinitely after neck surgery, consider tanking the rest of the season to put themselves in better position to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, projected as the number one selection in the next NFL draft?
“Such moral dilemmas are routinely presented to professional sports teams, but more often than not, the moral issues take a back seat to the business and entertainment goals of organizations,” Mosher said. “Given that sport is one of the few remaining enterprises in our culture that actually claims to develop good citizens and build character, is losing deliberately the best way to run an organization? The claim that ‘we owe it to the game’ needs to be considered very, very seriously.”
Stephen Mosher is the author of several articles and books on sport ethics and moral development, including “Where Have All the Heroes Gone?” He has also authored a series of columns for ESPN.com on the Little League World Series scandal involving pitcher Danny Almonte, who played despite being two years over the age limit.