Tanking is no way to the top

Tanking – the term given to suspected ‘game throwing’ by teams looking to improve their position in end of season drafts – has been a staple topic of conversation towards the end of recent home and away seasons.

The general consensus is that tanking does happen, and the premise as to why it happens is that early draft picks will increase the probability of future success thereby proving too big an incentive for struggling teams to ignore.

Superficially, this premise makes sense. When analysing actual recent results however, there appears to be a paradox.

For instance, if early draft picks are a pre-cursor to success then Carlton has been an abject failure. Conversely, Sydney has been the second most successful side in the same period despite having had the least access to the country’s top juniors.

Collingwood and Hawthorn have made the most of their access to the best young talent by each winning a premiership though the Hawks have been a little disappointing with respect to the total number of finals they have played.  St Kilda have been outstanding without winning a premiership, whilst the Western Bulldogs have been acceptably competitive.

Geelong, like Sydney, has not been blessed with early draft picks and yet, like Sydney, has been immensely successful.

Richmond, like Carlton, has wasted opportunity.

All in all, for the period analysed more premierships have been won by teams without the benefit of the earliest draft picks. Given these outcomes, it seems that securing early draft picks is not as important as other factors.

This also extends to the recruitment of high profile players. Chris Judd has not been the ‘magic bullet’ Carlton thought he would be when it added him to a list brimming with outstanding juniors.

Potential suitors of Travis Cloke should see Judd as a precautionary tale. If Collingwood, as talented and well drilled  as they were, could not win the 2011 premiership with Cloke in the side, what hope Melbourne or Richmond who will not be at the level of the 2011 Magpies for at least a year or two, if ever?

If there is a categorical benefit in securing pick number one or signing a high profile recruit, it is the excitement and hope it inspires in supporters, but it is teams and not individuals that win premierships. That has been known from the time the “champion teams” adage was coined.  But few clubs manage to master the challenge of creating a champion team, and for those that do, time in the sun is historically limited.

Club culture, player development, list management, game plan and the quality of the coaching staff are all key factors. Whether some areas are more important than others, and to what degree, is anyone’s guess but the national draft gives clubs the opportunity to address just one of those areas – list management.

When it comes to list management, Geelong and Sydney have led the way.

For Sydney, their preference until 2009 appears to have been to identify promising fringe players on other clubs’ lists and then trade for them by giving up draft picks.  Doing so allowed them to recruit players more able to immediately cope with the rigours of senior football. I can only assume they were happy with the number and quality of senior players on their list post-2009 because they have since gone back to the draft as their key source of talent.

Geelong, on the other hand, loathes giving up draft picks for anything but young talent. To ensure they have enough mature bodies on their list, they trawl for players in lesser leagues and either draft these types with late draft picks if possible or add them to their rookie list. The Cats’ success with rookies is uncanny, and several opposition clubs have also benefitted substantially from their eye for talent.

Of particular interest however is Geelong’s perspective of the draft. During trade week, they have been more than willing to get involved in three way deals not to secure players, but in order to improve their hand at the draft.  But improving their hand has not meant securing earlier draft picks as most would expect, but rather to secure more draft picks. In the 2011 trade week for instance, Geelong gave up pick 26 to the Gold Coast to allow the Suns to close a deal. In return, the Cats received picks 32 and 34.

In an environment where pecking order in a national draft is perceived to be so important that the notion of throwing games is deemed to be plausible, it seems absurd that a team would actually give ground. It’s obvious that Geelong trusts its development process, but there is something more at play here. In all likelihood, the difference in ability between the 26th and the 32nd ranked players is negligible and so by getting two slightly later picks for one, Geelong halved its risk or doubled its opportunity depending on how you look at it.

With that in mind, an interesting question presents itself and that is: what could a team get if they traded the number one draft pick? Instead of putting all their eggs in one basket, could they get a seasoned player or two and several later draft picks from some of the more successful teams? Would Geelong trade pick one in return for four or five 2nd and 3rd round selections?

It’s unlikely to ever happen given the romance attached to number one picks but football success is as much about risk management as anything. Spreading the risk by drafting a number of players rather than just one would appear to be a sensible and effective strategy. It may just also help in building a more balanced team faster which, I expect, is the ultimate goal of all teams.

The table below shows:

  • The distribution of top 10 draft picks from 1999 to 2008.
  • The number of finals played by each club from 2004 to 2011.

The lag between draft picks and finals played is based on an assumption that it takes 4 years for draftees to become consistently effective at AFL level. In other words, I am not including recent drafts as clubs have not necessarily felt the benefit of those draftees yet and therefore including them would unfairly skew the results.



  1. Skip of Skipton says

    What could a team get if they traded their no.1 draft pick? Trent Croad for a couple of seasons?

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