Do you really always "play to win the game" in sports?

Sports are constructed universes that each have their own set of rules. One of the most attractive aspects about being a frequent visitor to a sports world is that it’s rules are so much clearer and more well defined than the rules of the real world. Each sport has a clear objective and every game that’s played has a winner and a loser. It’s no coincidence that virtually every sports arena has a large screen in it which shows the current score at all times. Unlike the other facets of most people’s lives — workplace dramas, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. — a sports fan always knows how their team is doing. Every game ends with a win or a loss. Every season ends with a championship or no championship. In a blurry, grey world, sports offers black and white contrasts. Fans, athletes, coaches, and general managers are free to pursue a single goal with an unwavering commitment rarely available or wise outside the realm of sports.

“You play to win the game.” If you were to watch ESPN 24 hours a day (not a real recommendation) you would probably hear this phrase at least four or five times a day. The phrase first assaulted the  sports Zeitgeist in 2002 when New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards said it in a post-game press conference.

The appeal of Edward’s rant is, at first glance, obvious. It’s a strident statement of the foundational truth about sports that we described above. Sports is objective. There is a winner and a loser and the goal is to be the winner. The second level of enjoyment for many people is in how dismissive and obnoxious Edwards is being towards the media member who somehow suggested that winning was not the ultimate purpose of sports. Bullying media members is, at this point in the United States, basically its own sport, and Edwards (who now works for ESPN himself,) is a champion at disdain. Forget those first two levels though, it’s the third level that we’re interested in today. The third level of interpretation reveals that this quote is complex. The thing about “playing to win the game,” is that it isn’t really true. Or at least, it’s a more paradoxical truth than it seems at first glance.

Today we’ll look at some of the ways in which teams don’t always choose to win games at all costs in two sports: NBA basketball and European club soccer.

NBA Basketball

Not trying to win or even trying not to win is one of the biggest topics in basketball right now. It’s seen as a crisis by many. There are two main ways in which teams subvert the single-minded goal of winning each game. The first is a strategy commonly known as tanking, where teams try to increase their chances of getting a high draft pick in an upcoming draft by losing as many games as possible in the current season. In an article on mathematical elimination, I described tanking as “a scourge to the sports world roughly equal to the flu in the normal world or sarcoidosis on House.” Tanking is trying not to win. The other focus of attention in the NBA is teams not trying to win an individual game by choosing not to play a player who is theoretically healthy enough to play that game. Unlike tanking, this tactic is used more by teams that believe themselves to be in championship contention.


More than any other team sport, basketball teams are only as good as their best player. If you start in 1980, and list out the NBA Championship winners by their best player, the names are almost all recognizable, even to non-sports fans: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Magic, Julius Irving (Dr. J), Bird, Magic, Bird, Magic, Magic, Isaiah Thomas 2X, Michael Jordan 3x, Hakeem Olajuwan 2x, Jordan 3x, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant 3x, Duncan, the exception to the rule that is the 2004 Detroit Pistons, Duncan, Dwayne Wade, Duncan, Paul Pierce, Kobe 2x, Dirk Nowitzky, LeBron James 2x, Duncan. Only once in the past 35 years has a team without a super-star won the championship!

The clear lesson for teams is that if they don’t have a super-star, their chances of winning a championship are drastically reduced. By far the easiest way of getting a super-star on a team is to draft him, usually with one of the first picks of the NBA draft. There’s some chance involved, but at the end of every season, the team with the worst record has the best chance of getting the first pick, the second worst team, the second best chance and so on. If a team is going to be in the bottom third of the league, there’s a clear incentive to be as bad as possible.

Teams pursue this strategy in a number of ways, most of which don’t involve actually instructing their players not to score. By far the most common form of tanking is for general managers to manipulate the chances of their team winning by trading its best players. The goal is to have a set of players and coaches that all try their hardest to win but simply don’t have enough experience or talent to do it. The current Picasso of tanking is General Manager Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers. Hinkie, who was recently profiled brilliantly by ESPN writer Pablo S. Torre, is taking this strategy farther than anyone has ever taken it before. He’s drafted injured players so that they cannot possibly cause the team to win the year after they are drafted. He’s drafted players from Europe and the rest of the world who will not actually come to the United States to play for the 76ers for several years. One of his first moves when he got the job was to trade away the 76ers best player, Jrue Holiday, and just a week ago, he traded two of their best players away again, mostly for future picks.

It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work or whether it will be a complete disaster. It’s also unclear how much longer it will be possible. Tanking is odious enough to people in the sports world that the NBA is likely to make structural changes to how it decided its draft pick order to take away the incentive to tank.

Resting Players

Unlike tanking, where a team is eager to forgo winning games in one season for the potential of winning games in a future season, this tactic involves reducing a team’s chances of winning a game in order to increase the team’s chances of winning the championship that year. Increasingly, basketball coaches and executives are realizing that most players cannot play at peak effectiveness for an 82-game regular season and then a playoff run that could involve as many as 28 additional games.  Smart teams that hope to make it deep into the playoffs have adjusted to this knowledge by managing the number of minutes their players play during the regular season in the hopes of keeping them fresh for the playoffs. Often that means reducing a player’s normal time on the court per game from 35 minutes (out of 48) to 30 minutes over the course of the season. Other times, that might mean sitting a player for the entire second half of a game that is evidently going to be a blow-out win or loss by half-time. Even more blatant is the tactic of choosing not to have a player on the bench and available to play for a particular game.

Teams that choose to rest a player who isn’t seriously injured often choose one of the many small hurts that player is suffering from and use it as an excuse. A team might say, “Oh, So-and-So is out tonight because of a knee injury. They should be fine for the next game.” Usually the media knows this is nothing more than an excuse, but the gesture is enough to maintain the appearance that the team is optimizing to win every game. Some coaches, led by the example of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, don’t even bother with the excuse. They simply list players as “DND – CD” which stands for “Did Not Dress – Coach’s Decision.” Popovich famously thumbed his nose at the practice of using half-true injury designations to excuse coaches’ decisions to rest players in 2012 when he listed Tim Duncan as “DND – Old” for a game.

Resting players is not as noxious of a strategy as tanking, probably because the teams that do it are more well-respected (because they win) and because the future gain is so much closer and more concrete than the gains that teams tank for. The largest criticism of resting players is itself problematic. People often criticize resting players because the one game Tim Duncan sits out may be the only time a fan sees his team play in person all season or ever. By choosing to sit a player, a team is intentionally lowering the entertainment value of the game for its fans without a commensurate lowering of the cost. That argument make sense but only if sports is primarily entertainment rather than competition — and if it’s entertainment, then that in and of itself threatens the principle of trying to win every game. Uh oh, logical black hole alert! Let’s move on to soccer.

European Club Soccer

The structure of European club soccer creates a few scenarios where not winning is enough of a draw that even the most obsessed coaches are tempted to instruct their teams NOT to play to win the game. This subversion of what seems to be an obvious truth about sports is one of the curious and interesting things about learning how another continent organizes its sports leagues. Here are three common times when soccer clubs in Europe may be intent on something else more than on winning.

Balancing priorities

In American sports, there’s only one primary goal: win a championship. In European soccer, club teams compete for several different championships during a year, often simultaneously. A team may be playing in one or more domestic tournaments against teams within their country, an international club tournament like the Champions League or Europa League, at the same time as playing their normal league schedule against teams in their own country in their own league. This sometimes leads to conflicts of interest. If a player has a slightly injured ankle, will the coach choose to play him in a league game on Saturday knowing that there’s a Champions League game on Wednesday? What if the coach senses that the whole team is weary? Would it be better to lose in a domestic cup early on to clear the calendar for more rest days and practices? Will the benefit of rest and practice mean the difference between fifth and third place in the domestic league? Is that worth it? Which competition does the team have a better chance of winning? Which competitions are more lucrative and prestigious to do well in?

In American sports, coaches and teams don’t need to balance priorities like this, but in European club soccer, it’s a regular part of life. I wonder what a European soccer fan would think of Herm Edwards’ saying “you play to win the game?” Would they think it was funny because it’s true, funny because it’s not true, or just inaccurate and confusing?

The logic of aggregate goals

Many of the competitions that European soccer clubs take part in are tournaments. These tournaments often have a group round-robin stage and a knock-out stage, just like the World Cup. Unlike the World Cup and most other tournaments we’re used to, instead of one game against each opponent, European soccer clubs play two — one at each team’s home stadium. The team that has scored the most goals at the end of the two games (called aggregate goals) wins the matchup. The rules about breaking ties vary from tournament to tournament but they often have something to do with which team scored more goals when they were playing in their opponent’s stadium. The result of this is that teams pretty frequently go into games with goals other than simply winning. An underdog playing on the road in the first half of the two game series (often confusingly called a “tie”) may think that their best bet is to play defensively and try to leave with a 0-0 tie. A team that goes into the second game down a goal or two knows they need to not only win but to win by two or three or four goals. Likewise, a team going into a second game with the lead in aggregate goals knows they can lose the second game and still win the two-game series. They are not playing to win the game, they’re playing to win or tie or lose by a small enough margin to still win the series. Put that in your remix and smoke it!

When a tie is better than a win

Even in the most twisted of aggregate goal logic, it’s still always better to win than tie or lose but there is one situation when a tie is preferable than a win. Some tournaments, England’s FA cup being the most famous example, are set up as single elimination tournaments but, instead of overtime, if the score is tied after 90 minutes, the teams pack their bags, go home, and schedule a second game to decide who advances and who is eliminated. The second game is played in the stadium of the team that didn’t host the first game. Since the FA Cup is an association cup, open to every team in English soccer, from the rich, famous Premier league teams all the way to tiny seventh tier virtually semi-professional teams that no one has heard of, this leads to an interesting point. When a tiny team plays in a giant’s stadium, they get an enormous financial benefit from exposure, television money, and ticket sales. The bigger and more famous their host opponent, the more money they make. So, it’s often financially better for a tiny host team to tie a giant visiting team so that they get an extra game to play against the giant in the giant’s home stadium. Oh, sure, they’d love to beat the giant and move on to the next round of the tournament, but if they did that without ever playing at the giant’s stadium, especially if their potential opponent next round is not as rich or famous, they’ll really be losing out on an enormous payday. Small teams in this type of tournament have an incentive to tie, not win, games they host against storied opponents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *