In American professional sports, tanking refers to the practice of intentionally fielding non-competitive teams to take advantage of league rules that benefit losing teams. This is unlike with most international sports leagues in which the worst teams are relegated and spend the next season in a lower-tiered league that costs the team lots in revenue as well as making it much more difficult to attract top talent, thus making it infeasible to tank. Tanking teams are usually seeking higher picks in the next draft, since league rules generally give the highest draft picks in reverse order to the previous season's worst teams. Tanking may also be referred to as rebuilding. Teams that decide to start tanking often do so by trading away star players in order to reduce payroll and bring in prospects.
One of the first teams to "tank" was the 1983-84 Houston Rockets, who considered the season lost after starting 20-26 and decided to play more bench players in order to fall in the standings and get higher in the draft order for the following season. In the 1983-84 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils admitted they wanted to lose in order to get the number one pick in the draft and select Mario Lemieux. But tanking did not become prevalent until the 2010s, when teams in all four major American leagues (the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL) were engaged in various forms of the practice.
The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros pioneered the practice in the MLB in the 2010s, finishing last in their respective leagues for several years. Both teams used subsequent draft picks to select star players who led them to championships, as the Cubs won the 2016 World Series and the Astros won in 2017. Other teams like the Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, and Detroit Tigers have sought to emulate the strategy by trading away top players with the goal of drafting and developing top players and cutting costs in order to become competitive again several years later.
When Jon Gruden retook control of the Oakland Raiders prior to the 2018 NFL season he liquidated most of the Raiders' talent, most notably trading five-time pro bowler Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for two first round draft picks, leading to accusations that he was intentionally tanking the team in hopes of fielding a competitive team when the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020. The Raiders, who had finished 12-4 and qualified for the playoffs two seasons prior, finished their 2018 season with only four wins, but saw significant improvement the next season thanks to strong play from the team's rookies. The Miami Dolphins were widely accused of tanking during their 2019 season when new head coach Brian Flores oversaw a similar liquidation of the team's established talent.
As the NFL doesn't have a draft lottery, coverage of some NFL drafts has been dominated by the presence of a highly touted player who is widely expected to be among the first picked, portraying them as a prize for the league's worst team. For example, the 2009 NFL Draft was nicknamed "The Matthew Stafford Sweepstakes" as University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford was widely expected to be the first player drafted regardless of which team held the first overall pick. Stafford was indeed drafted first overall, by the Detroit Lions, who did not win a single game during the previous season.
This has led to public campaigns where fans of poor performing teams actively encourage losing in order to improve the team's draft position when such a player is expected to be in the next draft. The first widely known example of such a campaign was "Suck for Luck" during the 2011 NFL season, where fans of mediocre teams encouraged losing in hopes of drafting Andrew Luck, who was considered to be the NFL's best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning in 1998. The campaign was widely criticized by sports writers, who noted that it isn't in the nature of professional athletes to intentionally lose games and that poor performance should bring punishment, not encouragement.Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino denounced the campaign when fans of his former team, the Miami Dolphins, began participating heavily in it and the campaign was also denounced by Luck himself, who called it "stupid". Nonetheless, a similar "Tank for Tua" campaign emerged in the 2019 NFL season, with fans of poor performing teams encouraging losing in hopes of drafting University of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. However, when Tagovailoa suffered a season ending hip injury which put his chances of declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft in question, the campaign then turned to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and Ohio State University defensive end Chase Young, respectively becoming "Bungle for Burrow" and "Choke for Chase".
Similar draft coverage and reaction by fans has been seen in the National Hockey League. Normally, players selected in the NHL Entry Draft continue to play in minor leagues (often their team's affiliate in the developmental American Hockey League) before they reach the NHL, if they reach the NHL at all. Thus, when a draft contains a NHL-ready player who could make an immediate impact for their team, they are coveted. Examples of this include the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, with multiple teams seeking entry into the lottery for the chance to draft Mario Lemieux, or the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, which was nicknamed the "Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes" as it was believed the winner of that year's lottery would immediately draft Sidney Crosby. The 2015 NHL Entry Draft contained two highly-touted prospects, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, effectively guaranteeing the last place team would land an elite player, thus fans of mediocre teams encouraged losing throughout the 2014-15 NHL season. This was most prominently seen among Buffalo Sabres fans, who actively cheered for the opposing team at home games while The Buffalo News regularly published the "McEichel Derby," which tracked the Sabres' ranking among the league's worst teams.First Niagara Center infamously erupted in cheers when Sam Gagner of the Phoenix Coyotes scored an overtime-winning goal in a late season match, as the low-ranked Coyotes were seen as a major "threat" to Buffalo landing a top-two pick. The Sabres finished the season with the worst overall record, securing the second-overall pick which they used to draft Eichel. The NHL revised their draft the following season in response, removing the second pick guarantee for the league's worst team and making all 14 teams who miss the playoffs eligible to win a top-three pick through the draft lottery.
Fans of the Philadelphia 76ers adopted the mantra "Trust the Process" when the team was tanking from 2013 to 2016.
While tanking can be a successful strategy in eventually building a winning team, it alienates fans in the midst of the rebuilding process as fans are frustrated by losing teams. During the Astros' rebuilding years of 2011-2013 when they lost an average of 108 games per season, attendance was cut in half and one game had a television rating of 0.0. The Sabres have also seen dips in attendance since their alleged rebuilding years in the 2010s and have also been described as a "toxic environment".
Tanking can lead to strife with players' unions as tanking teams choose rookies on inexpensive contracts over free agents wanting multimillion dollar deals.
The NBA and NHL have responded to the phenomenon in recent years by changing their draft from reverse-order to a lottery formula which is only loosely tied to the previous season's standings. Some observers have called for leagues to adopt a European-style relegation system where the worst teams are demoted to a minor league to make tanking less attractive.