There was a high school girls’ basketball game on February 21 of this year in which both teams played to lose in order to avoid being on the same side of the bracket as a national powerhouse in Tennessee AAA state playoffs. The details are best reported at the source, which includes the letters sent to both teams by the high school association. The short of it is that both teams were fined $1,500 and placed on various kinds of probation for future seasons.
Michael Wilbon’s statement (here, about 11 minutes in) sums up the most direct and accurate criticism of this episode: “Parents, administrators, [and] executives, they [all] failed the kids.”
As immediately and overwhelmingly negative as the reaction has been across relevant media outlets, the ultimate community has endorsed such behavior for years through an emphasis on pool play tournament formats.
For better and worse, ultimate is no longer just a game. Once people started paying for video footage and admission, the game became a commodity. Once ultimate was recognized by USOC and IOC, and broadcast by ESPN3, CSN, and others, the game became as much a presentation as a sport.
What message is bundled with ultimate when the sort of anticompetitive behavior decried in girls’ basketball is standard operating procedure within the ultimate community?
The door’s open, and here’s how to close it
Let’s begin with the standard tournament format in which elimination play follows pool play, more than one team advances from a pool, and the matchups coming out of pool play are predetermined based on finish in various pools. In these situations, teams can manipulate their results to achieve specific matchups.
Any situation in which a team considers itself better served by losing than by winning subverts the concepts of competition and fair play. The notion of giving your best is irrelevant when the competition is either not interested in winning or is specifically displaying a diminished version of themselves. A contest in which one or both competitors is not trying their hardest is not sport, it is exhibition. As Herm Edwards memorably put it, “You play to win the game.”
A quick and simple solution to this is to only allow the team which wins a pool to advance. While this has its own drawbacks in tiebreaks and the like, it removes the incentive to do anything other than finish first (and to dominate possible tie-break categories like goal differential, goals for, and goals against). Another, more complicated, solution is to assign matchups in bracket play based on an informed committee who has watched all of the relevant games. The obvious complication here is adding a layer of subjectivity to what should be a set of objective outcomes. At a basic level, most of this can be tossed aside during the regular season as tournament formats are in part used to provide teams with varied opponents and to connect the web of results used for rankings. An uninformed observer might not expect to see manipulation in the postseason due to both the integrity of high level competitors and formats that discourage anything less than fully committed competition.
A closer look at USAU Club Nationals…
On inspection, the current format for USAU Nationals actually encourages more manipulation than most regular season tournaments as all 16 teams in pool play advance to bracket play. This makes finishing last in a pool a viable strategy for advancing. And, because the first two elimination games take place less than 24 hours after pool play ends, playing each game at less than full capacity is a rewarding option regardless of how it affects a team’s finish in the pool. Only pride and the prospect of a potentially tougher matchup in the first round of elimination play prevents teams from intentionally losing all games on the first day of play. This isn’t speculation, either. Multiple players on multiple teams across all divisions have opined that “these games don’t matter as much.” The format rewards anticompetitive behavior by allowing long view gamesmanship to take precedent over the game at hand. If all teams advance, the only thing at stake are matchups in elimination play. If the only thing at stake in pool play are matchups in elimination play, the goal of each team quickly becomes to engineer a favorable matchup rather than survive and advance.
Until we demand a more competitive environment and a more interesting event, I wouldn’t recommend that any spectator watch the first day of play at USAU Nationals: teams playing at substandard levels with suboptimal subbing patterns in games that they concede do not matter as much as others is not particularly appealing aesthetically or competitively. For some reason, the first three games for every team at the consensus “most competitive tournament in the world” are effectively exhibition games.
…and some possible solutions
One familiar way to change this absurd paradigm is to eliminate teams after pool play, commonly by advancing only the top two teams out of a pool of four. While tie breakers and meaningless games after qualification for elimination play can muddle the picture, it is less advisable to compete at anything less than max capacity when a single loss or a single goal allowed could result in elimination.
Another, stronger statement would be to divide pool play into two days (one game on day one, two games on day two), advance one team per pool to bracket play, and give pool winners a berth in the semifinals. With the current emphasis on Triple Crown Tour Flight placements for the following season, lower finishing teams would have incentive to fight for every game even after dropping out of title contention. Consider making an eight-team bracket of second- and third-place pool finishers and the rest in a four-team bracket. Adjustments could be made depending on how large each Flight will be and how much initial pool play results should dictate final placements within the lower Flights.
One other alteration to consider for pool play is the seeding within and across pools, but discussions of that topic go far afield in a hurry. We shall table it for the future.
Another, nearly as familiar, way to address this imbalance is to eliminate pool play altogether. Ultimate tournaments in this vein tend toward double elimination, but does it make sense at the peak competitive level? A full double elimination bracket – rather than the clipped version that USAU formats follow – could work, but the strongest solution is a single elimination tournament. Yes, teams will be eliminated after the first round, but this is not a bug, it is a feature. Implementing a consolation bracket to sort losing teams into Flights certainly mitigates the meaninglessness, but there are no winners without losers. Instead of artificially softening the pain of a first game loss, single elimination amplifies both the pain and glory of the first game.
Standard single elimination seeding gives underseeded teams a distinct disadvantage in the now vital first round (and overseeded teams a distinct advantage), but there is more than one solution to seeding bracket play. The standard seeding of elimination brackets relies on specifically imbalanced matchups like 1v16, 2v15, 3v14, and 4v13. This seeding patterns pits the top team against the bottom team and is designed to produce an expected outcome: The top team advances and the bottom team is eliminated. Simultaneously in the first round, seeds 8 and 9 are matched up in a game without a clear expected outcome. The general concept behind these pairings is that each set of two teams has an identical indicator of overall matchup strength (17). However, the differences between the seeds of each team within a matchup ranges from 1 to 15. Not only will the 1 seed likely dispatch the 16 seed (a seed gap of 15), but the next matchup for the 1 seed is the winner of the 8v9 game (a seed gap of 1). The winner of this 8v9 game, so long as the seeding is accurate, has just won the most evenly matched a game in the first round. A 1 seed who has just beaten the 16 seed is likely to have a more significant edge on an 8 seed who has just beaten the 9 seed than it would over an 8 seed who has just beaten a 15 seed.
Maybe, instead of focusing on overall matchup strength, seeding could emerge from the perceived difficulty of matchups for the teams involved.
One possible solution is to force matchups between teams one seed apart. This means a first round of 1v2, 3v4, … 15v16. (From there, presumably, 1v4, 5v8, 9v12, 13v16 in the second round) Such a format can, however, spark a subtle desire to be, say, the 3 seed rather than the 2 seed. Another possible solution is to seed matchups within four-team blocks (or even two eight-team blocks). That is, the first round would be 1v4, 2v3, 5v8, 6v7 … 12v15; and the anticipated second round would proceed 1v2, 5v6, 9v10, 13v14.
Both options provide closer matchups throughout the early stages of the tournament, and are more likely to produce close games to interest spectators and fully engage competitors. They also do a better job of testing teams against their closest competition. Continuing with a standard format from each of the above starting points yields the same semifinals (1v5, 9v13) and finals matchups (1v9). This is counterintuitive to many for whom the “ideal” finals matchup is 1v2. However, that ideal is based on a number of assumptions about what a tournament should produce and when the “best” matchups should occur. (Which itself based on preconceived notions of which the best teams are.) Should a tournament reward the best team in a given event or the team generally considered the best? Stacking the deck in favor of top teams at the outset increases their odds of success. By balancing the relative matchups, we encourage more competitive games throughout the tournament and in so doing increase the likelihood that the most desired matchups will occur.
Additionally, there is no guarantee that first and second seeds will survive long enough to play each other in any format other than one which pits them against each other in the first round. In 2014 USAU men’s club championships, Revolver (1-seed) played no team seeded better than 8 in championship play. Did this happen because they were overseeded? Because GOAT (10-seed) was underseeded? Machine (2-seed) played no opponents seeded better than 6 in championship play. And they only played the 6-seed because Ring of Fire finished last in their pool. Furious George (16-seed) played no teams seeded worse than 9 and three teams seeded in the top 5. Should it be a surprise that they lost? Temper (15-seed) played only one team seeded worse than 10, and that was because Temper finished second in their pool while Truck Stop (14-seed) finished third in theirs.
One issue with both seeding schema above is that they artificially inflate the ninth seed’s finish. This is no problem when all that matters is the championship, but is an issue when the results of a single event determine a team’s Flight for the following season. One easy solution is to disentangle the following season’s Flight placement from Nationals results and instead base relegation on regular season finish (as done in the Barclay’s Premier League). A team that succeeds in the postseason is not necessarily a team that will yield the best play over the course of a season. One need only look to the NBA, MLB, NHL, NFL, and USAU for examples.
At the bottom of Pandora’s Box was Hope
None of the solutions offered here or in existence is perfect for all things. They’re stepping stones to a larger conversation on how tournament play at the highest levels should look, and how the goals and aims of a regular season can easily be at odds with the goals and aims of postseason play. The current Nationals format offers teams meaningless games, manipulable matchups, and regular season relegation based on post season results. For spectators, the format means a substandard level of play on the first day of competition and matchups designed to reinforce preconceived notions of who the best teams are, at the expense of competitive play. For those new to the sport, the format becomes as much a topic of discussion as the game itself.
Revisit Wilbon’s assessment in ultimate terms and the result is “Coaches, players, and executives, they’ve all failed the game.” It should be rare rather than standard that flawed, conflicting, or incomplete competition formats encourage teams to play at suboptimal levels. There should be even fewer situations in which losing a game results in a better option upon advancement. All of this goes double when players pay for the honor of competing, spectators pay to watch, and outside entities are encouraged to assess the viability of the sport.