PWHL will be using a draft format that other sports leagues should consider stealing

By | February 29, 2024

LOWELL, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 03: A view of the PWHL logo on the boards during the second period of the PWHL game between Minnesota and Boston at Tsongas Center on January 3, 2024 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The PWHL is doing something interesting. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Design rules in modern sports are a constant balancing act of incentives for competition.

You don’t want teams to outright tank and create a product that isn’t visible to the fans, but you also don’t want teams to fall so far behind that all hope is lost, at least in leagues where relegation isn’t a thing. A draft lottery is the most popular method of balancing these two sides, with the NBA, NHL and MLB all currently using this format.

But the Professional Women’s Hockey League may be doing something better.

The emerging women’s hockey league is currently playing its first season after being formed through a merger of the Premier Hockey Federation and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. It announced its playoff and draft formats on Wednesday, and the latter featured an idea that has been familiar to some hockey fans for the past decade.

That idea is the Gold Plan, which was proposed by statistician Adam Gold at the 2012 Sloan Analytics conference and has since gained supporters and critics. Here’s how the PWHL described it:

Once a team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, it will begin earning ‘Draft Order Points’ in all subsequent games (including all regular season games beginning after a team’s elimination), using the league’s standard points system which awards three points for a regulation. win, two points for an overtime or shootout win, one point for an overtime or shootout loss, and zero points for a regulation loss. The team with the most Draft Order Points at the end of the regular season earns the first selection in each round of the draft. The non-playoff team with the fewest Draft Order Points will be placed second in each round of the draft.

Basically, the teams that win the most after being eliminated from the playoffs get the top picks. Bad teams get an advantage by being eliminated earlier, but in the end they have to win. In the case of the six-team PWHL, the competition will be between two teams, but you can imagine what this would look like in the bigger leagues.

How the Gold Plan would work out in, for example, the MLB

The brilliance of the Gold Plan is that it solves the insoluble problem of modern draft ordering. Teams like last year’s Oakland Athletics and this season’s Detroit Pistons have no incentive to actually win once it becomes clear they won’t be competitive. They want their players to improve, yes, but a win is ultimately negative.

The NBA and MLB are trying to alleviate that lack of incentive with their draft lotteries, but the central problem is not that the teams have an incentive to lose, but that they have no incentive to win. For the A’s, fueling was next to the main point of simply not spending any money. The Gold Plan would theoretically change that.

For visualization, here are the teams with the five worst records in the MLB last season:

1. Oakland Athletics: 50-112
2. Kansas City Royals: 56-106
3. Colorado Rockies: 59-103
4. Chicago White Sox: 61-101
t5. Washington Nationals: 71-91
t5. St. Louis Cardinals: 51-91

And this is how the Golden Plan would have worked out for each team:

1. Royals (eliminated on September 13): 15 wins
2. Athletics (August 26): 12 wins
3. White Sox (September 10): 6 wins
4. Nationals (September 18): 5 wins
5. Cardinals (September 20): 4 wins
6. Rockies (September 20): 3 wins

Suddenly, the end of the season looks a lot more interesting for MLB’s worst teams.

The Gold Plan is not perfect

There are of course counter arguments to this. The most important would be the motivations of the players themselves. It’s easy to imagine players on bad teams going all out and going through the motions, but that’s just not how professional sports work.

The thing about players on bad teams is that they try very hard not to be the reason their team is bad because that will end their career. A team’s owner and general manager may be okay with, or even encourage, packing it in, but you’re trying to tell a struggling player that it’s okay if he takes a strikeout because it would improve draft position of a team he could leave in a few minutes. months.

So the Gold Plan solves the problem of incentivized losses for teams, but that was never a problem for the actual players. The A’s didn’t want to be bad and get draft picks last year, they wanted to be cheap, with good draft picks being a perk of the process.

There’s also the simple fact that the Gold Plan still rewards teams for being bad. They ultimately have to win games, yes, but a team is still hugely rewarded for getting knocked out early. In the example above, the A’s go from the worst record, and therefore the best lottery odds, to the second pick, which is two slots ahead of where they finished last year.

That’s not great, but the goal of the Gold Plan isn’t so much to end tanking as it is to make games with bad teams watchable again. Fans want to see teams play for something, this isn’t complicated. They also enjoy those draft picks to some extent, so bad teams getting picks isn’t really a bug.

And then there’s the trade deadline. If you’re a fan of blockbuster trades where bad teams ship away their superstars in exchange for picks or young talent, you won’t benefit from the effect of the Gold Plan. The Nationals might have been more hesitant to trade away Juan Soto in 2022 if they needed him to ensure their top draft pick was still good the following year.

There’s really no perfect way to build a draft order if some teams worry about them being both expensive and bad. At some point, it might even be worth giving every non-playoff team equal opportunity for the top pick and letting the ping pong balls fall wherever they may. But at least the PWHL is using its youth to try something interesting.

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