PWHL to use draft format that other sports leagues should consider stealing

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

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

Draft rules in modern sports are a constant balancing act of incentives for leagues.

You don’t want teams to outright tank and create an unwatchable product for 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 to balance those two sides, with the NBA, NHL and MLB all currently using the format.

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

The nascent women’s hockey league is currently playing its inaugural season after being formed via a merger of the Premier Hockey Federation and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. It announced its playoff and draft format on Wednesday, and the latter featured an idea familiar to some hockey fans over the last decade.

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

Once a team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, it begins earning ‘Draft Order Points’ in all subsequent games (including all regular-season games that begin following a team’s elimination), using the league’s standard points system that 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 conclusion of the regular season will earn the first selection in each round of the draft. The non-playoff team with the fewest Draft Order Points will select second in each round of the draft.

Basically, the teams that win the most after being eliminated from the playoffs get the best picks. Bad teams get a head start by being eliminated earlier, but at the end of the day, they do have to win. In the case of the six-team PWHL, the competition will between two teams, but you can visualize how this would look among the larger leagues.

How the Gold Plan would play out in, say, MLB

The brilliance of the Gold Plan is it solves the unsolvable problem of modern draft ordering. Teams like last year’s Oakland Athletics and this season’s Detroit Pistons have zero incentive to actually win once it becomes clear they won’t be competitive. They want their players to improve, yes, but a win ends up being a net negative.

The NBA and MLB attempt to diminish that lack of incentive with their draft lotteries, but the central problem isn’t that the teams are incentivized to lose, it’s that they have no incentive to win. For the A’s, tanking was beside the main point of just not spending money. The Gold Plan would theoretically change that.

For the sake of visualization, here are the teams with the five worst records in 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 here’s how the Gold Plan would have worked out for each team:

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

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

The Gold Plan isn’t perfect

There are, of course, counter-arguments to this. The big one would be the motivations for the players themselves. It’s easy to imagine players on bad teams as fully checking out and going through the motions, but that’s simply not how professional sports work.

The thing about players on bad teams is they are trying very hard to not be the reason their team is bad, because that leads to the end of careers. A team’s owner and general manager might be fine with, or even encourage, packing it in, but you try telling a struggling player it’s fine if he takes a strikeout because it would help the draft position of a team he might be leaving in a few months.

So the Gold Plan solves the problem of incentivized losing 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 have to win games eventually, yes, but a team is still massively rewarded for getting eliminated early. In the above example, the A’s go from having the worst record, and therefore the best lottery odds, to the second pick, which is two slots ahead of where they ended up last year.

Thats not great, but the point 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 watch teams play for something, this isn’t complicated. They also do 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 send away their superstars in exchange for picks or young talent, you won’t enjoy the effect of the Gold Plan. The Nationals might have been more hesitant to trade away Juan Soto in 2022 had they needed him to make sure their top draft pick was still good the next year.

There really is no perfect way to build a draft order when some teams worry about being both expensive and bad. At some point, it might even be worth it to just give every non-playoff team even odds for the top pick and let the ping-pong balls fall where they may. But at least the PWHL is using its youth to try something interesting.

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