The San Diego Padres just wrapped up one of the odder promotions in baseball history. For $99, a fan could purchase a “Five-Win Pass,” which provided a ticket to every home game until either the team won five or the season ended, on September 30. The deal rested on a simple fact: The Padres are bad. After the offer went into effect on July 27, it took 17 games in their native Petco Park for them to win five. In other words, a fan who bought in early could have gotten 12 extra tickets for their investment—a great deal, as long as they didn’t mind watching awful baseball.
The promotion, which ended Wednesday, wasn’t technically new; the Padres first offered the deal during their mediocre 2017 season. Still, the Five-Win Pass’s very existence all but explicitly says the Padres’ owners and management have little interest in winning. As such, the bargain offers important insights into the flawed incentive system (both in Major League Baseball and in other leagues) that has generated one of the most controversial practices in pro sports: tanking.
Tanking is, in essence, losing now in order to win later. It’s not to be confused with players throwing games, à la the infamous 1919 World Series–losing Chicago White Sox; players on a tanking team are usually still trying their hardest. The decision is more top-down, made by executives who know they can’t field a championship-caliber team this year (or next). Except in the most brazen cases, tanking is also hard to distinguish from simply losing, which makes it a difficult strategy to accurately track. Tanking teams may mask the practice behind injuries, financial concerns, or a preference for developing young, unproven players with lots of potential over playing veterans who are known quantities. Meanwhile, an incompetent or simply unlucky squad can stumble into a position where they appear to be tanking (as is arguably the case with this year’s Padres).