Incentives Matter

One of the things they drill into your head in college if you study economics is that incentives matter.

That is why I can say confidently today: USA Ultimate has to change their ranking system. It is fundamentally flawed.

This is not going to be an argument for why any particular team should get a strength bid for their Region (preliminary final USA Ultimate rankings are posted for Open and Women’s). Frankly, there will always be complaints about any ranking system, as the teams that finish on the bubble will probably have a case as to why they should have earned a bid.

Instead, I want to focus on the core problem with the system: it gives teams incentives to throw games and, potentially, falsify rosters.

We have already seen the issue crop up multiple times. We saw a situation at the New England Open last weekend where Harvard and Tufts had an incentive to let Dartmouth win in order to boost their shot at a third bid for the NE region. (For what it’s worth, both Harvard and Tufts played to win and played hard. They did not soft pedal their losses.)

During the last club season, Hot Metal sanctioned a last minute scrimmage against Regional rival Green Means Go that helped them earn the final strength bid, an even more questionable situation.

Call these conspiracies if you like, but there is no question: late in the season, regional teams have an incentive to help each other earn bids. That makes no sense, and it needs to change.

Let’s look again at this college season: Stanford now sits with the final strength bid after two of their worst early season losses were disqualified because the teams they played — UC San Diego and British Columbia — failed a roster comparison check. Will UCSD be in a hurry to fix what may have been a clerical error? Very unlikely, since they might end up costing their region a bid by making it right.

Regardless of how you feel about the Southwest earning two bids, it seems flat out crazy that we have a situation like this even arising.

Is the issue here the ranking algorithm? No, not really. While I think there are some problems with the algorithm itself, I think we should focus more on altering the way bids are allocated, either by shifting away from a bright-line bid cutoff or by including a human element in the rankings (possibly both).

But we have to end a situation where players and teams have an incentive to game the rankings. It is so obviously faulty that it can’t be allowed to continue this way for even one more season.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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