"Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master
."
-- "One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop, 1975

Losing is not a new concept to Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S). The perennial also-ran in the North American mobile service market has launched one Hail Mary after another, never quite scoring the touchdown that would make it a serious challenger to the duopoly of AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ).

Tale of the tape
Sprint saw its revenue dwindling over three of the last four years, accompanied by shrinking gross margins. The company hasn't reported positive annual earnings since 2006, in stark contrast to Verizon and Ma Bell, which have both been solidly profitable over the same period. If (and that's a big "if" in my opinion) AT&T's proposed buyout of T-Mobile USA passes regulatory muster, Sprint would lose its natural rival for third place, left alone between two Brobdingnagians and a gaggle of Lilliputians.

Zachary Investment analyst Patrick Comack thinks Sprint would be better off buying out its high-speed data network partner Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR). Sprint needs Clearwire, and Clearwire needs Sprint, while none of Clearwire's minority partners seem particularly interested in its WiMAX 4G network anymore.

That idea isn't new, but Cormack puts a heavy twist on it: "Unfortunately, Sprint management has boxed itself in, and has no choice but to acquire CLWR or abandon it." It's do-or-die time, folks.

Or is it?

What Cormack suggests
Buying Clearwire would give Sprint the power to run that network, perhaps redesigning it as an LTE network after all, or selling off vast tracts of radio spectrum to richer and hungrier competitors. That might lead to leasing back data networking from someone else, most likely the very buyer of Clearwire's spectrum, and from there, it's not a huge leap to merging Sprint with that partner. In this scenario, Sprint and its investors have chosen a buyout as their exit strategy, leaving Verizon and AT&T facing off with no midsize rivals left to gnaw at their ankles. Because of its use of a similar network, Verizon would make the most sense, but integration and regulatory hurdles would still remain daunting.

And if Sprint has no desire to make drastic changes to Clearwire, the motivation to buy it fades away. It'd be better to let Clearwire sink or swim on its own, then use Sprint's majority stake to pick up the remnants on the cheap if the end comes early.

Another way out
If Sprint wants to buy itself into health, it'd be better off picking up a few regional carriers with strong, local spectrum holdings and a history of profitable operations. MetroPCS (NYSE: PCS) springs to mind as a starting point; then Sprint can fill in the cracks with a rash of smaller acquisitions.

Whether Sprint goes Cormack's way, mine, or its own, the company is facing plenty of hurdles in the years ahead. Whether you're buying or shorting Sprint, or just following the drama with a bowl of popcorn, the best way to stay up to speed is to add the stock to your Foolish watchlist. It's a free service that helps you stay on top of the tickers that matter, sending up-to-the-minute updates your way as they happen.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. AT&T is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.