Carlton 'robbed' of home final in AFL

Following the 22-round home-and-away season in the Australian Football League, does the final ladder reflect the ‘true’ ranking of the overall performance of the 16 teams over the course of the season?

sports-field A study by a La Trobe University sports economist uses complex econometric modelling and regression techniques to estimate an ‘optimal’ bonus points system – determined from data on all AFL matches from the 1997-2008 seasons – similar to those used in Super 14 Rugby.  It is claimed that this system is better at revealing strong teams in the AFL than the current system, which does not award bonus points.

The research – by Dr Liam Lenten from La Trobe’s School of Economics and Finance, and co-author Dr Niven Winchester at the University of Otago in New Zealand – builds on Dr Winchester’s previous analysis on the Super 14 system, published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports.  The findings will be presented by Dr Lenten at the 38th Australian Conference of Economists, to be held at the University of Adelaide in the week following the AFL Grand Final.

The authors’ results indicate a preferred allocation of four league points for a win, three points for a draw, two points for winning by 27 or more and two points for losing by 26 or less.  However, they state that the partition could instead be altered to 24 points to make it more interpretable to fans (i.e. four goals), and that a goal bonus (similar to a try bonus in Rugby) for scoring (let’s say) 20 goals, could also be included.

In fact, Dr Lenten says that according to his work with Dr Winchester (who is currently based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Adelaide would have finished 7th instead of 5th in 2009, handing Carlton a home final this weekend, meaning also that Brisbane would instead be hosting Essendon. Though of less concern, the system would have also meant Sydney and West Coast would swap places.

When the researchers used their alternative system to backtrack over their 12-year sample, they found that Collingwood would have fared best with the bonus points system, finishing significantly better in five seasons, while finishing significantly worse only once.  For the other teams, it made a significant difference in only two seasons on average.

Dr Lenten says the inclusion of bonuses may also maintain spectator interest in matches where an obvious winner emerges prior to match completion – in a similar way to the final.

round Hawthorn-Carlton match a year ago yesterday, which, due to Fevola being stuck on 99 goals, was exciting to the final siren despite the 10-goal plus margin. It could also prevent dominant teams taking their foot off the pedal after establishing a significant lead.

For these reasons, Dr Lenten claims that the AFL Commission should consider amending the current allocation of league points, especially upon the entry of Gold Coast in 2011, when many aspects of the current competition design may be ‘up for grabs’.

The authors acknowledge that introducing bonuses to AFL standings may cause controversy as a team with less wins could conceivably qualify for the finals at the expense of a team with more wins, creating fan resistance to the idea. According to Dr Winchester, however, parallels can be drawn to the Duckworth-Lewis revised-target rule used in cricket, ‘…which was initially met with much scepticism but is now widely accepted’.

Dr Liam Lenten
Phone: 03 9479 3607