Mirror mirror: the ‘fairest’ code.

The victorious 1980 Richmond Tigers.
The victorious 1980 Richmond Tigers.

BY DR HERMAN Australian sporting competitions all have measures designed to equalise the competition and make it fair. The NRL has a salary cap, the AFL a draft, restricted free agency and a salary cap. This makes sense, Australia is the land of the fair go after all. Maintaining an even playing field is important for maintaining a strong, vibrant and most importantly interesting competition, one where the supporters of every club can hope that success is only a few years away. Much like Game of Thrones, things get boring if one club stays on top for too long. Entrenched power does not make for good entertainment. As fans we want blood, violent uprisings and the unexpected deaths of our favourite characters. That’s entertainment.

So the question is- how fair are the NRL and AFL, really? And more importantly, given the long running battle between the codes, which competition can claim the “fair go” bragging rights?  To find out we decided to run a rigorous scientific analysis while drinking a couple of VB tinnies, because just like the idea of a fair go, VB tinnies are Aussie as and the consumption of them would surely improve the quality of the work.

The starting point for the analysis was 1998, the beginning of the NRL as it currently stands. This gave us 17 seasons. During those 17 years, the AFL has added two new sides, the Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney. Given that neither side has been in the competition for more than four years, the sample sizes for both are meaningless, so both sides were excluded. This gave us two 16 team competitions to compare over a 17 year period. As some may remember the NRL had a little salary cap drama a little while ago, which caused some team to have a couple of its premierships stripped from them, however, for the purpose of this analysis, we have given them back, they did “win” the GF games after all.

Firstly, we looked at premierships. Over those 17 years, 10 of the 16 sides in each competition have won a premiership. In the AFL, only one side, my beloved Richmond Tigers has failed to make a grand final. In the NRL, three sides have failed to make a grand final, Cronulla (obviously), Gold Coast and of course my beloved Canberra Raiders. On the surface, that seems pretty equal. Both competitions are “pretty damned fair”! Job done. Time to drink more beer!

After downing a few more VB tinnies, we decided we probably hadn’t done a good job and that we should probably go a little deeper. So we looked at the proportion of times clubs made the top 4. This is where things get interesting. In the NRL, four clubs: Broncos, Melbourne, Roosters and either Manly or the Bulldogs (each have made the top four 6 times in the last 17 years) accounted for 44% of top 4 appearances. In the AFL, the top four top four sides were Sydney, Collingwood, Geelong and either Hawthorn, St Kilda or the Western Bulldogs (each on 5), accounting for 38% of top 4 appearances. If we assume that the competition are totally fair, we would expect the top 4 teams to only make up 25% of top 4 position in each case. This suggests both competitions are a little unfair, the NRL especially so.

Spurred on by the apparent unfairness of the NRL we went back to premierships. In the NRL, these top 4 sides (using Manly, because they were the most premiership-y) have won 64.7% of the available premierships, which seems like quite a lot. In comparison, the top 4 in the AFL (using Hawthorn, because they are the most premiership-y) have only won 52.9% of available premierships. Again, by chance we would expect the top 4 sides to have only won 25% of premierships. It is now looking increasingly like the NRL isn’t very fair at all.

Looking at runners up, grand-final losing teams, the top 4 sides in the NRL and AFL respectively have been the runners up in 47% and 41% of grand finals they didn’t win. Overall the top four teams over those 17 years have accounted for 55.9% of grand final places in the NRL and 47% in the AFL. The last thing we looked at was how many sides have made the top 4 an above or below average number of times. In the NRL, 6 sides have made the top 4 at an above average rate, while 10 are below average. In the AFL its evenly split, as you would expect by chance, 8 teams above average, 8 below.

The picture is pretty clear, both competitions are shitting all over the idea of the fair go. Ok, maybe not, the small sample size means that the competitions may actually be fair, we just haven’t looked at a big enough data set. For most sides, top 4 placings, grand-final appearances and premierships come in groups, as do wooden spoons and bottom 4 placings. This is commonly referred to as the cycle. Teams are up for a while, then the equalising measures tear them apart and they are down for a while. Over time, in both competitions we would expect the numbers above to slowly get closer and closer to what we would expect by chance. So while the numbers show unfairness, both competitions are likely to be a lot fairer than the numbers suggest. They are both a hell of a lot fairer than competitions that don’t have equalisation measures anyway (e.g. the English Premier League).

So back to our original question. which competition is fairer? Well, its very obviously the AFL. They win on almost every fairness metric and aren’t behind the NRL on any. The AFL really is a fair competition. It shits all over the NRL in that regard*. Which gives me hope that my beloved Richmond Tigers can win a premiership in the not too distant future. As to the NRL, well, the Raiders should be on the look out for Dragons.

*this is an analysis of top 4 and premierships- not competitiveness in individual games- the outcome of that sort of analysis might be a little different, but it wouldn’t change the fact that in terms of what “really” matters, premiership glory, the AFL is the fairer competition.

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