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Should the AFL adopt a conference ladder system? The home ground advantage dilemma and a solution

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Roar Guru
22nd March, 2019
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1051 Reads

Although this paper suggests an alternative to the current ranking system, its purpose is predominantly to raise awareness as to the advantages seen by interstate clubs and to communicate to the AFL that people are aware of the problem with the home ground advantage disparities seen in the modern era.

I acknowledge ahead of time that my ‘solution’ is not without flaws, but its elaboration should take a productive step towards shedding light on the possibility of a theoretically sound system, or at the very least an improvement on the current one, whether or not it takes a similar form to my own.

I haven’t compiled masses of evidence to support my case but I don’t think it’s needed – the system is theoretically jaded from the origin.

It is well known that leagues such as the NBA and the English Premier League dwarf the AFL financially through the acquisition of global talent and resultantly through their status as internationally recognizable brands. These giant leagues all accommodate their member clubs to individual home grounds; Manchester United plays out of Old Trafford, the Golden State Warriors in Oracle Arena, New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium and so on and so forth.

The evolution of the AFL saw the original grounds that Melbourne clubs played at scrapped for larger, more modern venues that can accommodate contemporary crowd sizes and provide high-quality facilities to patrons; Princes Park, Moorabbin, Western Oval, etc. no longer see league football, and Melbourne teams now unanimously play out of either the Melbourne Cricket Ground or Docklands Stadium.

Resultantly, nine Melbourne AFL clubs now share two home grounds. This has significant implications for the fairness of the league in terms of the home ground advantage, which will be discussed at length below.

The transformation of the VFL to the AFL saw the introduction of eight interstate clubs, each of which has their own home ground. Two interstate clubs share stadiums: the Crows and Power share Adelaide Oval, and as of 2018, the Eagles and Dockers will share Perth Stadium.

Brisbane singularly play out of the Gabba, Gold Coast out of Metricon Stadium, Sydney out of the SCG, GWS use Spotless Stadium, and Geelong have their own private venue in Simonds Stadium.

Clearly, the AFL does not have the means to construct a stadium to individually cater for each Melbourne club, nor would this be a popular decision due to areas like Footscray and Essendon being relatively unreachable considering the convenient locations of Docklands and the MCG.

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Resultantly, this proposal will outline the disparity in home-and-away game advantages seen across the modern AFL and suggest a solution to the problem that does not involve the construction of new stadiums, or any changes to the determining of future home-and-away fixtures.

The system I propose is a conference system, dividing the AFL into two separate points tables. Melbourne teams compete for points in one conference and non-Melbourne, or ‘Continental’ teams for lack of a better word, will compete in another. The top four teams from both conferences proceed to the finals (the finals system will be explained in detail).

The system allows for ensured equality across the AFL that is currently being lost through disparity between the values of home ground advantages of Melbourne clubs versus non-Melbourne clubs. There are no changes to the actual AFL home-and-away fixture; while there are two separate conferences, this does not isolate Melbourne team’s opponents to only other Melbourne teams; they will play interstate teams as they always have, and compete for four points, but once allocated, the points will go towards the winner’s tally in its own conference.

The conferences

Melbournian
Melbourne
North Melbourne
Collingwood
Carlton
Richmond
St Kilda
Western Bulldogs
Essendon
Hawthorn

Continental
Geelong
Port Adelaide
Adelaide
West Coast
Fremantle
Brisbane
Gold Coast
Sydney
GWS

The nine Melbourne clubs compete in their own conference, where the best-placed teams can more evenly be chosen to compete against clubs in the finals that have a genuine home ground advantage. Electing teams with a true home ground to the finals in an all-inclusive top eight derived from a pool including all 18 teams is fundamentally unfair for a number of reasons:

1. Every time a team hosts a game at the MCG or Etihad against another team that uses that ground, there is no home advantage (e.g. Essendon hosting North Melbourne at Etihad). Crowd percentage of home supporters may help but not enough to offer a true home ground advantage as seen by interstate clubs.

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2. Interstate clubs are substantially better positioned, playing every home game against away sides that may only see that ground once a season, and playing up to five games at the MCG or Etihad themselves, giving them more experience at Melbourne venues within a year and consequently reducing the effect of the Melbourne clubs’ home ground advantages.

For example, Brisbane plays four games at Etihad Stadium in 2017, better placing them for success at the venue in that year, while at every home game they enjoy a true home ground advantage that every other club can only play at once. In 2017, West Coast plays Etihad Stadium five times. The maximum amount of games any clubs outside Perth play at Domain is two.

3. The ladder positioning as it is currently organised at the season’s conclusion can currently result in superior standing being worthless due to teams sharing home grounds. For example, if any two Melbourne clubs (even Geelong, as seen by the 2017 end of season fixture) feature in an elimination or qualifying final, the game will be played at the MCG, meaning that the team that finished higher on the ladder has no game-day advantage over the team finishing lower.

Essendon could win more games than Richmond but not have this achievement reflected in any way in the finals fixture if drawn against Richmond or any other Melbourne club. This is why my finals draw (as will be explained) guarantees an advantage to deserving clubs whether or not they reside in Melbourne in the opening round of finals.

Similarly, if Adelaide finish first and Port Adelaide finish fourth, the Crows will not enjoy a deserved home ground advantage in their qualifying final, despite finishing first and locking down a home final. My system guarantees this advantage will be reflected in the first round of the finals by ensuring their opponent will not also share the stadium.

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The new system will guarantee that there is no unfair advantage to interstate clubs that is gained by having a true home ground over Melbourne clubs, as it appears on the ladder at the end of the season. The top four placed teams from both conferences will proceed to the finals.

Four Melbourne clubs are guaranteed the finals and four non-Melbourne clubs are. This will reduce the domination of interstate clubs, who clearly have a significant advantage. Geelong, with their very own ground at Kardinia Park, will compete in the Continental Conference.

Since Geelong choose to host games at Etihad Stadium and the MCG, they cannot be considered to be disadvantaged by the new conference system, as they are entitled to claim their true home ground advantage at any time by playing 100 per cent of home games out of Simonds Stadium.

The rebuttal to this system is that Melbourne clubs also have an advantage when playing away games against other Melbourne clubs because it may be at their own home ground. Playing within their own conference means this ‘advantage’ is not displayed on a standings table taking into account interstate clubs.

Furthermore, interstate supporters will argue that they travel far more than Melbourne clubs. I don’t consider the actual process of travel in Australia to be a significant factor contributing to poor performance.

Year after year commentators use phrases such as ‘it’s always a tough journey out to Domain’ and speak of clubs like the Crows turning Adelaide Oval into a ‘fortress’ and forewarn clubs of difficult matches against Geelong at ‘The Cattery.’ There is a simple reason for this, and it isn’t the plane trip the away club embarks on a couple of days before.

It’s the fact that other clubs have significantly less experience playing on these grounds. Rarely do sports journalists attribute Melbourne clubs’ home grounds as substantial contributors to a likely impending victory (though it has been seen in the past- look at Richmond’s recent performances at the MCG).

Melbourne clubs consistently fail to turn their home grounds into ‘fortresses’ because their opponents spend so much time practising within their walls, playing there so many times a year. Melbourne clubs cannot be expected to turn their home grounds into fortresses when four clubs are also trying to do the same thing at the same venue.

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There will be fundamentalists that consider the match of football to be the match of football on the day regardless of all the other factors and as such the league should not bother with change. Having 16 years of experience playing football, I consider this attitude ignorant.

There are immense amounts of contributing factors that lead to the existence of a home ground advantage, from knowledge of the tendencies of the ground and its playing surface, to a home crowd, to the benefit of routines built by players and teams playing half their matches in a specific environment. Interstate teams playing considerable amounts of matches at the MCG and Etihad allows them to harness this experience and develop Melbourne stadiums as home games away from home.

The benefit of playing five games at Etihad for West Coast in 2017 is certainly not as prominent as their own home ground advantage at Domain, but it is a certainty that the home teams playing out of Etihad against a West Coast outfit that is seeing the ground for the fifth time in a single season is robbed of the full benefits of hosting a football match at their own ground.

Despite West Coast’s lack of success in Melbourne in 2017, this should not be used against my system. My system lends theoretical fairness, which should be the aim of all sports leagues. Of course, the possibility exists for West Coast to lose all five games they play at Etihad Stadium, which they almost did; but on paper, they are truly given an advantage, and are therefore mathematically more likely to perform well at the venue.

Additionally, home crowds are significantly more one-sided in Continental stadiums. Save for the cheer squad section, crowds at these venues are 95 per cent home supporters. This is in contrast with all-Melbourne matches, where a North Melbourne home game will have roughly equal supporters as their opponents if they play Essendon, meaning the home crowd advantage is far less influential than the ones seen at Continental venues.

For example, the highly acclaimed atmosphere at the Adelaide Oval is supposedly unrivalled – an extremely palpable environment, whereas a Melbourne v Adelaide match at the MCG will be significantly less atmospheric, which is also linked to capacity of the venue versus how many people actually turn up to fill it, another advantage of Continental clubs.

Finally, this system will greatly benefit the AFL’s current contract that requires at least ten finals games to be played at the MCG during every rolling five-year period. Consequently, this reduces the risk that the AFL will schedule an interstate team to host a final at the MCG that was regrettably seen through the Brisbane Lions in 2004 when they hosted Geelong at the venue for their preliminary final match.

Had the Lions lost that match, the AFL would certainly have been exposed to significant backlash from the public, Brisbane Lions and wider football community. This would have been rightly justified, as it was an unmitigated abandonment of sporting fairness.

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The major problem with the system
What if a Melbourne side has a better home/away record than the fourth-placed continental side and doesn’t make the finals? Or the other way round? Should it fall solely down to home/away record?

The answer
The ladder speaks for itself within the two conferences. The top four in Melbourne were the best four teams who managed to play away and in Melbourne effectively. Similarly, the top four continental teams were the ones who were able to use their true home ground advantages effectively and also play well in Melbourne and at other true home grounds around the country.

Luke Dahlhaus

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The AFL actually does operate two separate conferences already, they just haven’t been named or officially divided; to play for an interstate team is to fly to Melbourne roughly six times in any given season to play at a ground they may play at up to five times. To play for a Melbourne team is to sacrifice the majority of your home ground advantage at the benefit of playing a number of away games at your own home ground.

I believe that it is the interstate teams that still have the advantage here, seeing as they share the Melbourne clubs’ advantage of playing multiple games at Melbourne stadiums in the one year (as seen by Brisbane’s four at Etihad, equal to Melbourne FC’s four, and West Coast’s five at ES.) Interestingly, this means that despite being a cross-town rival of Etihad Stadium clubs, Melbourne FC are not better positioned to play in Etihad Stadium than West Coast.

People will use Hawthorn as an example as to why Melbourne clubs can still be dominant. My answer is that most eras will have a powerhouse club emerge whether or not their home ground is true or shared.

Statistically, there are nine teams from Melbourne, meaning that there is a 50 per cent chance the powerhouse club of an era will emerge from the city, and dominate the AFL because of their inherent talent that is so considerable that the success of the team is independent of the benefits of true home advantage.

Unlikely runs such as that seen by the Western Bulldogs in 2016 are statistically likely to happen every once in a while because of the sheer number of AFL games played in a season that have the ability to lead to any number of possibilities. Thus the dominance of Hawthorn and the recent Bulldogs premiership should not be used to argue against the adoption of the conference system.

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The finals draw
The NBA uses the West v East conference where the top eight from each conference play in the playoffs against each other, and when only one team remains from each, they play the East v West champion finals series.

I don’t propose this because I consider an all-Melbourne grand final to be an essential possibility that has existed throughout the history of the game and a chance to create and maintain long-standing cross-town rivalries. Rather I would have the AFL adopt a new finals draw: the top placed team in the Melbourne conference plays against the second-placed Continental team at their home ground in either Etihad Stadium or the MCG.

Second in Melbourne plays first in continental at the interstate venue (or Simonds Stadium if it is Geelong). Third-placed in the Melbourne division plays fourth placed in the continental division at Etihad or the MCG. Fourth-placed in Melbourne plays third place in the continental division at the continental team’s home ground.

The higher placing team within conferences is ensured the advantage of playing the lower ranked inter-conference opponent at their own home ground. This means there is a certainty of two opening round finals played in Melbourne, which I fear is a luxury we may lose to interstate sides.

The top two teams in both the Continental and Melburnian conferences will be awarded a second chance, meaning there is still a ‘top four’ of sorts who are rewarded for their superior home/away record against their conference rivals. If the first or second placed teams win their qualifying final, they are awarded the week off and must only win one more game to appear in the grand final.

If they lose their qualifying final they will play the winner of the corresponding elimination final in a semi-final. The winners of the semi-finals play the winners of the qualifying finals in the preliminary finals, as it is in the current system. The draw ensures that the grand final could eventuate with two Melbourne teams, two continental teams, or a team from both conferences competing against each other.

This draw does regrettably eliminate the crowd-favourite possibility of all-Melbourne matches in the first round of finals. However, these are increasingly rare. By forfeiting this possibility we guarantee the people of Melbourne two finals in week one. The way the finals draw progresses also means it is possible for all-Melbourne match-ups in weeks two and three, and the grand final.

All-Melbourne finals, especially in week 1, are in essence what my theory declares is unfair; the higher placed side should be awarded a true home ground advantage against a club that does not play out of the same ground. This, in my opinion, is a small sacrifice Melbourne football fans should make to ensure their side experiences the full payout of qualifying for a home final at the end of the season.

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My system lends fairness across the AFL by ensuring that the very different looking fixtures in terms of home-and-away matches for interstate and Melbourne sides does not enable inequality when the interstate advantage is applied in the form of points on the AFL ladder.

Each interstate team with the advantage competes against each other for the right to a spot in the finals, as each disadvantaged Melbourne club will equally have the right to play finals by proving their worth in their own conference. Teams that have the luxury of a ‘fortress’ should not compete for finals placing against teams that don’t.

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It prevents the interstate advantage from changing the shape of the finals and helps the AFL schedule its required amount of matches at the MCG as an added bonus. Currently the AFL, through lofty home ground advantages, is actually interstate-centric.

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Critics will see my system as Melbourne-centric, boosting the chances of Melbourne teams with powerful Melbourne supporter bases into the finals at the deficit of struggling interstate franchises. Yet evidently at the closure of the 2017 season, we have been treated to a showcase of continental superiority in the AFL leaving Melbourne clubs in their wake. Three top-four spots occupied by continental clubs, Adelaide, Geelong and GWS.

With Sydney and Port Adelaide finishing fifth and sixth, if it weren’t for the fundamentally unfair decision made by the AFL for Geelong to host their qualifying final at the MCG, there would be no first-round final in Melbourne. It should be said that the contention of this paper should not be confused with an attempt to gather more finals in Melbourne for the purposes of pleasing Melbourne spectators.

Equal amounts of finals would be seen in Melbourne and interstate/ in Geelong. My aim is to guarantee legitimate home ground advantages seen in the finals and preserve the integrity of the sport, which is currently under threat by an out-dated system.

Finals series

Week 1

Qualifying finals
First qualifying final: first in Melburnian v secondth in Continental at Melbourne home ground.

Second qualifying final: second in Melbourne v first in Continental at Continental home ground.

Elimination finals
First elimination final: third in Continental v fourth in Melbourne at Continental home ground.

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Second elimination final: fourth in Continental v third in Melbourne at Continental home ground.

This is the difference between the NBA and my proposed idea – the NBA playoffs determine the top eight in the East and West, and then have them play against each other to determine the champions of each conference.

The Continental/Melburnian design sees the first round of the finals displaying only inter-conference match-ups – a Melbourne team vs a Continental team, so that there is definitely a home ground advantage enjoyed by a deserving side.

Week 2

Semi-finals
First semi-final: loser of first qualifying final v winner of the first elimination final.
Second semi-final: loser of second qualifying final v winner of the second elimination final.

Ryan Burton

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Week 3

Preliminary finals
Preliminary final 1: Winner of first qualifying final v winner of the first semi-final.
Preliminary final 2: Winner of second qualifying final v winner of the second semi-final.

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Grand Final
Winner of the first preliminary final v winner of the second preliminary final

If my system were in place in 2017, these games would take place in the opening round of the finals:

Adelaide v Essendon at AO

Geelong v Richmond at MCG

GWS v WB at Spotless

Power v Melbourne at MCG (alright, yes I’m a Dees fan)

Home ground advantage enjoyed by all. Then let the rest of the finals play out like the old days. The current system doesn’t sit well with people who are introduced to AFL from outside the country when they hear of the current finals draw – they’ve asked me ‘Isn’t that unfair?’ and ‘How does that make any sense?’ and that generally means something is awry.

It’s a subtle distinction but it means more than we realise. Time for us to acknowledge it and have a discussion about shaking up our current method of finals fixturing.

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