Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Is The Benefit Of ‘Sneaking’ Into The AFL Finals?

AFL media and fans make a big deal out of just ‘sneaking’ into the final eight, and out of just missing out on the final eight as well. In terms of a team’s chances of winning the premiership, just making the final eight has, empirically, next to no benefit – no team has won the premiership from eighth spot since the final eight began in 1994, nor from seventh, nor from sixth. A final for eighth does bring extra revenue of course, though historically only one or two weeks’ worth.

However, some might think there are the lasting benefits of having played a finals match in terms of helping the team win games in subsequent seasons. As a data-based football fan, and not a narrative-based one, my prior belief is that this is a load of baloney, but what do the numbers actually say? Below are the winning percentages of the teams that finished eighth and ninth in every season since 1994 over each of the next three home and away seasons (click to enlarge).

Not that surprisingly, the average home and away winning percentages for teams that finish eighth and ninth over each of the next three seasons are pretty close to 50 per cent. Some teams in the middle of the ladder go up in subsequent seasons, some go down. For example, Brisbane finished eighth in 1997 and finished last the next season, while Essendon finished eighth in 1998 and won the minor premiership the next season. It also won the premiership the year after – the only team since 1994 to finish eighth or ninth to have done so within the next three years.

(Strangely, while every AFL fan is familiar with Richmond having finished ninth several times – six in total – no one really remembers that Essendon has finished eighth almost as many times – five in total – over the same period. More evidence that humans might be psychologically wired to remember losses suffered rather than benefits gained.)

Looking at the averages, eighth placed teams have done a little better on average than ninth placed teams in each of the next three years. But the differences in average winning percentages are not significant.

In comparison, and not surprisingly, the difference in average winning percentages in the next season of teams that finish first and last is significant – that is, teams that are really good one season are typically really good in the next season (though usually not quite as good), and teams that are really bad one season are typically really bad in the next season (though usually not quite as bad). The difference is significant after two seasons as well, but the teams are, on average, getting closer. By three seasons out, the averages are getting towards 50 per cent for these teams as well.

Therefore, the main benefit of ‘sneaking’ into the finals seems to be the extra revenue from playing one or two finals matches, and perhaps the psychological joy from being counted amongst the finals teams (though that is soon followed by the disappointment of being ousted). Or perhaps more correctly - given the way that humans might be wired - perhaps a main benefit of sneaking into the finals is avoiding the psychological anguish of just missing out.

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