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.
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.