Monday, October 31, 2016

Which AFL Club Has The Easiest Fixture in 2017?

The AFL has now released its fixture for 2017, and with its release comes the annual media evaluation of which clubs ‘won’ and ‘lost’ from the scheduling. For some of the press the focus was on who received or missed out on the ‘prime time’ Friday night slots (summary: the Bulldogs and Swans won, Richmond and Fremantle lost). And the other main point of focus is which clubs got the easiest and hardest draws, and will therefore be helped or hindered most by the AFL playing 22 rounds with 18 teams.

This is the fifth year over at ‘The Wooden Finger’ that I have tried to answer the question: which AFL club got the easiest fixture next year? For anyone who is interested, and doesn’t feel like digging through the archives, these were the results:

Next Easiest
Next Hardest
Gold Coast
North Melbourne
West Coast
Western Bulldogs
Port Adelaide
Western Bulldogs
North Melbourne
Western Bulldogs
North Melbourne
Western Bulldogs

Okay, let’s get into it: which AFL club got the easiest AFL fixture in 2017? First I’m going to go through my method for determining who I think has the easiest fixture, and who that says got the luck of the draw in 2017. Then I’m going to compare my results with those from a few other methods.

The WF Method

So here’s my method: I rate a club’s fixture by summing up over every match the ranking points of its opponents as determined by my end-of-season AFL Power Rankings, while adjusting for net home ground advantage. For example, a Victorian club that plays host to a non-Victorian club with 10 ranking points will get +2 points in terms of how easy the match is expected to be for them: -10 points in terms of the expected strength of the opponent, but +12 points for the expected home ground advantage.[1]
This means the rating for each club’s fixture is in effect the result of three components:
  • Effect of which clubs your club plays twice: This is the collective strength of the opponents that each club plays twice. A higher rating for this component means that you have easier opponents in your return bouts.
  • Net home ground advantage: This is the net effect of the adjustments for home ground advantage across the season. Not playing your home matches interstate helps out here (hello Western Bulldogs), as does playing clubs from out-of-town.
  • Effect of not playing your own club: If every club played each other the same amount of times the better clubs would generally have easier fixtures and the worst clubs would generally have the hardest.
There has been a bit of debate here about that last point. Some people think that rating the difficulty of a fixture should remove the effect of not playing your own club, and I would concede that fans usually exclude this effect when thinking about how difficult their fixture is. On a strict interpretation of how difficult a fixture is though I’d say it should be included. In the results below I show what the results are with and without this effect.

The Results
Using the above method here’s my ratings of the easiness/difficulty of each AFL club’s fixture in 2017, ranked from easiest to hardest:

Let’s go through each of the three components in turn.
Effect of clubs played twice: For the fixture the AFL uses a ‘weighted rule’ where it splits the clubs into three groups based on their positions on last season’s ladder (after finals), with more match-ups between clubs in the same group.
  • The middle six clubs are quite variable on this component. St. Kilda has return matches against two top clubs including last year’s minor premier Sydney, but North Melbourne’s only strong return opponent is the Western Bulldogs.
  • The top six clubs on the ladder tend to have the toughest sets of return matches. The exception is Adelaide as it has return matches against two strong clubs instead of three.
Net home ground advantage: Generally this component doesn’t make a huge amount of difference, as home matches and away matches even out. Carlton gets the rawest deal, as it has to travel interstate six times while only having four matches against non-Victorian clubs at home, two of which are against the Sydney clubs. Richmond also does relatively badly as it has six interstate trips and a trip to Geelong. Adelaide does relatively well because for two of its interstate trips its opponents have no or little advantage – North Melbourne in Tasmania, and Melbourne in Darwin.
Effect of not playing own club: Obviously stronger clubs do better on this component. But the main point here is how this component affects the assessment of how difficult a club’s fixture is. Without it weak clubs such as Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Essendon are assessed as having the most favourable fixtures, as is the intention under the AFL’s ‘weighted rule’. But with it Adelaide is assessed as having the most favourable fixture. The Crows, unlike those other clubs, have to play one less top club: the Crows themselves.
In summary then, the Adelaide Crows – with a relatively favourable fixture for a strong club, and a couple of interstate trips where their opponents have little home ground advantage – is considered here to have the easiest fixture in 2017. North Melbourne and Port Adelaide have relatively favourable fixtures for mid-range clubs, and their fixtures are rated as the next easiest.
As you would have seen near the start of this post Adelaide and North Melbourne were considered to have difficult fixtures in 2016. Is the AFL making it up to these clubs this year? Also we seem to have come full circle from my first-ever annual assessment, which was for the 2012 fixture, where Adelaide and North Melbourne were rated as having the easiest fixtures for that year.
At the other end for 2017 Hawthorn is rated as having the hardest fixture, having to front up twice against three of the top four highest-ranked sides. In terms of clubs they play twice the fixtures of Geelong and GWS are considered just as hard, but the Cats and Giants are rated as better sides than the Hawks.
Now let’s look at how these results compare to those of other methods of rating the fixture.
Rohan Connolly’s method for rating each club’s fixture has four components:
  • which clubs they play twice, based on ladder position (after finals)
  • number of road trips, including short and longer hauls;
  • number of matches where the club plays another club from interstate; and
  • the number of consecutive six-day breaks.
The second and third components together essentially form a version of net home ground advantage. The fourth component – six-day breaks – isn’t considered in my method, but it doesn’t make that much difference to Connolly’s rankings.
The main difference from my method is that Connolly’s method doesn’t include the effect of not playing your own club. Hence his rankings of clubs look similar to what the AFL is trying to achieve through its ‘weighted rule’ – except that, as noted above, Adelaide, North Melbourne, and Port Adelaide have relatively favourable draws given their groupings, and St. Kilda and Fremantle have relatively unfavourable draws. Essendon is rated as having the easiest fixture under his method.
Another difference from my method is that Connolly uses the ladder position to determine the strength of clubs. Ladder positions are arguably a little misleading when a club catches fire in the finals (hello again Western Bulldogs) or it had a favourable fixture the previous season, but the more important point is that it may not always be a good indicator of the gaps between clubs. For example by my rankings seventh-placed West Coast was closer in quality to most of the preliminary finalists than it was to eighth-placed North Melbourne, and I don’t think I would be alone in that assessment. Ladder positions are a lot easier to explain in a major newspaper though.
Connolly also assigns a higher penalty for road trips than he assigns an advantage for playing an interstate club at home. This raises the difficulty of the fixture for non-Victorian clubs under his measure (which perhaps doesn’t feel unreasonable if you are flying from and to Perth every other week), whereas under my method these types of matches broadly even out.
The Hurling People Now method only uses a ‘strength of schedule’ measure, with no reference to home ground advantage (or breaks). Therefore Carlton and Richmond, which have bad net home ground advantages in my method, do better in theirs. This site rates North Melbourne as having the easiest fixture in 2017, who I rated as having an easy fixture as well.
HPN’s post makes the important point that the strength of a fixture changes throughout the year, as clubs turn out to be stronger or weaker than initially thought. I feel like I’ve made this point before too, but cannot for the life of me remember where. Let’s just say I’ve already thought of it and not look further for proof.

The Matter of Stats method is similar to mine, but it is more precise about the home ground advantages. For example, Fremantle is rated as having more of a disadvantage than West Coast when it plays at the M.C.G., whereas in my system there is no difference between them and the other non-Victorian clubs – Sydney clubs aside – when they travel to Melbourne. Despite these differences this site also rates Adelaide as having the easiest fixture in 2017.

But Does The Fixture Matter?

Back in my first annual assessment of the AFL fixture in 2012 I said that one shouldn’t blame the fixture if your club is doing badly. Matter of Stats and Hurling People Now both estimate that the difference between the easiest fixture and hardest fixture is only about one win. And Rohan Connolly’s headline even noted that, based on past assessments, a tough fixture generally didn’t mean ‘doom and gloom’.

So it can make the difference between say, finishing fourth or fifth (or finishing fourth or seventh if things are close). But you are not becoming a top club through a favourable fixture. Perhaps then clubs should indeed be more concerned about how many ‘prime time’ matches they have when the fixture is released.

[1] I’ve actually adjusted each club’s ranking points a little so the sum of fixture difficulty across the league is zero.

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