What chance does an AFL bottom 4 side have of rising up the ladder?

The entire theory of a closed-entry league like the AFL, with salary caps, with a draft, is that success should be roughly cyclical. The clubs down the bottom of the ladder have the tools available to improve faster than clubs near the top. The hope bottom clubs can realistically sell to supporters is one of the strongest features of the cap and draft closed-league system.

If this theory holds then we should see a lot of movement across a period of a few years as teams take turns “bottoming out” and then rising up the ladder. This would be due to their draft bounty and ability to make recruitment decisions using the freedom of spare salary cap space.

To test the cyclicality of ladder positions we’ve taken every bottom four team since 1997 and then plotted where they were in each of the following four seasons. The results are as follows:

churn1

Represented another way, here’s a graph of the same information:

churn2

Cumulatively, we can say that 39% of teams (29 of 64) who finished bottom between 1997 and 2012 went on to make the top 4 at some point in the following four seasons. 11% did so the very next season.

The churn in the middle of the ladder is even clearer – 73% of teams who finished bottom 4 made the finals within the following four seasons.

All bottom sides are not the same

These counts are entirely naive and do not take into account the different circumstances of football sides. It’s not a huge stretch to say that there have been a group of sides who have gotten caught in what might be described as a “vicious circle” or “rebuilding trap” that has resulted in extended periods of sitting at the bottom of the ladder, and the crisis this can engender.

What happens if we identify a few of these clearly forlorn “no hoper” teams and isolate them from the sample?

The teams we will remove from the following tables are as follows:

  • Both recent expansion sides
  • Carlton 2002-2007
  • Richmond 2002-2010
  • Melbourne post-2006
  • Brisbane post-2010

These are teams who had extended stays in the bottom four, sitting there for several years. The remaining sample still retains a couple of pretty poor teams, notably Fremantle 1998-2002, but we would argue this is a decent list of consensus genuinely terrible sides who have had extended stays down the ladder.

Here’s the data excluding these six teams:

churn3churn4

The pattern here is pretty stark. Simply by excluding four periods where an individual club was a basket case for a long time, as well as the special cases of GWS and Gold Coast, we can see that over half (57%, 25 of 44) of cellar-dwelling teams make the top 4 at some point in the following four years. Looking at finals entries, 95% of teams – virtually all of them who don’t stay in the bottom 4 for a long time – make finals in the following four seasons, with 64% sitting in finals three years down the track from their bottom 4 finish.

The implications of this are pretty seemingly pretty simple. As long as a team doesn’t fall into a rebuilding black hole, wherein they remain anchored to the foot of the ladder for a number of seasons, they can expect to be nearly certainly playing finals again soon. They won’t tend to max out at ninth, for instance. Rebuilding successfully matters, but most temporarily weak clubs appear to get it right enough, using the tools at their disposal, to at least make finals again.

The trick, of course, is identifying such a black hole early on. We’ve already placed Brisbane in one, and Gold Coast is a special case whose struggles may or may not be a long term problem for them. Carlton at the start of this year might have been said to have been at a fork in the road where the decisions they are now making are crucial to their fate.

Essendon’s case is exceptional. They boasted before their doping violation suspensions of returning to the top 4 in 3 years but they may well be historically terrible this season. The question then is, will Essendon’s unprecedented crisis galvanise it and let it continue to behave, when it gets its players back, as a normal non-broken side in 2017? Or is Essendon’s crisis one that might condemn it to spiral in the manner of Melbourne, Richmond or Carlton in the previous decade?

If they can recover and be “normal” again then they can probably still say that they have a 36% chance of a top 4 berth within three years, with an 84% chance of at least playing finals again in that space of time.

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