The weekend after Brisbane rolled a potential finalist and two weeks after lowly Hawthorn shocked Adelaide, focus has naturally sharpened on the evenness of this year’s competition. We’re here to add to the chorus saying yes (this great piece by The Arc has more international context), this is a really even year.
It looks even more compact than it did earlier in the season, as frontrunners Adelaide, Port Adelaide and GWS shrink back to the pack and the worst teams rally.
One measure of evenness would be the number of teams in premiership contention. Typically, we label as premiership contenders any team sitting above a rating of 105% (actually 104.96% thanks to the Bulldogs last year). On that bar we’re actually down on previous seasons, as there were 7 contenders in 2016.
However, given how relatively weak the top sides look this season, we’re sceptical that our 105% rule really holds right now. This is a season made for exceptions and runs of form by otherwise unconvincing sides.
We can see visually how this season compares to past years in terms of the positions of the best and worst sides, as well as the compactness of the middle tiers:
Visually, this is clearly a very bunched-up year in a way that hasn’t happened for a number of seasons. It is also marked by a lack of significant frontrunners or massive strugglers.
No team is anything near as bad as 2013 Melbourne and GWS, for instance. Notably for premiership talk, there’s presently no lone bolter like the otherwise even 2007 or 2000. We wonder whether a fit GWS would have been capable of filling the role of 2007 Geelong or 2000 Essendon in this very open season, but this has not so far been the case.
Some more specific numerical representations of evenness are presented below. We’ve looked at the gaps from the top teams to other teams, and how far back the worst team is, as well as the average distance from mediocrity:
We can note for 2017 so far:
- The league wide gap from first to last is as low as it has been since 1998.
- Within the best 8 teams (note these are not necessarily the ladder top 8) the gap was last lower in 2003
- The top 4 isn’t as even as last year’s very close race but is still quite close historically
- The last place team isn’t particularly close to the 8th best side
- Teams are, on average, closer to the median team rating than any time since 2002.
We can also look at this in terms of ranking the last 20 seasons across the measures:
1998 is the only year that was ranked as more even than 2017, with most other years falling down on various measures either due to dominant teams or hopeless stragglers.
On most measures, we can see that in general, the last decade (back to 2007) was more uneven than the decade before it. 2011 and 2012 were the worst years for competitive equality because of the weak expansion sides, but this doesn’t explain everything. The era in general was marked by less parity among teams, including within the cohort of finalists and top 4 sides.
It’s too early to call 2017 a state shift in the AFL towards greater competitive balance, but most of us surely welcome the early signs.