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As non-Victorian teams rise, crowds will play active part

IN CASE you hadn't noticed, football's pendulum of ascendancy seems to be swinging back to its median position, if not quite yet to the non-Victorian side thereof.

The preliminary final at ANZ Stadium next weekend will be the first such game played away from the MCG in five years. The minority interstate shareholding has this year achieved a 50 per cent stake in finals positions and could yet end a six-year flag-drought. While it's a bit early to suggest Victoria's recent days of domination are done, some telling signs are appearing.

Most notable is the rapid rise of West Coast, Adelaide, and Fremantle. Each had slumped to the bottom-four as recently as the past three seasons yet, right now, you wouldn't rule any of the trio out of 2013 premiership contention. Once they get their act together, the well-resourced interstate clubs appear more capable of a rapid rebound than do Victoria's battlers.

A scarcely observed quirk of last week's games was that they bucked the recent trend of domination by home teams. Three of the four matches involved travel and two of the invaders were successful. Of the previous 15 finals involving interstate match-ups, all but one had produced home-ground victories.

Significantly, the two travelling winners were non-Victorian, while the one forced to lick its wounds on a plane trip home was bound for Tullamarine. Teams of quality manage the business of travel, and seem to do so even more reliably in September.

Last weekend's successful travellers also defied what has been statistically assessed as the greatest bugbear of teams on the road: the trend of the whistle against them.


Between them, Geelong and Adelaide were awarded 53 per cent more free kicks than their conquerors, Fremantle and Sydney. That is an extraordinarily high figure but one that highlights the general trend of the 2012 season, perhaps that of most seasons.

While this is an issue warranting more extensive statistical research - and is one, it must be stated, that implies no impropriety on the part of umpires - the numbers for the past season tell an interesting story.

In games in which one team had a clear home-ground advantage (not including those in Canberra, Darwin and Hobart, nor all-Victorian games other than at Geelong), the teams playing at home - according to my calculations - received 9.3 per cent more free kicks than their opponents. Not only that, they received the higher number of free kicks in 69 games compared with 48 for the team in hostile territory.

Interestingly, the flow of numbers through the season suggests the umpires' coaches may be watching these trends. Rounds of matches in which the whistle statistically favoured home teams to a marked degree were usually followed by a correction in the next week or two.

For example, 23 per cent differentials in favour of the home team in rounds two and eight were immediately followed by a couple of weeks in which roughly equal numbers were delivered. Invariably, though, the earlier pattern would soon be restored.

These figures correspond with research provided in the book Scorecasting by American duo Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim. The former is a behavioural economist, the latter a writer for Sports Illustrated, and their book explores - among other issues - the mystery of home-ground advantage. As I've written previously, the authors reported that it was almost eerily constant through time.

Moskowitz and Wertheim observed that travel doesn't seem to be the issue because teams from the same town, such as Everton and Liverpool, with home grounds a mile apart, produce the same 60-40 home-and-away result split as those whose meetings require cross-country travel, and performances by away teams haven't improved as science, aeroplanes, hotels and the budgets to pay for them have.

They assessed the impact of fans on performance by comparing the statistics of home-and-away teams at identical and measurable tasks such as free throws in basketball or penalties in soccer. There was no difference.

Regarding the likelihood that umpires are swayed by crowds, Moskowitz and Wertheim reported that the players of ''away'' teams are more likely to receive ''red cards'' when there is a big crowd at the game. Even more compelling is the finding that the likelihood of statistical distortion is reduced on pitches where an athletics track puts greater separation between the crowd and the contest.

I repeat: the above is not to suggest anything of AFL umpires other than that they are human and appear to respond just like other humans in the same role in other parts of the world. It does suggest, though, that the difficulty of travel in football has a real basis and it's not quite what might be imagined. It also suggests that the syndrome whereby umpires are inclined, at least marginally, to be swayed by crowds is hard to rectify.

The message, then, is to the fans. As the non-Victorian teams rise once more, there will be many great battles to be won and you have a part to play. So be of good and loud voice, as you can make a difference.