It’s an awkward time to be A-League chief David Gallop. On the one hand, he has to acknowledge Brisbane’s amazing season of dominance, which, by common football practices across most of the world, should already have delivered them a championship. At the same time, he has to talk up this weekend’s A-League grand final, where Brisbane will encounter Western Sydney, and the very real possibility that their work in the first 28 games of the season (like Besart Berisha‘s below) may be undone by bad luck in the last.
Not everyone likes it. Australian Rules devotees are willing to see grand final favourites who lose – North Melbourne 1998 and Geelong 2008 are two recent examples – as somehow lacking what it really takes to be a winner. Football fans feel differently.
I’ve deliberately said “bad luck” in the earlier paragraph, although, of course, a bad performance would have the same outcome. But – as researchers Gerald Skinner and Guy Freeman discovered in 2009 – football is a sport more influenced by luck than many others.
The best way to understand luck in sports is to invent an imaginary sport with very few random elements – say, a competition where you stretch to reach the highest possible spot on the wall without jumping. The victor will – almost invariably – be whoever has the best combination of height and arm length. If person A is taller and lankier than person B, who is taller and lankier than person C, then – in the absence of unexpected shrinking, physical collapse or arm detachment – we can be confident that in competition A will defeat B and C, and B will defeat C, close to 100% of the time; or to look at it from the opposite direction: A defeats B, B defeats C, C defeats A (which researchers call an “intransitive triplet”) will happen close to 0% of the time.
The opposite of this would be a coin-tossing competition. If A, B and C toss coins for victory, intransitive triplets happen 25% of the time. It’s a counter-intuitive figure. I thought it would be 50% until I mapped out the result sets myself – the intransitives in red, 2 out of 8, or 25% of results.
Intransitives exist in all sports, to some degree. Skinner and Freeman examined world cup “triplets” not involving draws, and found that 12% were intransitive – making the winning of a competitive football match halfway between a certainty and a coin-toss.
[Note to self – reading back over the research summary, in The Numbers Game, I didn’t find what I expected: comparison figures for sports. There were studies on the success of favourites in multiple sports (football favourites fare relatively poorly), and gaps between odds for favourites and underdogs – but nothing for this particular study. So, at a minimum, I’m going to go back and repeat the experiment with AFL data.]
This surprised me when I read it, although I suppose I’ve always known it intuitively – as has any football fan who’s ever seen a game decided by the award of a dodgy penalty (or a legitimate one denied), a fluky own goal or a streaky goalkeeping performance.
I’ve often wondered if it was this intuition, or just historical practice and the difficulty of resolving draws (or a combination of all of these and other reasons) which has made the use of playoffs and finals a rarity in football league competitions – although, it should be pointed out that various sorts of playoffs have been welcomed and celebrated, merely for those shorter competitions identified as being the most important in the sport (the World Cup, European Champions League, all of the Confederation championships and more). Leagues that use playoffs to identify their champions (Australia, US, Canada) are those keen to create an “occasion”, as they’re in sporting markets where they don’t have a strong share of viewer attention, and a final creates a showpiece and, hopefully, some media time.
So, the A-League needs its grand final, even though it may produce an unjust result. However, here’s an idea which would enshrine a finals series, and still guarantee the championship to the league’s deserving first place-getter.
As highlighted by the league table above, there’s more at stake than just the championship – finish high enough, and there’s a place waiting for you in the AFC Champions League (to be precise: two places in the AFCCL, one in the qualifiers). So, rather than putting at risk the championship, why not make places in the AFCCL the prize? It is, after all, already a competition with a knockout element – so, you can make the local preliminaries as brutal as you like, and all you’ll be doing is foreshadowing what’s to come for the successful teams. And if it seems unjust to settle AFCCL qualification this way, surely it’s an improvement on using a similar scheme to settle the entire championship?
Any number of formats suggest themselves, starting with the choice of whether to include the newly-crowned champions, or hand them their AFCCL place along with the trophy. Here’s a few to consider; in all of these, to give further value to whole-season performance, I’m also suggesting that in the event of a draw (or a draw after extra time? Take your pick), the victory be given to whichever team finished higher in the table, and home games throughout for higher-finishing teams.
Regardless of which method you pick, the advantages of finishing higher on the league table are clear – adding even more spice to those end-of-season matches.
So, it’s over to you David. You can have playoff drama, with a real prize, but the best team still wins the championship and you’ll get no hate-mail from Brisbane fans. What do you say?Follow @newstatsman