The problem with always hosting the AFL grand final at the MCG
Ever since the AFL evolved from a suburban Melbourne league to a national sporting behemoth, football fans have argued about the competition inequalities: The draw, the draft, the money, the travel.
And, in grand final week, the thorny issue of home ground advantage.
It's a given that no matter who's playing, the showpiece match will be held at the MCG, the spiritual home of Australian Football.
And will be for some time. The AFL has a deal to stage the match at the MCG until 2057.
This year that Home Ground Advantage (HGA) has been given to Collingwood, despite the Pies finishing below West Coast on the ladder and losing to them in the finals series.
It's been the same story in each of the past four grand finals: a lower-ranked Melbourne side facing the higher-ranked team from inter-state — and on all of those four occasions, the local team won.
Despite that history, West Coast remain confident that the travel to "host" in a home away from home this year won't prove decisive — after all, they're the experts on the road.
"I think the guys would fly to the moon if they had to play in an AFL Grand Final," said West Coast's assistant coach and former Eagles and North Melbourne star, Drew Petrie.
And yet, the case against playing at the MCG has some merit, especially when the numbers are crunched.
"In terms of fairness, I think the argument from the maths of it would be that it's probably not fair to the interstate teams," Sports data analyst Darren O'Shaughnessy said.
|AFL Grand Finals (winners in bold)|
|2014||Sydney Swans (1st)||Hawthorn (2nd)|
|2015||West Coast Eagles (2nd)||Hawthorn (3rd)|
|2016||Sydney Swans (1st)||Western Bulldogs (7th)|
|2017||Adelaide Crows (1st)||Richmond (3rd)|
|2018||West Coast Eagles (2nd)||Collingwood (3rd)|
Research conducted by O'Shaughnessy and his peers on HGA has unearthed some interesting statistics.
Home teams win in the AFL more than 58 per cent of the time during the regular season.
He concludes that 35 per cent of HGA is due to the effect on umpiring, "which is actually less than in other sports," said O'Shaughnessy, "but it's still significant."
That equates to approximately 1.5 to 2 free kicks per game in favour of the home team against an interstate side — or up to three or four points of a total ten-point home ground advantage.
Then there are the intangibles.
Footballers are beasts of routine and one thing that can disrupt that is playing away from home, particularly when it involves a change in time zone.
Creature comforts play a role too: waking up in your bed, drinking out of your coffee cup, following that same path on your morning stroll.
Right down to the hallowed MCG turf, they can all have an impact on grand final day.
"The former Australian Rules footballer and 1970 grand final hero Ted Hopkins always said the foreign turf and soil conditions were significant," O'Shaughnessy said.
"The breeze is different; the grass is a different length — all those things come into it."
The golden ticket
The good news for West Coast fans this weekend is that the advantage is not quite as pronounced on grand final day as it is during the home-and-away season, given the HGA is most often attributed directly to a usually one-sided crowd.
AFL Grand Final ticket allocation
Capacity of MCG will be approximately 100,000
|Competing Club members||16,000 – 40,000|
|AFL Clubs (18)||0 – 7,000|
|MCC Reserve||16,000 – 26,000|
|AFL Members||13,000 – 23,000|
|AFL/Medallion Club Members||3,000 – 5,000|
|AFL Entitlements/Contractual Obligation||5,000 – 30,000|
|Competing Clubs||0 – 5,000|
"A lot of the people attending on the day aren't actually supporters of those two clubs," says O'Shaughnessy.
"That is one of our theories for what suppresses the home ground advantage [on grand final day] — there's just not as much partisan noise, even if it's Collingwood turning up for that one day in September."
That is not to say that absolute equity is produced by the suits and celebrities.
The reality is that even with the enormous number of corporate and "neutral tickets" up for grabs on grand final day, many of those will be sold or passed on to desperate supporters of one of the two sides playing.
And when one group of supporters is a tram ride away as opposed to a five-hour red-eye flight, it's little wonder that the crowd on Saturday will be overwhelmingly full of Collingwood supporters.
But the MCG holds 100,000 …
Despite the perceived and statistical disadvantage meted out to non-Melbourne teams, however, the counter-argument for hosting the grand final at the MCG itself has compelling — many say indisputable — strength.
"The MCG is the home of Australian sport", so the argument goes. It's where football was born, it's the tradition. Where else would you play it?
And anyway, before a ball was bounced all competing teams knew the road would eventually lead to Melbourne. There is no surprise element. The goalposts haven't been shifted.
And while West Coast have a shiny new stadium that can fit in 60,000 punters and be a fine arena for a grand final, what would the reaction be if, say, the Suns' ladder placing gave them hosting rights in some distant future and a grand final had to be held at the 25,000 capacity Carrara Oval?
So what, if anything, is the alternative?
"You either go to a Super Bowl system where you auction off the right to hold that final each year where it's going to be a neutral venue, or it's going to be, by chance, one of the teams.
"Or you just go for the team which was highest ranked on the ladder," concluded O'Shaughnessy.
"And there's logistics with that because it's a festival of football for that week, but I'm sure we'd manage it."
That theory would be up for robust discussion, and even dismissed out of hand by traditionalists.
The debate over Melbourne teams being gifted rather than earning home advantage for grand finals itself has become as much a part of the week's rituals as the parade.
What is certain is that change is not on anyone's agenda. West Coast and their fans, like others before, will just need to go the extra mile to secure the flag this year. And another 30, at least.