AFL – Does having the bye give an unfair advantage in the next round?

The 13th placed St Kilda Saints defeated the top-of-the-table Geelong Cats on the weekend, and by doing so opened a can of worms regarding the AFL bye structure. As it stands now, there are three bye rounds in which six teams will have the bye which translates to six games each week.

After the Saints toppled the Cats, the question of fairness during the bye rounds has been hotly debated in the football community. The Saints had come off a 13 day break due to their bye, whilst the Cats, who did not have a bye, had just seven days to prepare for the encounter. This led to outrage about teams coming off the bye versing a team that did not have the extra rest in the previous week. Add to this Adelaide defeating a North Melbourne team that had six less days break and had to travel interstate and the furnace was lit for a heated debate regarding bye fixtures.

Since 2012, there have been 53 occasions where teams coming of the bye have played non-bye teams. In these matches, the bye or ‘rested’ teams have won just 47% (or 25) of those 53 games. This statistic disproves conventional perception that the bye yields a ‘rest’ advantage which translates into a winning encounter. Clearly there are other contributing factors when it comes to winning football games.

Genuine Losses vs Upsets

To get a better idea of how the bye affects results, ladder position must be taken into account. This is due to the fact that hypothetically, each of the 28 games that the team coming off a bye has lost could be simply due to them playing a better team. As such, ladder position is taken into account and four types of results are seen.

  1. The higher placed team (favourite) coming off the bye win
  2. The lower placed team (underdog) coming off the bye win
  3. The favourite coming off the bye loses
  4. The underdog coming off the bye loses

The second and third category of results are key for this analysis as these categories will give a greater insight into whether the bye induces more abnormal results or upsets.

The Underdog Coming off the Bye Wins

Firstly, a look into the nine teams that have won as underdogs (based on their ladder position at the time) coming off the bye.

AFL BYE

So far in 2016 there have been two theoretical upsets, however Adelaide defeating North at home – where they have won six from seven so far this season – is hardly a surprise, especially seeing as some consider Adelaide the better side.

When looking at the 2015 results, it is clear that they are both genuine upsets. Sydney were heavy favourites at home even though they were just two spots ahead of the Cats and Port Adelaide finished the season nine spots above Carlton and were clearly the superior team.

In 2014, all of the results appear to be genuine upsets. Richmond finished the season in eighth and were a much better team than their 15th spot suggested at the time, whilst Sydney won the game by 110 points – a shocking result considering it was 2nd verses 4th. However on closer inspection, Richmond had eight more scoring shots in their match and probably should’ve won, Brisbane finished the year with as many wins as Carlton, and Adelaide were just one win ahead of the Blues. Whilst these games were upsets, it is clear that there were mitigating factors in each result.

There were no upsets in 2013 and in 2012 second placed Collingwood were at home and defeated top placed West Coast by just three points. This can’t be considered an upset.

The Favourite Coming off the Bye Loses

Next, a look into teams higher on the ladder and coming off the bye that lost.

Year Favourite (coming off the bye) Ladder Position RESULT Underdog Ladder Position
2015 North Melbourne 11 lost to Gold Coast 18
2014 Geelong 3 lost to Fremantle 7
2013 Sydney 5 lost to Port Adelaide 8
2013 Geelong 2 lost to Brisbane 14
2013 Collingwood 7 lost to Port Adelaide 8
2012 St Kilda 8 lost to North Melbourne 9

In 2015, losing to bottom feeders Gold Coast is inexcusable for the Kangaroos who finished the season as Preliminary finalists. However, in 2014, Geelong losing to Fremantle cannot be considered an abnormal result. Geelong had issues playing the Dockers at home during this era and both teams finished the season in the top four. Similarly, in 2013 Port Adelaide winning both games at home cannot be considered abnormal, as they finished the season seventh; just one spot behind the Pies and just three behind the Swans. Brisbane defeating Geelong, however, is a huge boilover considering the Cats were second on the ladder and were eventual Preliminary Finalists. In 2012 when considering ladder positions and the fact that the Kangaroos went on to make finals and the Saints didn’t, this is hardly an upset.

So, in 53 games there’s just five genuine upsets from teams coming off the bye (9% of games) and two losses from favourites coming off the bye. If all results are considered, an outcome of an underdog fresh from the bye defeating a team playing through has occurred 9 times (or 17% of games), which is fairly consistent with how often upsets occur in the normal season.

This shows that statistically there is little or no advantage to teams coming freshly off the bye and that despite all the talk about the inequality and unfairness of the draw at this time of year, it is simply not the case.

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