General Footy Writing: A good hard look at free-kick figures for travelling teams

By Dave Warner

Hi fellow footy enthusiasts, welcome to my analysis of AFL umpiring 2009.

Halfway through the year I sent a missive to my football cronies that set out how for years I’ve had a feeling that AFL umpires are biased to home teams when games are played between clubs of different states.  I’ve also had a hunch that Victorian teams don’t suffer as much when they play interstate, as non-Victorian teams do when they play against Victorian teams or other non-Victorian teams on their home grounds.   Usually I’m following Sydney or the Dockers and like all fans I believe my team has had the rough end of the pineapple, but I thought it was time to look at some statistics to see if I had any reason for my grumbles or if I’m just a paranoid, one-eyed footy fan.

My protocol was to divide the games played into four categories:

1. SAME STATE V SAME STATE . This is when Victorian teams play one another, the Eagles play the Dockers and the Crows play Port.

2 VICTORIAN HOME TEAM V VISITING INTERSTATE TEAM

3 INTERSTATE TEAM V VISITING INTERSTATE TEAM

4 INTERSTATE TEAM V VISITING VICTORIAN TEAM.

The first category is the biggest and should provide the base-line.   That is, if there is no extra bias against Interstate Teams, then the other three categories should reflect what the stats show in category 1.

I was looking at three prime sub-sets of statistics:

A) The total break-up of free-kicks between the Home team and the Visitor.

B) In how many games the Home Team got more free kicks than the Visitor, and most important of all

C) How often the Home Team got significantly more fee kicks than the Visitor.  I define significant as 60% or more of the total free kicks paid in the game.

So here’s what I found for 2009.

CATEGORY 1: Same State v Same State pans out at 52% of frees in favour of the “home” side and 48% to the visitors.   Next, the Home side receives more free kicks in games about twice as often as the Away side.   And the Home side receives significantly more free kicks in twice as many games as the Away side.

Conclusion – there is a definite Home Team bias.

This is surprising given that the Vic teams are often playing at a very common venue like Etihad. Even so, the umpires favour the Home Side.

But now the critical question is WHETHER VISITING INTERSTATE TEAMS ARE TREATED THE SAME AS AWAY VICTORIAN TEAMS PLAYING IN VICTORIA.

In CATEGORY 2 the breakdown is 53% of frees to the Vic Home Teams and 47% to the Non-Vic Away Teams.  So Interstater Visitors do fare worse than local Victorian Visitors.   In terms of how many games favour the Home Side in total free kicks, the stats show that Visiting Interstaters do better than the control group of local Vic Away Teams. The ratio is still very much in favour of Home Side bias but it runs about 1.5:1 rather than the 2:1 of Category 1.

HOWEVER when it comes to significant games, the Visiting Interstaters are slaughtered 12:2.   Of the 14 games between Home Victorian and Visiting Interstate Teams in which there was a significant difference in free kicks, 12 were to the Home Victorian side.   The two occasions in favour of the Interstate side were to the Dockers when they were thrashed by Collingwood and Melbourne.  (I call this the sympathy effect.)

The stats indicate that while Visiting Interstate sides might get more free kicks in some games, it will be by a piddling margin, while in significant differentials the bias is overwhelmingly in favour of the Home Victorian sides.

Does the same happen to Victorian Teams when they play Away Interstate (category 4) Interestingly, the answer is a resounding NO. Vic Away teams got 49% of the free kicks vs 51% to the Home Interstaters.  In other words, VICTORIAN TEAMS PLAYING INTERSTATE GET A BETTER DEAL THAN VICTORIAN TEAMS PLAYING AWAY IN MELBOURNE!

On the stat B ranking, the proportion of games in which the home side gets more frees than the away side, bias in favour of the Home Interstate sides was almost identical to that of the Home Vic sides in CATEGORY 1.   So, the Home Interstate sides got more frees than the Vic Visitors in twice as many games but clearly the margins were small.  When you look at significant games, the split was 5 to the Home Interstate sides and 4 to the Away Victorians.

Once again, on this stat, VICTORIAN TEAMS PLAYING INTERSTATE GET A BETTER DEAL THAN VICTORIAN TEAMS PLAYING LOCAL GAMES AWAY IN MELBOURNE!

When you look at CATEGORY 3 however, INTERSTATE SIDES PLAYING EACH OTHER, you get the same results as CATEGORY 2.   53% of frees go to the Home Side, and 47% to the away side.  Significant games were 5 to 1 in favour of the Home Interstate Side, and the Home side got more free kicks in twice as many games as the Visitors..

Conclusion: Visiting Interstate sides are significantly disadvantaged whether playing in Victoria or any other State.

In fact in terms of significant free kick games the stats run 17 to 3 against the Visitors.   The worst position in footy is to be an away interstate side.

OVERALL CONCLUSION FOR THOSE WHO HATE READING STATS

Umpires favour the home side wherever the game is played. HOWEVER, Victorian teams do significantly better from the umpires compared to Interstate teams.  When Vic teams travel interstate they in fact do better than when they are the “away” side playing other Vic teams.  When it comes to games with a large disparity in free kicks (“significant differentials”), Interstate away sides fare very badly.

That’s the objective fact.  From half-way through the season when I first looked at this matter I began to pay particular attention to what it was the umpires were actually doing that translated in this free kick differential. My own subjective analysis, not backed with stats but purely my observation, is that the biggest problem facing Away Interstate sides is that umpires simply don’t pay the Holding The Ball rule against the Home side.  I saw numerous examples where the Away side was penalised and yet the Home side was not penalised for exactly the same infringement.

Is the crowd affecting these decisions? I’m not sure but it is clear that the umpiring department is simply failing in its duty to umpire fairly.

Mind you, I have not broken down the stats to see whether the bias is restricted to a small group of umpires. This would be an excellent next step in analysing the data.

The stats also throw up other interesting points and debunk football myth.  For instance, the suggestion that the good sides get more free kicks because they play in front.  While St Kilda in particular, and Geelong did benefit most from the umpires, Richmond were often big winners even when thrashed, and Collingwood heavily punished even though they spent most of the year in the top 4.   The Dockers were at the polarity of the free kick range, either getting the most or the fewest. Like Richmond they tended to get swamped with free kicks in their favour when they were being thrashed.   This I call the “sympathy effect.” Perhaps it reflects the lack of courage of umpires who will pay more free kicks in the backline than the forward line, or maybe they just feel sorry for these dud teams?

As I suspected, the Swans were shown to be the most heavily punished Interstate team when playing the Vics, with the Crows next worst off.

Perhaps we can agitate enough to get the AFL to monitor the umpires next year and ensure a truly level playing field.

Dave Warner

Comments

  1. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    Dave,

    I heartily concur. The Swans are crucified each week by the umpires – even in Sydney!

    I reckon the following lyrics from Suburban Boy are still amongst the best on footy:

    “I go to the football to cheer for my team,
    I go to to the football just to hear myself scream,
    I’m just a suburban boy”

    Of course, the lyrics from “Half-Time-at-the-Football’ would not get past the moderator…

    Rocket

  2. Interesting, Dave.

    I did a similar analysis mid 2006 of frees through 2005-06 (1.5 seasons worth).

    At that stage, in games between non-Victorian teams and Victorian teams played outside Victoria, the free kick statistics finished up in favour of the home (non-Vic) team 30 times, the away (Vic) team 30 times, and 7 times the frees were even.

    In games between non-Victorian teams and Victorian teams played in Victoria over the same period, the frees were in favour of the home (Vic) team 37 times, the away (non-Vic) team 14 times, and 3 times the frees were even.

    When 2 non-Victorian teams played, the stats were 50-50 as to who got the most frees (home or away).

    So it’s not a 2009 anomaly, but something deeper than that.

    I don’t know if it’s a chicken or the egg thing. As some teams (thinking particularly of our cousins out west) are very different propositions at home and away, would it be expected that they won’t be in a position to win the frees on the road? Are some umpires more aware of not being influenced by the baying masses at Footy Park or the Gabba than they are at Docklands?

  3. To quote Homer Simpson, “Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forfty percent of all people know that!”

    It would be interesting to see the raw numbers. What does a 6% difference in the free kick count actually boil down to? It feels like it would be about one extra free kick in half the games, which is hardly an appreciable bias.

  4. Rod Gillet’s comments should be taken with a grain of salt. He crucified the Abu Dhabi Falcons a number of times thus further propagating the sympathy for the devil umpires have for travelling/overseas teams.

    The fact that Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and as there are 4 teams based here that makes us the Victoria in the ME-AFL (Middle East). Unfortunately that fact does put a hole in my argument.

    Hats off to all umpires. It’s a thankless task. Let’s see if the Falcons get a better deal this year! :)

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