A handicap system for the AFL?


James has thrown down the gauntlet on my previous post. What should the AFL do instead of its biased and gamable draft system?

The answer – move to a handicap system!

Hang on. Give this a go. It works for the Melbourne Cup. It works for the Stawell Gift. It could work for the AFL.

First, get rid of the draft pick rubbish – just have a salary cap (if you must.  As a Carlton supporter I reminisce about the good old days when you could just buy a premiership team).

Second, each team gets a handicap rating at the beginning of the season. The rating is based on a random choice of 16 rounds from the previous year (to avoid tanking because you do not know which rounds will count to the handicappers). The handicappers set a ‘starting score’ for each team. The highest ranked team (last years premiers) start on zero. The second team from last year might start on 6 points, etc. Last year’s wooden spooners might start on, say, 30 points. The aim, as with all handicap systems, is to make each team ‘even’ in terms of chances of winning.

The handicap applies for each home-and-away-round. So if team A has a handicap of say 8 points and team B has a handicap of 20 points then a home-and-away game between teams A and B would start with team A at ‘zero’ but with team B already having 12 points or the equivalent of two goals on the score board. Given that ‘head start’ there would be an even chance of either team winning.

This handicap system achieves the AFL’s objectives of an even competition every year. All fans will want to support their team – even if it came last the previous year, it could come first this year because of the handicap system. No more waiting for those ‘young recruits’ to mature.

And every home-and-away clash becomes a potential tight contest. Imagine the thrill to see if, say, Geelong, can chase down the 30 point lead that Melbourne starts the match with!

So James – a well tested approach from other sports could work for the AFL.

The handicap would be fixed through the season rather than updated on a match by match basis. Updating would confuse the Collingwood fans.

What about the finals? Haven’t worked that out yet. And, as a Carlton supporter, I have to have something to keep me busy until the season finishes and puts us out of our injury-ridden misery.

14 Responses to "A handicap system for the AFL?"
  1. Stephen,
    Firstly: Carlton? eesh.
    A drawback to your proposal is that supporters will watch every game where the scores don’t start from zero. I suspect this will reduce the appeal. But why not randomly select these handicap points as you suggest, then apply those to the draft pick?

  2. Wouldn’t this still encourage teams to tank at the end of the season? If you won’t make the finals, better to at least have the most losses so you have the highest chance of the best handicap the next season.

    Yes, regulation is difficult.

  3. The incentives of any draft pick based system are always going to encourage tanking, and you see it in every sport that uses a draft. Actually, the NBA uses a lottery system, wherein all the teams who failed to make the playoffs/finals have increased odds for landing the 1st/2nd/3rd overall pick depending on how poorly they performed the previous year. Teams still tank, but not nearly as hard as they do in the AFL (or the NFL, for that matter, which simply gives the top pick to the worst team, 2nd pick to 2nd worst etc…)

    However, the proposed handicap system you’re suggesting would address yearly competitiveness, but not long term competitiveness. Consider the following two hypothetical cases:

    1. A team has some key players injured, and so has a down year. The following year, these key players return AND the team gets a handicap.

    2. An otherwise middling team receives a handicap that means it wins a number of games that it shouldn’t have. The following year, without this handicap, the team gets smashed again.

    In case 1, legitimate teams who lose a few players would simply tank to gear up for a supercharged season the following year. In case 2, the mediocre team basically trades years where it does well (with a handicap) with years where it does poorly (without a handicap).

    Ideally, you want a system that gives every team a legitimate chance to win a championship; if anything, you want to get away from the days where you could just buy yourself a premiership, as that’s the least competitive outcome you could get.

    In this respect, despite the rampant tanking that exists in the NFL (the most recent season involved teams trying to “Suck for Luck” in order to draft No. 1 pick Andrew Luck), the league has been relatively competitive in its history.

    Tanking is the lesser of two evils in this case.

  4. This is the dumbest idea I have heard yet. You must be joking.

    I am not sure why I am doing this, but let me treat it seriously for one second. It would not stop tanking, because it would incentivise a middle-ranking team like North Melbourne to tank one year so they could win a flag the year after with a five-goal start in every game.

    Try harder.

  5. hi everybody,
    Wouldn’t this still encourage teams to tank at the end of the season? If you won’t make the finals, better to at least have the most losses so you have the highest chance of the best handicap the next season.

    Yes, regulation is difficult.

    best regards..

  6. Better than a random selection, why not just base the draft picks on performance over the *first* 16 games of the season?

  7. Regulation is difficult, but so is cooperating. Remember we are talking about whole a team and potentially a large part of its organisation. Stephen’s suggestion was “a random choice of 16 rounds from the previous year”. No player knows which game will be counted. A team would need to agree to tank almost an entire year to be assured of the handicap. This would be a struggle. And if not, the team probably deserves the handicap!

  8. This idea is superior to the draft in that it addresses imbalances across teams in the short-term, whereas the draft addresses these imbalances in the medium-term.

    However, as someone has mentioned, it fails to take into account a significant factor that affects each team’s performance across a season: injuries.

    A clear example of why this wouldn’t work well: West Coast finished last in 2010, and fourth in the following year. Imagine if they started every game in 2011 with a 30 point head start…

  9. I agree with William, the NBA lottery system does a pretty good job of working against the tank.

    But also having really dud recruiters helps even things up. look how well Melbourne has done from their tanked draft picks and look how well Collingwood has recruited with no draft picks.

    In AFL, the draft picks in the top 10 work out much more than they dont. But its not necessarily the no. 1 pick who is the star.

  10. Handicapping in a league – an interesting yet preposterous idea, but consider this: So long as a competition organiser has the ability to set the fixture, it can achieve a similar result.

    Closer examination of the NFL rather than horse-racing would be advisable – the NFL has parity scheduling so that the stronger (weaker) teams from season t – 1 play more games against stronger (weaker) teams in season t.

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