Close Games in VFL/AFL History: Do Successful Teams Win Them?

Recently, we've looked at the history of margins, of blowouts, mismatches and upsets, and the history of conversion rates. Today we'll be looking at the history of close games, which I'll define as games that are decided by a goal or less.

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Is the Competition Getting More Competitive?

We've talked before about the importance of competitiveness in the AFL and the role that this plays in retaining fans' interest because they can legitimately believe that their team might win this weekend (Melbourne supporters aside).

Last year we looked at a relatively complex measure of competitiveness that was based on the notion that competitive balance should produce competition ladders in which the points are spread across teams rather than accruing disproportionately to just a few. Today I want to look at some much simpler diagnostics based on margins of victory.

Firstly, let's take a look at the average victory margin per game across every season of the VFL/AFL.


The trend since about the mid 1950s has been increasing average victory margins, though this seems to have been reversed at least a little over the last decade or so. Notwithstanding this reversal, in historical terms, we saw quite high average victory margins in 2008. Indeed, last year's average margin of 35.9 points was the 21st highest of all time.

Looking across the last decade, the lowest average victory margin came in 2002 when it was only 31.7 points, a massive 4 points lower than we saw last year. Post WWII, the lowest average victory margin was 23.2 points in 1957, which was the season in which Melbourne took the minor premiership with 12-1-5 record.

Averages can, of course, be heavily influenced by outliers, in particular by large victories. One alternative measure of the closeness of games that avoids these outliers is the proportion of games that are decided by less than a goal or two. The following chart provides information about such measures. (The purple line shows the percentage of games won by 11 points or fewer and the green line shows the percentage of games won by 5 points or fewer. Both include draws.)


Consistent with what we found in the chart of average victory margins we can see here a general trend towards fewer close games since about the mid 1950s. We can also see an increase in the proportion of close games in the last decade.

Again we also find that, in historical terms, the proportion of close games that we're seeing is relatively low. The proportion of games that finished with a margin of 5 points or fewer in 2008 was just 10.8%, which ranks equal 66th (from 112 seasons). The proportion that finished with a margin of 11 points or fewer was just 21.1%, which ranks an even lowlier 83rd.

On balance then I think you'd have to conclude that the AFL competition is not generally getting closer though there are some signs that the situation has been improving in the last decade or so.