The fixture for the 2020 AFL season has landed, and with it the chance to predict and prepare for another year of footy.
Fixture day on the AFL calendar takes on slightly more significance than in many other codes due to the inherently imbalanced nature of the competition. With 18 teams each playing 22 matches, the simple maths suggests some teams will play the good teams more often than others.
Add in the burdens of travel in a (nearly) national competition and there’s no question that the league’s schedule can make or break a team’s chances.
But when first poring over the AFL’s calendar, it can be a little bit tricky to ascertain exactly how helpful or hairy the draw is. Luckily, the data can do that for us.
Every year, a couple of teams get lucky or unlucky and their “top” and “bottom” double opponent sets turn out much weaker or stronger than anticipated. As such, it is almost certain that these projections will not exactly match reality.
In 2019, Geelong had just about the easiest fixture in the league, despite preseason appearances, because their double opponents Melbourne, Hawthorn and Sydney all tumbled down the ladder after being finalists the year prior.
Ignoring lopsided travel implications, the schedule is kinder to several teams and harsher on an unlucky few. We can measure the strength of teams by actual wins and losses, and also by how much each team scored and conceded in 2019.
We can do this by comparing the strength of schedule to a “fair draw”, which is the draw where all teams face each other once only. This is the strength of all possible opponents.
On wins and losses, the Dockers have caught the biggest break, with them, the Swans and the Demons all facing teams about half a win worse than under a fair draw.
Sydney are helped by only facing sixth-placed GWS from 2018’s top six, while Fremantle and Melbourne have three fellow bottom-six opponents.
At the other end of the scale, the Eagles have the misfortune of facing three preliminary finalists, and their opponents are 0.6 wins better than under a fair draw.
Last year’s percentage paints another picture
Using pure wins and losses as the only metric for judging teams can be misleading. For example, a team that lost five games by one point each, may be a better team than a side that lost four games by 50 points each.
Therefore, a team’s overall percentage can better account for luck and can tell us how many games a given team “should” have won, rather than how many times they registered four points on the ladder.
For instance, we can observe that Essendon making finals with 12 wins and 95.4 per cent might still be a bit weaker than the Bulldogs on 12 wins and 107.2 per cent.
Using the 2019 percentage of opponent sets to measure strength, West Coast still look to be the most disadvantaged in 2020, but joining them is Hawthorn, whose “weaker” double opponents include Sydney (97.7 per cent), North (99.5 per cent) and Port Adelaide (105.4 per cent), all of whom had percentages better than finalist Essendon.
At the other end of the scale, Adelaide’s opponents look like they may be weaker than ladder position suggests, with the Crows rating as getting the fourth-biggest handicap from the fixture due to Essendon, St Kilda and (surprisingly) premiers Richmond having weak percentages.
So how has the AFL done effectively handicapping its fixture? Using these methods, a few things are clear. Brisbane got lucky, with the eighth-hardest fixture on either measure, relative to a fair draw, despite finishing in the top four last year.
Carlton can feel a little hard done by, with the 17th-ranked side merely getting a middle-of-the-road draw. And the Swans and Demons, tumbling to the bottom four after finals the year before, have gotten some of the strongest help from the fixture as they try to rebound quickly.
The other games to look out for
After perusing your own team’s draw and deciding how stitched up they’ve been, the second thing you’ll probably do is look for the genuine blockbusters scattered through the year.
You’ve already got the big games locked into your personal viewing schedule — Anzac Day, grand final rematches, local derbies and grudge matches — but how about some slightly less obvious games worth keeping an eye out for?
Games like Brisbane v Richmond in round eight at the Gabba, which will be the first Friday night match played in Brisbane since 2013, and a chance for the Lions to respond to their elimination final loss.
Or the round 10 clash between the Crows and Blues at Adelaide Oval, which will give Eddie Betts a chance to return to face his former side and reclaim the pocket that he made his own.
There are some other tasty reunions on offer, like Tim Kelly’s return journey to Geelong with West Coast in round 16, newly minted Saint Brad Hill taking on his former Freo teammates in round 10 and Alex Keath’s trip back to Adelaide in round 12 with the Bulldogs.
And then there’s the Joe Daniher Derby in round two, as the Swans host the Bombers and the key forward they failed to recruit. A weird night awaits for Daniher at the SCG.
Also noteworthy is West Coast’s round 22 clash with Collingwood at Perth Stadium. On the Friday night, it’s the first match post-Olympics, and with the league and broadcasters wanting to make as strong a return to primetime as possible, they’ve opted for a replay of the 2018 grand final.
There’s big games everywhere you look, basically. It’s OK to start getting excited.