The Extra Word on … equalisation in sport

Updated: April 22, 2014

Welcome to this regular TIW column, highlighting some of the stories and results that have caught the punting eye of editor-in-chief Sean Callander.



The terms “sport” and “equalisation” go together about as well as meatballs and ice cream. Equalisation is the latest buzzword in several sports, most notably the Australian Football League. Outgoing chief executive officer Andrew Demetriou deemed it to be the most important issue in the competition today, and no-one with AFL media accreditation is going to argue otherwise. It’s a tricky balancing act for sports to keep fans coming through the turnstiles, keep stakeholders satisfied both in terms of on-field success and revenue while maintaining the illusion of the contest’s integrity. It’s a particularly relevant topic for sports bettors as it creates an extra layer of complexity when handicapping teams and leagues. It also provides us with a massive edge in cases where the tools of equalisation are ignored, misused or blatantly breached.

One of the most obvious examples of equalisation that plays into the hands of astute punters is horse racing. In a handicap race, all runners should (theoretically) cross the line at the same time. But trainers and owners have made a mockery of this system, dating back to the famous example of Even Stevens. The talented New Zealand stayer was kept off the racetrack for months before the release of weights for the 1962 Caulfield and Melbourne Cups. He was given a featherweight in both races and duly won the double. The Cup remains arguably the best example of a handicap race that favours the punters as the compressed weight scale (meaning minimum and maximum weights are applied) means that it’s genuinely handicapped.

Major League Baseball is another intriguing example of where equalisation measures are applied, and fail, dismally. In the superb book Moneyball, Michael Lewis highlighted the plight of the Oakland Athletics, who outperformed high-paying franchises such as the New York Yankees, LA Dodgers and Texas Rangers in the late 1990s and 2000s despite having a much lower payroll. Lewis’ argument focused on the ability of the A’s general manager Billy Beane to use different measuring tools to assess the strengths and weaknesses of players and inefficiencies in the market. Sure, the A’s won a stack of regular season games in that period but in the past 15 years, only the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies have won a World Series when paying less than USD $100 million. And of the luxury tax applied when payrolls surpass USD $178 million, one franchise – the Yankees – have contributed a staggering 88.66 per cent of all the tax collected.

Soccer is one game where equalisation is rarely applied. International club competitions make it almost impossible for restrictions to be placed on player salaries in Europe. But it’s not like the various European competitions suffer as a result. Despite the dominance of a handful of clubs in each domestic league, crowds have not declined. In the English Premier League, the average attendance at games in 2013-14 has been 35,921. That’s the second highest figure in League history, and only marginally the average attendance of 36.076 in 2007-08. That figure has been attained while Manchester United suffers its worst league campaign in 1995. Or consider Germany, where crowds fell only 5.5 per cent this season despite the absolute dominance of Bayern Munich, which wrapped up the Bundesliga title with a staggering seven games to play!

But equalisation can work in soccer leagues. In 2004, the Football Federation of Australia replaced the antiquated National Soccer League, which comprised clubs mostly representing different migrant groups and communities, with the A-League. The new competition featured 10 new entities, a salary cap, equitable draw and marquee structure allowing clubs to sign a limited number of elite level players. There’ve been teething problems for the new league but on a macro level, it’s been a tremendous success with six different clubs finishing on top of the league in the past 10 years, and five going on to win the Grand Final. Three clubs have failed (Gold Coast United, New Zealand Knights and North Queensland Fury) due to a lack of finances but even the lowest-placed clubs in the A-League are reasonably competitive.

Coming up with a league as competitive as the A-League is an impossible task for the AFL unless some massive changes are made. The League already has the mechanisms (fixturing, draft and salary cap) in place to significantly level the playing field. The fixture is a complete joke and will remain so until all sides either play each other once or twice. Then there’s the case of basket case clubs like the Bulldogs requesting as many games against the bigger clubs to maximise their gate takings. Despite doing away with the laughable (and successfully exploited) priority pick system, the draft remains compromised by an unfair father-son exemption that would never stand up to a challenge in court. And there are still clubs are still paying well below 100 per cent of the salary cap, and their even examples of clubs not reaching the salary floor.

Final word: Of course the irony of all this discussion about equalising the AFL competition flies in the face of reality. Through the first five weeks, there is only one side that has won all its games (Geelong) and one side that has lost all its games (Brisbane). Fourth-placed West Coast and 15th-placed Footscray are separated by just one win. Expansion clubs Gold Coast and GWS have won three and two games respectively, while the popular choice for wooden spoon, St Kilda, lies less than two per cent outside of the top eight. So how much equality is enough?

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