I recently read an article titled, ‘MLS Parity Is A Myth‘ in which the competitive balance of Major League Soccer was compared to other leagues. Often the parity between the clubs in the MLS is used to defend the league’s restrictive rules and regulations as well as it’s closed model. In fact, this is something that is often played out in debates in the Australian football community with many fearing that if Australia adopted many of the traits of more established and traditional leagues that it’d be the downfall of the competitiveness of the league and death of some of the franchises.
The policies the FFA has in place for the Aleague are claimed to be there to protect the integrity of the league and create parity. It’s argued that these restrictive measures prevent any one team dominating, make individual matches more entertaining, and keep smaller teams economically viable. In many of the discussions I’ve taken part in on the topic, the Scottish Premiership – with the domination of the Glasgow giants, Rangers and Celtic – is often cited as what we don’t want to become.
Scotland’s championship has been somewhat of a fait accompli with the relegation of Glasgow Rangers leaving Glasgow Celtic effectively unchallenged for the title. In the time that the Aleague has been in existence, the Scottish top flight has had two champions (Rangers & Celtic) whereas the Aleague has had six premiers (teams that have finished top of the table after the 27 round regular season). That comparison alone puts the Aleague in a much better light in terms of competitve balance. I must point out I’m using the Premier’s Plate as a measure for the Aleague competitiveness as the finals series is more of a shortened and limited cup competition.
What if we look at the other end of the table? The Aleague has had 13 teams (Melbourne City and Heart counted as one) compete in the competition with 8 taking part in the first four seasons and 10 in five of the last six seasons. Last season saw 10 teams compete in 27 rounds while in Scotland 12 teams took part in a 38 round league. The bottom three of the Aleague were the Newcastle Jets, Western Sydney Wanderers, and Central Coast Mariners; in Scotland the bottom three were St Mirren, Motherwell, and Kilmarnock. If winning and competitive balance is important for the interest of the league then Scottish fans of the bottom teams were more likely to see a victory than their Australian counterparts. The Jets won 3 of their 27 games with a winning percentage of 11%, WSW 4 of 27 (15%), and CCM 5 of 27 (18.5%) compared to St Mirren 9 of 38 (23.7%), Motherwell 10 of 38 (26.3%), and Kilmarnock 11 of 38 (29%).
Mathematically speaking the difference between the quality of the teams becomes more pronounced as more games are played. In results against top six opposition the Mariners and Wanderers picked up points against the top 6 on six occasions each with the Jets doing so on four occasions this was overall better than their Scottish counterparts with St Mirren picking up points against the top 6 five times, Motherwell only on three occasions, and Kilmarnock six times.
Despite playing eleven more games the Scottish teams had almost identical goal differences to their Australian counterparts; St Mirren and Jets who finished bottom had -36 and -32 respectively; Motherwell and Wanderers finished second bottom with -25 and -15; and Kilmarnock and Mariners who finished third bottom in their leagues had goal differences of -15 and -24. This would indicate that overall the individual games in the Scottish league were more competitive.
The Scottish league is as mentioned above often used as the extreme case of one-sided competitions amongst the open and less regulated leagues. How do other leagues from around the world stack up as far as competitive balance is concerned versus the Aleague? Below are the bottom three teams from the last completed season.
Premier League (England, 20 teams, 38 rounds, 3 different champions in Aleague era)
18. Hull – 8 wins from 38 with a 21% win percentage, -18 goal difference
19. Burnley – 7 wins from 38, 18% win percentage, -25 GD
20. QPR – 8 wins from 38, 21% win percentage, -31 GD
Serie A (Italy, 20 teams, 38 rounds, 3 different champions in the Aleague era)
18. Cagliari – 8 wins from 38, 21% win percentage, -20 GD
19. Cesena – 4 wins from 38, 10.5% win percentage, -37 GD
20. Parma – 6 wins from 38, 15.8% win percentage -42 GD
Ligue One (France, 20 teams, 38 rounds, 6 different champions in Aleague era)
18. Evian – 11 wins from 38, 29% win percentage, -21 GD
19. Metz – 7 wins from 38, 18.4% win percentage, -30 GD
20. Lens – 7 wins from 38, 18.4% win percentage, -29 GD
Tippeligaen (Norway, 16 teams, 30 rounds, 6 champions during Aleague era)
14. Brann – 8 wins from 30, 26.7% win percentage, -13 GD
15. Sogndal – 6 wins from 30, 20% win percentage, -18 GD
16. Sandnos Ulf – 4 wins from 30, 13.3% win percentage, -26 GD
South African Premier League (South Africa, 16 teams, 30 rounds, 4 different champions in Aleague era)
14. Chippa United – 7 wins from 30, 23% win percentage, -14 GD
15. Moroka Swallows – 8 wins from 30, 26.7% win percentage, -17 GD
16 AmaZulu – 6 wins from 30, 20% win percentage, -13 GD
Algerian Ligue Professionelle 1 (Algeria, 16 teams, 30 rounds, 5 champions during Aleague era)
14. MC El Eulma – 11 wins from 30, 36.7% win percentage, +4 GD
15. ASO Chief – 8 wins from 30, 26.7% win percentage, -4 GD
16. USM Bel-Abbés – 8 wins from 30, 26.7% win percentage, -9 GD
*Only 15 points separated 1st from 16th after 30 rounds
Campeonato Brasileiro Série A (Brazil, 20 teams, 38 rounds, 5 champions in Aleague era)
18. Bahia – 9 wins from 38, 23.7% win percentage, -12 GD
19. Botafogo – 9 wins from 38, 23.7% win percentage, -17 GD
20. Criciúma – 7 wins from 38, 18.4% win percentage, -28 GD
J1 (Japan, 18 teams, 34 rounds, 6 champions during Aleague era)
16. Omiya Ardija – 9 wins from 34, 26.5% win percentage, -16 GD
17. Cerezo Osaka – 7 wins from 34, 20.6% win percentage, -12 GD
18. Tokushima Vortis – 3 wins from 34, 8.8% win percentage, -58 GD
*Gamba Osaka were the 2014 Champions the year after winning promotion back to J1
If the saying is true ‘that you’re only as strong as your weakest member’ then the Aleague had a more competitively imbalanced last season than a lot of other leagues. Of course the other leagues play more games giving them more chances to pick up wins but that wouldn’t affect the win percentage if it were a question of relative competitiveness. In theory, less games played should increase the chance of getting a one off result.
With the obvious exception of Scotland, the example of the above leagues would suggest that with fewer teams in a league the chances of winning the league increases. This can also be brought back to the point about the number of games played.
More teams in a league also would test the depth of the talent pool available especially in leagues with foreign player limits. It would also mean that the bigger teams in the bigger markets could attract the better players creating a dilution as you go down the league. As a 1995 report on professional sports leagues found, in a league with a salary cap it becomes even easier for the bigger market teams to hoard the talent as money is taken out of the equation.
But the biggest thing that the numbers tell us is that salary caps and closed leagues do not conclusively help towards improving competitive balance. There are many variables that go towards a competitively balanced competition that introducing restrictive policies to purposefully keep teams from natural growth and becoming stronger are counter-productive and ineffectual to the purpose.
One need only look at Australia as an example of the salary cap and competitive balance myth. The National Soccer League in the first ten years had between 14 and 24 teams and in those ten seasons they had seven different champions. In the final ten years they had between 13 and 16 teams with six different champions. This league had no salary cap and more teams yet the competitve balance at the top was as even as the 10 team, salary-capped Aleague.
Is it time that we put this unfounded fear behind us and removed the restrictions which do little more than hold back the growth of clubs and therefore the league? Without a doubt there’s risk involved, just look at the recent and recurring struggles of Brisbane Roar and Newcastle Jets to name just two. Perhaps it’s the restrictive controls and unrealistic criteria placed on these teams which have led to their struggle? One thing for sure it’s not the fault of a free and open system that relies on each side to survive by their own means.