Much a-dew about nothing: Are the slippery Queensland conditions affecting footy games?

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If you’re the sort of person who is taking time out of your day to read this, then you’ve probably watched a fair bit of footy in 2020.

And if you’ve watched a fair bit of footy in 2020, you’ve almost certainly seen quite a few games played in south-east Queensland, several of them at night, under the floodlights.

And if you tick all of those boxes, at some point during at least one of those games at the Gabba or Carrara Stadium, you’ve probably noticed the added humidity in that part of the world leads to more dewy conditions, which makes the ball more slippery and harder for players to handle.

The awarding of the grand final to Brisbane, and the subsequent decision to play it at night for the first time, has brought concerns about this phenomenon to the forefront, with the likes of Kane Cornes and Mark Ricciuto warning of a low-scoring and aesthetically inferior decider.

A back view of a modern flood light at a sports stadium on a dark night.
The Gabba lights will be shining on the 2020 AFL grand final.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

To the naked eye, those fears are justified.

Watching some of these evening Queensland games has been a painful experience, as otherwise skilful players seem to turn to fumbling and scrambling messes with a ball that resembles an oversized cake of yellow soap.

But is the dewy, humid, slippery conditions actually changing the game? Are they really making for lower-scoring, more congested, and less skilful games? Or is the eye test deceiving us?

Is the dew really making any difference?

To find out, let’s look back over every game played since round 10. By that point, all teams were hubbing it up either in Queensland or sporadically in WA, and the games were coming thick and fast.

We’ve split the data into two categories: night games at the Gabba and Carrara, and day games at those grounds plus all games in Adelaide and Perth.

For the sake of the exercise, games in Cairns and Darwin have been left out, as their locations make their conditions somewhat of an outlier.

It may be an imperfect system, but here’s what it showed us.

The first thing to note is there is no real discernible difference in scoring.

Low scores have been on the agenda all year, and while there are plenty of pretty logical reasons for why scoring has been so down in 2020, it seems venue hasn’t really been a factor.

Likewise, accuracy in front of goal is basically the same across the board, suggesting a slippery ball is not to blame for those wayward set shots.

Here’s where things start to get interesting.

Conventional wisdom suggests a slippery game is a more congested game, with fewer marks around the ground, and much more of a scrap around the contest.

But the numbers suggest the difference in average marks per game is negligible — and if anything, there have been more marks taken after dark in Queensland — while tackle numbers are clearly lower in the dew than elsewhere.

However, the split between contested and uncontested possessions suggests a couple of things, the first being that there are generally slightly more possessions overall away from south-east Queensland.

But there is also a (admittedly very minor) boost in uncontested possessions when the conditions are more dry.

Reading between the lines a little, it seems the slippery ball isn’t making an impact on marking or scoring, but it may be stopping teams getting the ball moving in uncontested situations.

Crucially, this is backed up by the respective kick-to-handball ratios.

The evidence seems to imply that kicking is the order of the day when the sun sets in Queensland, while a more run-and-gun, handball-happy style of play is better suited to drier conditions. Makes sense.

On the whole though, there is very little difference in overall disposal efficiency between the two sets of data; the conditions may be changing the way teams are playing, but they aren’t really making them any more or less skilled.

So which teams will benefit?

The first, and probably most important, thing to note here is there is very little difference between the two sets of data, and very little statistical difference between games played at night in Queensland and those not.

That is the main takeaway here, that concerns about the conditions negatively affecting the game appear to be overblown.

But if we’re working under the assumption that a night Gabba grand final — and however many night Gabba finals are played before that — slightly suits teams that are less reliant on handball and are better at winning contested balls and marking, on paper the big winner is Geelong.

The Cats are the best kick-mark team in the league this year, and are the third best team for contested possessions.

Gryan Miers and Sam Simpson high-ten each other as a North Melbourne opponent walks past
Geelong have handled Queensland conditions well and look primed for a finals run.(AAP; Darren England)

Geelong is a low-handball team and does its scoring using methodical transition from defence and from stoppages — something else that is particularly useful at the Gabba.

The Cats have already played plenty of those slippery Queensland night games this season, and it’s no surprise they’ve won almost all of them.

Port Adelaide is another that could stand to benefit, mostly off the back of its contested game, which is league-leading this season.

And when it comes to avoiding the handball, no team is more kick-conscious than the Lions who average the fewest handballs per game of any team in the league. Local knowledge of the conditions is clearly guiding their game style.

All of which is to say any advantages received by teams due to a bit of dew will be minimal.

The frustrating optics haven’t translated to remarkably different games and, regardless of conditions, the best team is almost certainly going to be the one left standing at the end.

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