Should the Premiers have a bigger advantage in the next season?

Should it be so tough to back up?

Winning the premiership is the goal of every team every year. That goes without saying. It is prohibitively difficult for a team to defend that title. This is true of every sport, however, it is especially true in competitions with a salary cap. Some would say it is impossible. Let’s analyse some data. I think there is something wrong with a person who gets excited by that phrase. I can’t help it.

What does the data say?

An obvious caveat must precede my statistical analysis (I use that term loosely) and that is, the following competitions vary widely in terms of competition size. This will obviously have an impact on the percentages to follow. For instance, the NRL currently has 16 teams in the competition whereas the NFL has 32 teams. Don’t like those odds.


The salary cap was first implemented in 1990 in the NRL. Accordingly, I have broken the statistics into pre-salary cap, post-salary cap and total figures for comparison purposes. Where clubs have won more than 2 in a row, each successive premiership has been counted as a repeat premiership for the purpose of this statistical phantasmagoria. So St George repeated 10 times when they won 11 in a row. If that doesn’t skew the stats I don’t know what will.

Repeat Premiers pre-salary cap – 34 from 81 for an overall percentage of 41.97% (note – naturally I didn’t count the first season for obvious reasons)

Repeat Premiers post-salary cap – 3 from 25 for an overall percentage of 12.00% (note – I counted Brisbane’s Superleague campaign for the purpose of this exercise)

Repeat Premiers Total – 37 from 106 for an overall percentage of 34.90%

Takeaways – So marked drop off after implementation of the salary cap.


Obviously no salary cap or player draft but there is relegation so there’s that.

Repeat Champions – 25 from 114 for an overall percentage of 21.92%

Takeaways – Lower percentage probably indicative of the increased number of teams in the competition.


The first player draft occurred in 1936. The salary cap emerged in 1994. Also from 1960 to 1965 professional Football in the U.S was played in 2 separate competitions, the AFL and the NFL. For the purpose of this exercise I have added these competitions, hence why there are 99 seasons rather than 93.

Repeat Champions from 1921 to 1935 – 4 from 15 for an overall percentage of 26.66% (BTW have to love the 1928 champions, Providence Steam Roller, now that is a great name)

Repeat Champions from 1936 to 1993 – 15 from 64 for an overall percentage of 23.43%

Repeat Champions from 1994 to 2013 – 2 from 20 for an overall percentage of 10%

Repeat Champions Total – 21 from 99 for an overall percentage 21.21%

Takeaways – There was a slight drop off post-draft, however, although the sample size is small, there has been a marked drop off after implementation of the salary cap.


Stephen Strasburg - Photo by Scott Ableman - CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Stephen Strasburg – Photo by Scott Ableman CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Obviously no salary cap and draft was first held in 1965. MLB also has the smallest chance of qualification for the post-season out of all of the North American sports which could also explain the low percentage of repeat champions.

Repeat Champions from 1903 to 1964 – 14 from 60 for an overall percentage of 23.33%

Repeat Champions from 1965 to 2013 – 7 from 48 for an overall percentage of 14.58%

Repeat Champions Total – 21 from 108 for an overall percentage 19.44%

Takeaways – There has been a reduction in repeat winners post-implementation of the draft, however, I wonder whether that is more a product of the increase in the number of teams post-1965 rather than any particular impact of the draft.

Why is this so?

I’ve tried to put this in some semblance of order, bearing in mind that different sports are impacted by different factors in different ways. I’ve listed them from biggest impact to least impact.

The Salary Cap – It is fairly obvious that the salary cap has a massive impact on levelling the playing field. That is probably a good thing, given it was specifically designed to do so.

The Draft – I think it is a given that the draft has a bigger impact on some sports than others. The team that wins a title invariably picks last in each round of the rookie player draft. It is trite to say there is a big difference between picking 1st and picking last, especially if 30 or so teams are ahead of you.

The Target – I think one of the major reasons for teams failing to defend their title is the target painted firmly on their back. Every team that plays the defending premiers is psychologically ready for a big game. There are no easy games in the next year for the defending title holders.

Away Games – Away games become better draws for the home team when the champion is in town, enabling them to cobble together a more hostile environment. There are a lot of theories regarding why away games are so much more difficult to win than home games. Five Thirty Eight ran a nice piece which analysed away form, suggesting in the sport of Football, that refereeing favouring the home team might be the single biggest factor influencing home field advantage.

Motivation – It takes a very special team to back up with the same level of intensity in the next season. Defending champions can operate in cruise control at times. That can be a good or a bad thing depending on the situation.

Player retention – It is an obvious thing to say, but from a financial perspective the value of each player in the team goes up following a premiership. This is true whether or not a salary cap is in place. It is then a challenge to retain the same playing group for the following season, especially in a salary cap environment. It is particularly difficult to hold on to a team’s depth. Often it is not only the star players in a team that win a premiership but the depth across the field. Young players who are stuck behind star players in the depth chart might want to increase their playing time and test their value on the open market.

Tactical adaption – Successful teams often employ the most successful tactics (I was just awarded a Bachelor of Common Sense with a Masters in Stating the Obvious but I’m going to bat on anyway). Successful tactics are often copied by the balance of the competition. Pretty soon everyone has adopted the innovation or at least successfully implemented a strategy to nullify the defending champion’s successful strategy.

Representative drain – Teams which have won the title often supply a greater number of players for representative duties in the following season further testing the depth of their clubs.

More games – Better teams play more games. This is especially so for title winners. Whether it is via a greater number of finals/playoffs or whether it involves a deeper run in knockout competitions or forays into Europe when we are talking about EPL, the fact of the matter is that players on title winning teams get more mileage than other teams by a long way.

Time and Chance – Star players are only human and injury is rarely far away in competitive sports. Sometimes a team is 1 injury away from failing.

How can we tilt the field back?

Perhaps the answer to this question should be competitive balance is a desired outcome in itself. Every team is a chance in any given season (well we know that’s not true). At least that is the aim when implementing a salary cap and a player draft. But what if the challenge is just too much for a defending champion. What can be done?

Salary cap concessions – This is probably the area which attracts the greatest debate. The whole reason for the cap is to maintain a balanced competition. Introducing concessions erode the effectiveness of the cap. Introducing a concession for players developed by a team is one thought or an allowance for players who have only played for one team in their career.

Centralised contracts – This deals with the issue of the representative drain on successful teams. Representative top up bonuses are paid by the competition or the country or region that has selected the player enabling greater player retention for good teams.

Concessions within the draw – Defending champions could be granted a greater proportion of concessions within the following season’s draw. Examples of concessions could be greater proportion of games in the preferred timeslots for a team, better balanced travel itinerary or minimisation of short turn arounds.

What other things could be done?

What was sweeter than Jelly Bread?

  • All Blacks vs Wallabies – Maybe every game should be a dead rubber. Both teams looked to attack from the beginning. Made for a good spectacle. I thought the refereeing was quite good as well. Let the game flow. That is never a bad thing.
  • International Rugby League last weekend – Bosnia-Herzegovina 32 vs Hungary 6, Greece 50 vs Serbia 22, Latin Heat 40 vs Portugal 6, PNG 32 vs Tonga 18, Fiji 40 vs Lebanon 28, Ireland 22 vs France 12, Greece 58 vs Bosnia-Herzegovina 4, Serbia 50 vs Hungary 0 and Scotland 42 vs Wales 18.
  • Junior Kiwis 15 vs Junior Kangaroos 14. Oh and the Junior Kiwis won the haka as well, but only just.
  • Nigel Wood (Chairman of the RLIF) has indicated that he intends to introduce a long term plan for Rugby League which is well overdue. He also announced an intention to fast track the development of the second tier nations and also hire a permanent executive independent from the NRL and Superleague (never happened before) which is a fantastic idea. Now while FIFA and the IRB won’t be quaking in their boots that isn’t quite the point. A separate international body with the capacity to champion independent initiatives is a good first step.
  • David Villa. 2 games, 2 goals.
  • Dante Exum. I’m drinking the Kool Aid. So is Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe. He is the real deal.
  • Andrew Bogut’s pre-season diary. Great stuff.

What wasn’t?

  • The lack of televised International Rugby League last weekend. Not cool. I’m relieved to see that Gem are televising Samoa vs England as well as Australia vs NZ this weekend.

Other random thoughts 

Russell Crowe - Photo by Dan Marsh - CC-BY-SA-2.0

Russell Crowe – Photo by Dan MarshCC-BY-SA-2.0

  • Russell Crowe should buy the London Broncos. I’m just putting it out there. The potent cocktail of money, public profile and business connections has propelled Souths from the outhouse to the penthouse. The code in Britain could do with a shot in the arm. That would be a great start. The future health of the code can only improve with the influx of financial interest provided by owners such as Marwan Koukash, Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court willing to invest in a club competition. Folk in Newcastle might disagree (whether in Newcastle, Australia or Newcastle, England ironically). 

EPL Tips for Matchday 9 

Home teams first

West Ham vs Man City – City 3-1 (The Hammers have overachieved all season but City will put them to the sword. Aguero in top form)

Liverpool vs Hull – Liverpool 2-1 (I have no confidence in Liverpool and Hull are frisky and like to punish on the counter. That being said, I think Liverpool will be looking to bounce back after a disappointing week and the confines of Anfield are a good place to start)

Southampton vs Stoke City – Southampton 2-0 (This definitely won’t be 8-0 but I think Southampton will continue to impress. Do you reckon I regret dropping Tadic from my fantasy side last week?)

Sunderland vs Arsenal – Arsenal 2-0 (This game is unlikely to lift the rather grey outlook in the North East. Sunderland will be better but I don’t think they will get a point this week)

West Brom vs Crystal Palace – WBA 2-1 (Palace and West Brom have had similar seasons so far but I expect the Baggies to be slightly stronger at home this week)

Swansea vs Leicester – Swansea 2-0 (After such a bright start to the season (I especially like their midfield) Swansea have disappointed in the last few games, however, I think they will have too much for Leicester who have also been disappointing after putting 5 past Man U)

Burnley vs Everton – Everton 1-0 (I can’t see Burnley staying up this season and although Everton have underachieved this year they will be looking to build on last week’s win against Villa)

Tottenham vs Newcastle – Tottenham 2-1 (I can’t see anything other than the pressure returning on Alan Pardew this week)

Man U vs Chelsea – Chelsea 3-2 (This game should be a cracker. I think Chelsea will exploit any defensive frailties in Man U. Conversely I expect that Man U will find a way to keep this game close)

QPR vs Aston Villa – QPR 2-1 (QPR will be desperate for a win at home this week and I see them getting one against a down on confidence Villa who are coming off three consecutive losses albeit to title contenders Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal)

I’ve adopted the scoring system utilised by Mark Lawrenson on the BBC (a correct result (picking a win, draw or defeat) is worth ONE point and picking an exact score THREE points) and even though he wouldn’t know me from Adam we are going head to head all season long. It’s on like Donkey Kong (unless I get a letter from his lawyer or Donkey Kong’s lawyer and then I’m tipping against myself again).

Last week – Me – 6 ( 6 from 10 with no perfect scores) and Lawro – 8 (6 from 10 with 1 perfect score) 

Season so far – Me – 58 and Lawro – 67 (Lawro handing my bottom to me in a brown paper bag) 

Interesting Comments 

Regarding last week’s post on the next innovation in Rugby League, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen commented regarding Des Hasler’s utilisation of James Graham and Sam Kasiano as ball playing forwards as sound evidence that Des Hasler is the real deal. He won premierships at the Sea Eagles with a completely different model. He is succeeding at Canterbury utilising a very different set of skills. He is definitely not a systems guy. Good point. 

Shout out to the Australian Defence Forces Rugby League Team. Doting Mother Donna Munro wrote a nice piece on the team who have a World Cup next year to look forward to. 

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode on Thursday, 30 October 2014 titled ‘Is American Sport Better than Australian Sport and English Sport?’


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