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From the SCG to Kardinia Park – do ground dimensions contribute to the end result in AFL games?

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Hang around the outside long enough, or the TV, and you’ll hear talk about how the grass changes men. Or rather, the lack of it.

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From the very beginning, the rules of Australian Football were imprecise to one of the main features of the sport. The original rules only said that the ground should not be more than 200 yards (182 meters) wide, with the length to be determined in consultation with each captain. Aside from the kickers – 20 yards on each side of the goal – the space Footy took up was haphazard.

Since then, the places where footy is played have changed over time. Paddocks of the space are gradually enclosed by grandstands, occasionally with urban infrastructure determining ground dimensions.

In Tasmania’s smallest state, the terrain tends to be on the small side, with North Hobart Oval only slightly longer than 150m. In the Murray’s farmland, the grounds push through the 200 yards, acres of space both on and off the ground. And in Adelaide, the wings are often square, fitting between city streets.

There are also differences in the modern AFL where no two grounds are exactly the same. Each ground has its own fingerprint on the game itself.

How does the ground determine the type of football played on it?

The most important place in the world

When talking about footy in Melbourne, the MCG is often at the center of the conversation. The MCG has long stood as the benchmark for AFL venues and is the widest ground in use today. It sits among other short and broad tracts in the northern states, all of them relatively expansive areas.

There was also more variety in the VFL era, with the narrower terrains such as Kardinia Park and Glenferrie Oval in the mix with the gigantic Waverley Park.

In recent decades, the competitive trend has become more standard.

For example, the former stamp-sized SCG has been gradually extended since 2007. Now the home of the Swans is a fairly typical soil of the “short, broad, high surface” variety like the Gabba or MCG.

A low angle shot of a men's AFL game at the SCG during Sir Doug Nicholls Round
A low angle shot of a men’s AFL game at the SCG during Sir Doug Nicholls Round. Supplied: Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson
Low camera angle of the MCG during an AFL men's match between Collingwood and Melbourne
Low camera angle of the MCG during an AFL men’s match between Collingwood and Melbourne. Supplied: Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson

Despite this, most fans still consider the SCG to be a small field. A big factor in this is the placement of the cameras on the ground, which shifts their perspective. Due to the smaller stands and the historic nature of the ground, the angle of the standard sideline shot on the SCG compresses the action, making the field appear small.

Stadiums built this century, such as Docklands, Perth Stadium, Giants Stadium and the rebuilt Adelaide Oval, have all been examples of a new sensible middle. They’ve collectively established a kind of modern orthodoxy – a little narrower and a little longer than the MCG – but not as extreme as the notoriously long Kardinia Park or Subiaco.

Is size something?

Given the differences in ground sizes, the average gambler could reasonably expect vastly different styles to dominate on different grounds.

The reality is that the effect is more muted than perhaps in years past.

On longer grounds, the target is a few feet away from both the center and the other target. That fact means teams have to work a little bit harder to get the ball inside 50 and get shots on target, with the average disposals being slightly higher for both. For the more statistically minded, the effect is quite small and the relationship is not uniform.

Even though this effect is small, it is arguably the biggest effect that only the ground has on the modern game.

Another area that is often mentioned is that larger grounds mean more open space for players and less congestion. While it seems logical that more total space would create more undisputed footy, the data usually points to something else.

There is little correlation between smaller lands and a higher proportion of disputed possessions. The reason for this is probably due to how football is now played at the highest level.

Instead of using the full length and width of the ground at all times, the game is usually compressed into an area the size of a football field. This area shifts depending on the location of the ball and the team in possession of the ball, but rarely exceeds that loose area.

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Effective distance between players on either side of the ball is critical given the use of the Advanced Zone and Defense Wires. Players are rarely more than two and a half kicks from play, as opposed to staying near their “field” position.

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That means that congestion is almost constantly present in the game, despite the size of the larger terrain. This likely affects the other stylistic elements of the game as well, such as the ability for players to find space for undisputed markings and the impact of tackles on the game.

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Instead, it’s team tactics and game plans that have a much greater effect on how games look and are played.

But perhaps there is one exception to this.

Aerial view of the Reg Hickey stand wing of Kardinia Park against Moorabool Street
The Reg Hickey Stand wing of Kardinia Park is squashed against Moorabool Street.Provided: Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson (Google Maps)

Pivotonic Pride

It’s been a good 15 years for Geelong fans, with the Cats experiencing a level of success the club hasn’t seen in at least half a century. The key to that success was their ability to win at home and build a fortress in Kardinia Park.

Long and narrow, Kardinia Park is the most unique terrain right now. It has a wing cut straight, reminiscent of Adelaide’s suburban terrain. Despite the uniqueness of the park, it is statistically little different from other grounds.

While Geelong has largely played a quirky style for the past four years, they’ve played much the same in and out of Kardinia, including during COVID navigation outside of Victoria in 2020.

Geelong found success since 2019 by ensuring they maintained possession and tearing apart defenses with kicks to open up teammates. On defense, the Cats have shown an innate ability to cover space and close off opposing targets, with defenders almost always arriving at the nick of time.

Geelong’s style doesn’t reflect their environment, but it does highlight that they train in both Kardinia and the MCG large oval at Deakin University’s Elite Sports Precinct in Waurn Ponds.

However, there is one clear effect present with Kardinia. The narrowness of the ground means there are proportionally more throws in compared to ball-ups than on any other ground. Curiously, other narrow grounds do not share this trait, indicating that it may be due to the oddly shaped wing or the wind howling from the bay.

Anyone who has braved the elements and donned the colors in the middle of winter knows the impact of wind and rain on a football game. Phrases like “a wind with four goals” have entered the lexicon, indicative of when you’re pushing it uphill.

A ground’s physical location is one of the few ground effects in the game, especially when games are held in wet cities or wind tunnels. Docklands, with its climate-controlled dome conditions, plays differently from the mud pool that Glenferrie used to be.

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The roar of the local crowd also has a small effect, with teams generally doing better with a loud, passionate crowd supporting them and intimidating umpires.

The lack of impact of ground size speaks to the intent of the game’s founders – that the players make the game, not where they play it. A good team will be a good team no matter the size or shape of the ground, which is how footy should be.

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