From the SCG to Kardinia Park — do ground sizes contribute to the end result in AFL games?

Hang around the outer, or the TV, long enough and you’ll hear talk of how the grass changes men. Or, more precisely, the lack of it.

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From its very start the rules of Australian Football were imprecise to one of the core features of the sport. The original rules merely said that the ground should not be more than 200 yards (182m) wide, with the length to be determined by agreement of each captain. Aside from the kick out posts — 20 yards on each side of the goal — the space that footy occupied was haphazard.

Since then the places that footy is played has changed to the march of time. Paddocks of space have been gradually enclosed by grandstands, occasionally with urban infrastructure shaping ground sizes.

In the smallest state of Tasmania, the grounds tend to be on the smaller side, with North Hobart Oval only just longer than 150m. In the farmland of the Murray, grounds push the 200m mark, acres of space both on and off the ground. And in Adelaide wings are often square, fitting in between city streets.

Differences also exist in the modern day AFL, with no two grounds exactly the same. Each ground has its own fingerprint on the game itself.

How does the ground shape the type of footy game played on it?

The most important place in the world

When footy in Melbourne gets talked about, the MCG is often at the heart of the conversation. Long held up as the standard setter for AFL venues, the MCG is the widest ground in current use. It sits among other short and wide grounds in the northern states, all with relatively expansive surface areas.

There was also more variability in the VFL era, with the narrower grounds like Kardinia Park and Glenferrie Oval in the mix with the gigantic Waverley Park.

Recent decades have seen the league trend towards things being more standard.

For example, the formerly postage stamp sized SCG has been progressively lengthened since 2007. Now, the Swans’ home is a pretty typical ground of the “short, wide, high area” variety like the Gabba or MCG.

A low angle shot of an AFL men’s 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 game between Collingwood and Melbourne
Low camera angle of the MCG during an AFL men’s game between Collingwood and Melbourne. (Supplied: Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson)

Despite this, most fans still think of the SCG as being a small ground. A big factor in this is the placement of the cameras at the ground, shifting the perspective of it. Due to the smaller grandstands and heritage character of the ground, the angle of the standard sideline shot at the SCG compresses the action, making the field seem tiny.

Stadia built this century, such Docklands, Perth Stadium, Giants Stadium and the rebuilt Adelaide Oval, have all been examples of a new sensitive middle. They’ve collectively set a sort of modern orthodoxy — a bit narrower and a bit longer than the MCG — but not as extreme as the notoriously long Kardinia Park or Subiaco.

Is size anything?

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

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

On longer grounds, the goal is a few meters further away from both the middle and the other goal. That fact means that teams have to work a tiny bit harder to get the ball inside 50, and get shots on goal, with the average disposals for both slightly higher. For the more statistically minded, the effect is pretty small and the relationship is not uniform.

Even though this effect is small, it might be the biggest effect that ground size alone has on the modern game.

Another area often cited is that bigger grounds mean more open space for players, and less congestion. While it seems logical that more total space would create more uncontested footy, the data tends to indicate otherwise.

There’s little relationship between smaller grounds and a larger share of contested possessions. The reason for this is likely down to how football is played now at the top levels.

Instead of the full length and breadth of the ground being used at all times, play is usually compressed into an area about the size of a soccer pitch. This area shifts depending on the location of the ball and the team in possession but rarely exceeds that loose area.

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The effective spacing of players on both sides of the ball is critical given the use of advanced zone and pressing defenses. Players are rarely positioned more than two and a half kicks away from the play, as opposed to staying near their “field” position.

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That means that congestion is an almost constant presence on the game, despite the size of the broader ground. This also likely impacts the other stylistic elements of the game, such as the ability for players to find space for uncontested marks and the impact of tackles on the game.

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Instead, it is team tactics and game plans that have a far bigger effect on how games look and are played.

But there might be one exception to this.

Aerial view of Kardinia Park's Reg Hickey stand wing against Moorabool Street
Kardinia Park’s Reg Hickey Stand wing is flattened up against Moorabool Street.(Supplied: Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson (Google Maps))

Pivotonian pride

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

Long and narrow, Kardinia Park is the most unique ground right now. It has a wing that has been clipped straight, reminiscent of the suburban Adelaide grounds. Despite the uniqueness of the Park, little distinguishes it from other grounds statistically.

While Geelong has largely played an idiosyncratic style in the past four years, they have largely played the same way at and away from Kardinia, including while COVID hubbing outside Victoria in 2020.

Geelong found success since 2019 by making sure they retained possession, picking defenses apart with kicks to open teammates. On defence, the Cats have shown an innate ability to cover space and close off opposition targets, with help defenders almost always arriving in the nick of time.

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

There is one distinct effect present at Kardinia, however. The narrowness of the ground means that there are more throw ins proportionally compared to ball ups than at any other ground. Strangely, other narrow grounds don’t share this trait, indicating it might be down to the oddly shaped wing or the wind howling off 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 game of football. Phrases like “a four goal wind” have entered the lexicon, indicative of when you are pushing it uphill.

The physical location of a ground is one of the few ground impacts on the game — especially where games are held in wet cities or wind tunnels. Docklands, with its climate controlled dome conditions, plays differently to the mudpit that was Glenferrie.

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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 sizes speaks to the intent of the founders of the game — that the players make the game, and 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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