Does a neutral venue lessen a GAA favourite’s chances?

26 May 2019; Referee Niall Cullen, nine Kildare players and seven Longford players watch as the ball bounces between them, in the second half of extra time, during the GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Longford and Kildare at Bord na Mona O’Connor Park in Tullamore, Offaly. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The mail which landed a couple of weeks ago caught the eye pretty quickly.

“The assumption across the board is that the venue really does matter and playing at a neutral ground would reduce the advantages the team favoured to win a given match enjoy,” it read. “However, until now we had no systematic evidence regarding how the venue itself influences the chance that the favourite wins any particular game.

“We therefore examine two important questions in our research, recently published in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport.

“First, do home comforts actually provide a meaningful advantage and positively affect a team’s chances? And second, might there be benefits in playing games on neutral grounds in fostering more competitive balance?”

Authors Liam Kneafsey and Stefan Müller decided to look at data sets close to home, writing: “As the GAA regularly uses neutral grounds for matches, we have an excellent opportunity to examine if neutral venues actually do produce less predictable results.

“We analysed all 3,500 senior men’s inter-county competitive games from 2009 to 2018. Almost one in three championship matches and 10% of league matches over this time were played at neutral venues.”

This was enough to get your correspondent to take out his phone. Kneafsey, of Trinity College Dublin, was in New York (for the Mayo-New York football game, as it happens), but Müller was happy to talk from his post at the University of Zurich. There was the obvious opening question, which was answered in a rich German accent.

I attended secondary school in Tipperary for half a year, that’s where my passion for hurling and Gaelic football started, when I was in school in Fethard in Tipperary. I had a great time there

“I was always watching hurling and football. I did my Master’s and PhD in Trinity College Dublin and lived near Croke Park. I watched all the games on The Sunday Game, went to matches in Croke Park, and so on.”

Fair enough. He met up with Kneafsey when they were studying political science in TCD and, when they chatted about writing a paper about home-field advantage and the impact of neutral venues, Gaelic games were a natural focus, because of the unusual mix of both home-and-away and neutral fixtures.

“It’s absolutely unusual, which is what makes it immediately interesting from an academic point of view,” said Müller. “There isn’t another sport which has so many matches played in neutral venues.

“There’s always a lot of talk about the home advantage, so from an academic point of view we’d look at this in terms of a counterfactual: What would happen if there wasn’t home advantage?

“This can really be measured in Gaelic football and hurling, because not only are there games in neutral venues, there are home and away games played also.

Beside our interest in the games and in contributing something to that, we also wanted to create an academic piece on neutral venues.”

At its blandest, the case for neutral venues for games is based on trying to achieve competitive balance within competitive structures.

“It’s absolutely a balancing mechanism both for championship and league games. We analysed all competitive senior inter-county matches between 2009 and last year’s All-Ireland finals and we had very similar results across both sports and over the years.

“Our data set was collected by Gavan Reilly — who is now a political reporter with Virgin Media News — he collected all the match results and also had a formula to determine the favourite in each of the matches: The Elo system.

“We looked at the percentage of games that were won by the favourite team, we estimated the proportion of games won by the favourite team as an away team; the favourite team playing away on average wins about 55% of the matches, but playing at home it wins about 80% of the matches, but a favourite team playing at a neutral ground wins around 65%, so it’s a real strong effect, playing in a neutral venue.”

Their report states: “The size of this effect is comparable to home advantage in many sports. Stronger teams are obviously more likely to win matches, regardless of where they are played, but home advantage still matters. Home field advantage in these cases can make a win for the stronger county a near certainty. So, do neutral venues reduce the stronger team’s advantage? The dataset allows us an indicator about what team was considered the favourite for each match, based on a measure that takes into account team strength and previous match results.”

Did they expect, for instance, that hurling and Gaelic football produced pretty similar results?

“I was surprised,” said Müller. “We didn’t have an idea of what exact direction the effect would take, but we were surprised it was true in both sports.”

Unsurprisingly, Müller recommends the GAA maintain the use of neutral venues to ensure that competitive balance survives.

“Absolutely, that’s the punchline of the paper, the report. It’s just the design of the GAA that makes some counties stronger than others, obviously, and to balance that neutral grounds should definitely continue to be used.

“The GAA might even extend the use of the neutral grounds to make it easier for supporters to travel to matches, to maybe allocate a match to a venue which is between two counties in terms of attendance, not to mention making the games less predictable and more balanced.”

The report offers an endorsement of the GAA’s scheduling ethos, stating: “It turns out the GAA fixture-makers have it right. There is strong evidence that neutral venues lead to less predictable competition... Neutral grounds decrease the chances of the stronger team winning, both in hurling and football, than if they had home advantage. A favourite in football wins 68% of matches on neutral venues, in hurling the favourite won only 64%.

“Put simply, the favourite wins around eight out of 10 matches at home, but only 6.5 out of 10 matches at neutral venues. In many ways, the GAA has already been ahead of the curve in taking home advantage seriously.

“However, this is becoming even more important as the advantages in coaching and resources for a small number of Division 1 teams have made a large number of games very easy to predict.

“Compounding these inequalities by giving these teams home field risks making the vast majority of their games utter foregone conclusions.

“If the GAA’s aim is to create more competitive balance with its reforms of its biggest competitions, more matches at neutral venues could be one of the most straightforward ways to do so.” Fair enough.

How are the academics of Zurich taking the focus on games in McHale Park and Clones and Semple Stadium?

“They find it great,” said Müller. “In academia, you often just work within your discipline, so doing interdisciplinary work, using advanced qualitative methods, regression analysis, and so-called matching analysis, which looks for similar games in the data set to measure the impact of neutral venues... They were absolutely delighted to see these matters also relate to other subjects. It’s a substantial research question which may have an impact on Irish sport.

“They don’t know hurling and football, though I’ve explained them. I’ve explained them very often.”

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