THERE'S NO DOUBT the most common argument I hear from those desperate to downplay the importance, and value, of the Brownlow Medal is that "it's only a midfielders' award." I've always got two responses whenever I hear it.
Firstly, well, yeah, it sort of is. Considering the majority of the league's top players play in the midfield -- 64% of my preseason 50 best players were midfielders -- it's hardly surprising they receive the plaudits and accolades, right? Secondly, the other AFL awards regarded by some folks as a tier above -- the coaches' award or the players' MVP -- in terms of importance and prestige, are awarded to midfielders equally as much. Which brings me right back to the first point!
There are over 250 listed midfielders and mid-forwards in the league, so just claiming it's a midfielders' award is a little simplistic. Instead, what kind of midfielder wins this award? And what are the attributes required to be a Brownlow Medal winner?
In recent years, Champion Data has developed a 'Premiership Standards' matrix which provides an indicator for all teams on how they are tracking in a given season, in comparison to the 10 most recent premiers. There are 32 key metrics it takes into consideration, everything from scoring to defence, territory to midfield prowess. They are the areas which are viewed as critical to flag success.
With the help of Champion Data, we've taken that concept and adapted it to the Brownlow Medal. We've looked at the 15 most recent winners of the award and where they ranked in key areas, which has led us to discover some staggering trends.
This exercise is to give you an indication of the metrics field umpires value most and what they notice when out on the ground.
KEY: D - disposals, T - tackles, CP - contested possessions, UP - uncontested possessions, CL - clearances, CC - centre clearances, I50 - inside 50s, MG - metres gained, SI - score involvements
The biggest takeaway from this data is the contested possession rate amongst these winners. Only once in the last 15 years has a player not ranked in the top five (yet even in that outlier year Dane Swan ranked 11th) for contested possession. Interestingly, none of them had actually been the No. 1-ranked in this category. Perhaps not a great omen for Marcus Bontempelli, who led the league in contested possession this season!
It's also clear the field umpires value contested possessions far higher than uncontested possessions. Only four of the last 15 winners have ranked in the top 10 for uncontested possession, while three of the last eight haven't finished the year in the top 50.
The other areas which appear to be non-negotiables when it comes to winning a Brownlow Medal are disposals and clearances. Every winner since 2008 finished top 30 in disposals, with only two players not in the top 13. For clearances, each of the last 15 have ranked in the top 20, 14 of them in the top 10. All 15 players also ranked top 15 for centre bounce clearances.
FUN FACT: Nat Fyfe is the only Brownlow Medal winner in the last 15 years to not rank top 20 in turnovers in the year he won the award (2015 & 2019).
What this data also suggests is that in order to win the award you must rank top five in at least two of these key categories. You also need to, at the absolute minimum, rank top 10 in three of these areas, though realistically it needs to be four or more.
So, how does this season's crop of favourites stack up to the Brownlow Standards?
According to bookmakers, and every predictor you're likely to stumble across, these are the 10 players expected to be right up the pointy end on Brownlow night (excluding ineligible players such as Caleb Serong and Zach Merrett).
If we know you must rank top five in at least two categories, we can remove co-favourite Nick Daicos, as well as Zak Butters, Tim Taranto and Toby Greene. We can then remove those who don't rank top 10 in at least four areas, which leaves us with just Bontempelli, Christian Petracca and Connor Rozee.
We all know Daicos missed the final three games of the home and away season through injury, but for him to fall so short of these standards and not rank top 10 in any metric is still quite surprising. It also highlights how he will have to buck a serious trend if he's to take home the award.
You might wonder why a player such as Matt Rowell, who finished 2023 ranking No.1 for tackles, No. 2 for contested possession, No. 2 for clearances and No. 7 for centre clearances, is currently a $1,000-1 shot to win the award when he, like Bontempelli and Petracca, nails the Brownlow Standards. But that non-negotiable of ball winning lets him down, with Rowell ranking 65th in the league for disposals this year. Think about it, if he was somewhere around the top 20, he'd likely be widely considered a genuine chance.
So Bontempelli, Petracca or Rozee? The Brownlow Standards suggest one of them will take 'Charlie' home. It's difficult to look past Bontempelli, who checks just about every box history says is required. ESPN's predictor also has Bontempelli going one better than in 2021, when he finished runner-up to Ollie Wines.