Numbers game: ranking systems - it's complicated

Confusing as they may be ignore rankings at your peril –they can have a major impact

Golf rankings are done over  a rolling two year period, hence the current flip-flopping of Rory Ilroy and Jordan Speith that seems so incongruous with current results. Photograph:Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Golf rankings are done over a rolling two year period, hence the current flip-flopping of Rory Ilroy and Jordan Speith that seems so incongruous with current results. Photograph:Jamie Squire/Getty Images

 

Who is the best? Well, it’s complicated. Rory McIlroy will return to the top of golf’s rankings next week without playing a stroke. Ireland’s rugby team recently soared to second in the World Rugby rankings, plummeting to sixth just weeks later. Welsh footballers reached the top ten of Fifa’s rankings for the first time. A great achievement, but how do we know what all these ranking systems really mean?

Chess has long had a system to rate players. The Elo rating system, named after its creator Professor Arpad Elo, is based on two parties completing a contest against each other after which the winner takes points from the loser. The amount of points transferred between the players depends on their own rankings going into the contest, with an underdog winning being awarded more points than a victory by a heavy favourite.

Many rankings systems are derivations of Elo’s work, with details changing such as weightings to take into account home advantage, for example, or certain tournaments defined as being especially important.

There isn’t even agreement on the best way to run a tournament in team sports. America likes to package its sports entertainment monopolies into smaller divisions leading to the hype of the play-offs. European club football prefers to reward the marathon of the season-long league, not simply a well-timed finishing sprint. But football has its cups too, at least when they don’t get in the way of European competition (which comes, as it happens, in the shape of a hybrid league/cup).

Rugby union’s top level club competitions can’t even agree on the best way to run a bonus point system, while at international level the Six Nations rejects the notion entirely.

Incongruous

Where world rankings are concerned it’s a similar story. Take a simple thing; the amount of time taken into account to produce a player or team rating. Tennis rankings produced by the ATP are done over a rolling one year period. For golf it’s a rolling two years, hence the current flip-flopping of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Speith that seems so incongruous with current results.

 

Fifa uses four years of match results, weighting recent matches more heavily. The current Uefa coefficients go back to the start of the qualifying competition for Euro 2012; we’ll hear much more about their mysteries if Martin O’Neill’s men get close to a play-off spot, given that they’ll be used to determine play-off seeding.

Fifa’s rankings deem a friendly result to be worth just 25% of the weighting of a match played at the World Cup finals, with games in qualifiers or other finals tournaments (ie Euro 2012) awarded weightings in between.

World Rugby’s rankings system awards a double weighting to matches played in the Rugby World Cup but, outside that, a Test match is a Test match. Is that fair, especially considering some of the lineups picked in some of these World Cup warm-up matches? Should a Six Nations match be more important than a summer encounter with second stringers?

When determining what team is best over the long run it’s not clear that the atmosphere in any bar will ever be filled with voices discussing a team’s points total in the world rankings or the formula and weightings used to produce those magic numbers. Titles and trophies are all. But ignore the rankings formula at your peril.

Great entertainment

Pool A of the 2015 Rugby World Cup sees three of the top six teams in the rankings thrown in together. Great entertainment for neutrals with England, Wales and Australia fighting to avoid missing out on the knockout stages.

 

The draw was performed in late 2012, almost three full years prior to the tournament, and took into account the results for that year’s Autumn internationals. Wales had an extra Autumn Test, a fourth match that was played outside the Test window. Losing at home is bad news to the World Rugby rankings system. While the need to fill the union coffers with another Millennium Stadium full house against the Wallabies would have been understandable, it ended up being very unfortunately timed.

The draw for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan will hopefully be made in closer time proximity to the tournament itself. Ireland will play three Tests in South Africa in the summer of 2016. If the 2019 draw was to be set for the end of the year, targeting those matches might be very useful for increasing draw stock. If set to 2017, things change.

It’s all very complicated. That’s why trophies are good. Rightly or wrongly, they are a tangible symbol of victory. A prize to be won, then defended as a champion.

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