When they zig you zag: The key to cracking premierships

AFLBOLDPredictions Roar Rookie

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    In the relativity new world of AFL free agency and seemingly more aggressive trading, any hint of equality previously provided by the salary cap and draft is fast disappearing.

    For smaller clubs to compete with their bigger rivals on the field, especially the larger and more successful Victorian clubs who have a distinct advantage in attracting free agents, they must take a different approach off the field in regards to list management. That is, they have to zig when the big clubs zag, and if they don’t, they face a future of irrelevance.

    This is why North is wrong to be chasing Dustin Martin, why the Dockers should give up on their quest to lure a big name key forward from the east, why the Saints were right to opt out of Nathan Fyfe discussions and why the Lions can never overpay any homesick youngsters.

    At this point in time these clubs, and others like them, can’t hope to emulate a Geelong, who have extend a decade-long run as a contender by bringing in a superstar and a bunch of ready-made players, or a Collingwood, which is seemingly a must-have conversation for any young Victorian-born star looking to return home.

    Why? AFL wages and the overall salary cap are still at a point where the majority of players weigh up non-financial factors alongside the final dollar value of their contract. This is not some Jock McHale-era hangover; wages have just not yet passed that tipping point where money rules all else.

    That tipping point has long since passed in the major American sports and European football leagues, where the money on offer is the type that sets you, your family and your entourage up for life.

    In the context of the AFL these non-financial factors provide the bigger clubs with a sizeable competitive advantage which will only be further exaggerated under extended free agency rules. These differentiating qualities are also largely intangible and so fall outside of the reach of the AFL to regulate, meaning they are here to stay. These factors revolve around:

    1. a history and culture of success;
    2. a large supporter base that translates to a more recognisable and valuable brand; and
    3. location, location, location if not near family and friends, at least somewhere desirable – think Bondi Beach, not the Brisbane River or West Footscray.

    Not only do these factors enhance the probability of an enjoyable playing career, they also provide substantial off-field benefits that continue well into a player’s retirement. An illustrative example is that the number of recently retired Geelong players from their premiership era currently employed in the wider AFL industry exceeds that of their former rivals from the Lions, Blues, Port and Tigers combined.

    It then follows that in a competitive and efficient AFL labour market small market teams will have to pay a sizeable premium to attract top-level talent to compensate for their shortfalls. This premium represents too great a financial risk – insert your idiom of choice here – but the end result is an unbalanced list and limited future list management options.

    (Image: AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Some will jump up and down and point to the Dogs, a historically unfashionable club, trading aggressively for Tom Boyd as an example of a seemingly big deal that has already paid off in the form of the 2016 premiership. I don’t subscribe to that theory; Boyd wasn’t a major contributor throughout the home and away season and I don’t believe he was the difference on grand final day.

    What I especially don’t like about this particular deal was that it was seemingly an emotive response driven by a Bulldogs president who was hurting at the loss of his club’s captain, cooked up in a matter of days and not a well-researched list management decision. Small clubs have only so many hands to play, and even if you think this one paid off, this type of ‘all in’ trade is not one that will pay off in the long run.

    So is it all doom and gloom for supporters of smaller clubs? Yes and no; things are certainly not going to be easy, but there are options.

    First and foremost these clubs must turn their focus towards the draft, never giving up early round picks and only reluctantly trading away picks from the later rounds.

    Preference must be given to homegrown talent at every opportunity to avoid the go-home factor and the cost that comes with it. The Brisbane Lions triple premiership team was chock full of talent from the northern states – Voss, Akermanis, White, Ashcroft and Charman – demonstrating premiership quality lists can be assembled from almost anywhere in Australia.

    When looking at free agents or mature-age trades clubs must look for bargains: players who haven’t been able to perform at their best due to lack of opportunity or injury.

    Regardless of how a player arrives at their club, they then must be provided with an exceptional coaching and player development experience to ensure they have every chance to succeed.

    For these clubs it is a simple equation be better at the draft table and player development than your rivals or get used to finishing in the second half of the ladder.

    It’s a bleak reality, but there are examples of small market sporting clubs across the world who have achieved this in their respective competitions. Teams that have demonstrated creativity, foresight and dare off the field and in so doing enjoyed success on it.