Why free agency will never work in the AFL

Stirling Coates Roar Guru

By Stirling Coates, Stirling Coates is a Roar Guru

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    It was in February of 2010 that then-AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou announced the league and players’ association had rubber-stamped the introduction of free agency to the player movement process.

    “We believe this agreement is a positive outcome for players and the AFL competition,” Demetriou claimed at the time.

    “The agreed model is fair for all concerned in that it gives players more flexibility but also contains safeguards that will help maintain the evenness of the competition.”

    Five free agency periods have transpired since it was introduced at the end of the 2012 season and, while players have certainly had more flexibility, it’s hard to argue free agency has done much to maintain evenness.

    Here, I’ve tabled every restricted and unrestricted free agency move since 2012. Delisted free agents weren’t included for the purpose of this exercise.

    The tables list the player, the positions of the teams involved in the transaction that season, as well as whether free agent was in their former club’s best 22 that season.

    2012 Free Agents

    Player Former club New club Best 22?
    Shannon Byrnes Geelong (6) Melbourne (16) No
    Troy Chaplin Port Adelaide (14) Richmond (12) Yes
    Brendon Goddard St Kilda (9) Essendon (11) Yes
    Chris Knights Adelaide (2) Richmond (12) No
    Quinten Lynch West Coast (5) Collingwood (4) Yes
    Brent Moloney Melbourne (16) Brisbane (13) Yes
    Tom Murphy Hawthorn (1) Gold Coast (17) No
    Danyle Pearce Port Adelaide (14) Fremantle (7) Yes
    Jared Rivers Melbourne (16) Geelong (6) Yes
    Clinton Young Hawthorn (1) Collingwood (4) Yes

    2013 Free Agents

    Player Former club New club Best 22?
    Eddie Betts Carlton (8) Adelaide (11) Yes
    Nick Dal Santo St Kilda (16) North Melbourne (10) Yes
    Xavier Ellis Hawthorn (1) West Coast (13) No
    Lance Franklin Hawthorn (1) Sydney (4) Yes
    Colin Sylvia Melbourne (17) Fremantle (3) Yes
    Dale Thomas Collingwood (6) Carlton (8) Injured
    Matthew White Richmond (5) Port Adelaide (7) Yes

    2014 Free Agents

    Player Former club New club Best 22?
    James Frawley Melbourne (17) Hawthorn (2) Yes
    James Gwilt St Kilda (18) Essendon (7) Yes
    Shaun Higgins Western Bulldogs (14) North Melbourne (6) Yes
    Nick Malceski Sydney (1) Gold Coast (12) Yes
    Jarrad Waite Carlton (13) North Melbourne (6) Yes

    2015 Free Agents

    Player Former club New club Best 22?
    Matthew Leuenberger Brisbane (17) Essendon (15) No
    Scott Selwood West Coast (2) Geelong (10) Injured
    Dawson Simpson Geelong (10) GWS Giants (11) Yes
    Matthew Sucking Hawthorn (3) Western Bulldogs (6) Yes

    2016 Free Agents

    Player Former club New club Best 22?
    Nathan Brown Collingwood (12) St Kilda (9) Yes
    Chris Mayne Fremantle (16) Collingwood (12) Yes
    Tyrone Vickery Richmond (13) Hawthorn (3) Yes
    Daniel Wells North Melbourne (8) Collingwood (12) Yes

    Overall, of the 30 restricted and unrestricted free agency moves, eight have seen a player from a top eight club dealt to a non-finals side, eight have gone the other way around, eight have taken place between two non-finals teams and six have been between fellow top eight sides.

    At face value that sounds even enough, but when you start filtering by the player’s best 22 status, a different picture emerges.

    All eight of the moves where a non-finals team has lost a player to a top eight side have involved a best 22 player. Jared Rivers and Danyle Pearce started the trend in 2012, with Colin Sylvia, Shaun Higgins, Jarrad Waite, James Frawley, James Gwilt and Ty Vickery following suit.

    Granted, many of those moves haven’t panned out for the new club, but the James Frawley move was particulary bad.

    A soon-to-be-elite key defender defecting from a bottom team to a two-time reigning premier isn’t particulary uncommon in the world of sport, but for a competition that prides itself on stringent evenness, it’s an indictment.

    On the other side of the coin, only three of the eight players top eight sides have had pinched by bottom sides have been from their best 22.

    Nick Malceski is probably the only example of the system ‘working’, with Eddie Betts’ defection to Adelaide driven largely by Carlton’s pursuit of Dale Thomas and Daniel Wells’ departure to Collingwood more a parting of the ways.

    But neither Shannon Byrnes, Chris Knights, Tom Murphy nor Xavier Ellis were squeezed out of their clubs over salary cap concerns.

    The fundamental issue in the AFL having free agency is that it’s players simply don’t earn enough money.

    Yes, you read that right.

    Of course, I’m not saying AFL players are underpaid for what they do. But on a global sports scale, there’s no denying that, as far as western domestic sporting competitions go, the salaries of AFL players dwarf in comparison to that of other competitions like the NFL.

    With the completion of a new CBA for next season, the average player salary in the AFL will rise to $371,000 a year. The absolute minimum salary for an NFL player in their first season is $465,000USD – which works out to be almost $600,000 in Australian currency.

    Where you could still probably count the number of AFL players earning $1 million a season on one hand, the top 100-paid players in the NFL have salaries ranging from $9-24 million.

    So how or why is this relevant?

    The issue isn’t that AFL players are ‘poor’ or anything of the sort.

    The issue is that, because AFL salaries are comparatively low, lower teams simply cannot offer players financial terms significantly bigger enough to make them a go-to over a top team.

    If you were an up-and-coming midfielder on $350,000 at a middle-of-the-road club like, say, St Kilda, would you accept an offer of $375,000 to play for Geelong or $450,000 to play for Brisbane?

    Is the extra $75,000 enough to make you want to pack up, move interstate and play for a team that might only win five games? Maybe.

    Changes Hawthorn’s figure to $11 million and Brisbane’s to $19 million and you might have a clearer idea.

    With vastly bigger salaries comes a vastly bigger range of salaries. Because the earning capacity of NFL players is so high, the offers they can receive from different teams can also vary wildly.

    At the end of the 2015 NFL season, the reigning champion Denver Broncos lost a whopping 14 free agents and gained zero. These kinds of exoduses are not at all uncommon among champion teams in the US.

    The current two-time NHL champions Pittsburgh offloaded ten free agents this past offseason.

    While we’ll never see this sheer degree of player movement in the AFL, the fact remains players at good teams don’t have enough financial incentive to head to clubs in the middle of a rebuild.

    Some may call that club loyalty but, as far as free agency goes, it will continue to be a spanner in the works forever.

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    The Crowd Says (17)

    • Roar Guru

      October 13th 2017 @ 8:29am
      mds1970 said | October 13th 2017 @ 8:29am | ! Report

      I’m not sure that Dawson Simpson was in Geelong’s best 22 in 2015. He only played three games.

      The true test for free agency will come when a restricted free agent offer is matched. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

      • Roar Guru

        October 13th 2017 @ 6:43pm
        Peppsy said | October 13th 2017 @ 6:43pm | ! Report

        Same with Vickery

    • October 13th 2017 @ 10:27am
      Tlux said | October 13th 2017 @ 10:27am | ! Report

      NRL has free agency and it works pretty well. Yes, some teams abuse the 3rd party payments system which throws it out a bit, but in general, teams can clear the decks and recruit a competitive team over the space of 1 or 2 seasons.

      In AFL you have teams like Brisbane, Melbourne, Saints who get stuck down the ladder for a decade with no prospects of moving up. Then when young drafted talent is about have positive ROI, they play the “homesick card” and clear off.

    • Roar Guru

      October 13th 2017 @ 10:54am
      Paul D said | October 13th 2017 @ 10:54am | ! Report

      It is a well-made point about the money. Throw in the fact that at that level of earnings players are paying 49c in the dollar in income tax (not sure what ruses, if any, they can do to minimise earnings – I imagine the ATO is all over them) and that extra $75 grand drops down to say $40 grand.

      And you’re right, it’s not enough to sway the deal. Josh Jenkins turned down an extra 200 grand from Brisbane each year to stay in Adelaide – not complaining about that, mind you as he is not worth even close to the 750 grand we’d offered him but it is illustrative.

      All I’ve seen of free agency so far is that it allows players to control which clubs remain in contention for longer and condemns certain clubs to remain in purgatory for extended periods of time due to their rebuilds constantly being sabotaged by key player departures and raids from rival clubs

    • Roar Guru

      October 13th 2017 @ 11:02am
      Cat said | October 13th 2017 @ 11:02am | ! Report

      The problem is the ‘range’ is small, not because of lack of ‘huge’ salaries but because of a very high salary cap floor. A team like Brisbane or Carlton who are down at the bottom of the ladder are still only paying a maximum of 5% less than the Premiers.

      In the NFL, which has no salary floor, the bottom teams may only be spending 40% of the cap in a season, this lets them spend BIG on free agents to rapidly climb up the standings.
      NFL is also a poor comparison because no contract in the NFL is guaranteed. Players can be dumped after 1 year of a 10 year deal if a team decides to. There is a pro-rated cap hit but it still allows a team to gain cap room.

    • Roar Guru

      October 13th 2017 @ 11:07am
      Cat said | October 13th 2017 @ 11:07am | ! Report

      The other thing that is missing from the FA system, is the ability to trade players before they become FA when the team knows they won’t be able to re-sign them. In American sports teams often ‘sell’ rental players for picks/prospects to teams that need a boost to play/make the playoffs (finals). This is the key check and balance that is missing from the AFL system. Without it the AFL’s system is indeed broken.

      • Roar Guru

        October 13th 2017 @ 11:11am
        Paul D said | October 13th 2017 @ 11:11am | ! Report

        Yup.

        Everyone knows free agency starts after the initial contract expires, because players can just go to the pre-season draft. In theory they could be drafted by anyone, but in reality we know that doesn’t happen. Generally because long before that particular bridge is crossed their club has buckled and accepted whatever they can get for them, usually unders.

        Clubs should have the power to trade players wherever they want until free agency hits. Make it 6 years, but for that first 6 years you play where you’re told and you do your time in the system.

        • October 13th 2017 @ 2:57pm
          Deir-ba-zor said | October 13th 2017 @ 2:57pm | ! Report

          that is all well and good in theory, but the players association would kick up a massive stink.

          • Roar Guru

            October 13th 2017 @ 3:01pm
            Paul D said | October 13th 2017 @ 3:01pm | ! Report

            I’m not saying it gets imposed by absolute fiat – you negotiate and work towards it

            Ultimately it improves the health of the game and loyalty of fans so it’s in their best interest if they want to keep maximising the earning power of their union members as the value of TV deals starts to plateau over the next decade

            • Roar Guru

              October 13th 2017 @ 4:27pm
              Cat said | October 13th 2017 @ 4:27pm | ! Report

              I’d start with a simple compromise such as, scrap RFA and make FA start at 8 years for all, in exchange all clubs to trade contracted players in the last year of their contract anywhere the club wants. Clubs need a way to get something for players they know they will/cannot hold onto.

    • October 13th 2017 @ 11:48am
      Paul2 said | October 13th 2017 @ 11:48am | ! Report

      “A soon-to-be-elite key defender [Frawley] defecting from a bottom team to a two-time reigning premier isn’t particulary uncommon in the world of sport, but for a competition that prides itself on stringent evenness, it’s an indictment.”

      Except that Melbourne were compensated with, what was it, a number 2 draft pick? As I recall, the Demons wanted him to go, since the draft compensation was far better than his worth on the trade table.

      I’m all for equalisation (salary caps, draft etc), but this article seems to make the mistake of thinking that every AFL purports to be an act of equalisation. FA was never intended in this way: the rationale was just that players who’ve been in the system for a certain amount of time should then be able to choose their destination.

      Anyway, I can see how FA might undermine equity between clubs, but there’s a bigger problem (separate from FA) that is having this effect: players at smaller clubs – particularly non-Victorian clubs in apparently undesirable locations – want to leave. Do away with FA and we still have this problem. Most of the players wanting out of Brisbane and GC, for example, try to move long before they are FA eligible.

      • October 13th 2017 @ 4:38pm
        Free 2 Fly said | October 13th 2017 @ 4:38pm | ! Report

        I agree with this that effectively players are becoming free agents post there initial contracts of 2 years. Personally I am coming to the opinion that players should be under club control for something closer to 5 years. Something like a 2 year initial contract like currently and then the club has a club option for a further 3 years that it can elect to set up. Based on my somewhat limited knowledge this would be similar to what is currently in the NBA (particularly for first round/high draft picks).The rate for these further 3 years should be something close to the average salary but ultimately set by the AFL. After this time players should then be able to be free agents, this would be a required compromise with the players union in order to get the above measure through.

        • Roar Guru

          October 13th 2017 @ 4:45pm
          Cat said | October 13th 2017 @ 4:45pm | ! Report

          3 year initial contract with 2 one year club options would be how I’d do it.

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