There has been talk lately about the possibility of raising the age at which players become eligible for the AFL draft, an idea I would gladly support. Although there might be short-term pain, it would benefit players, clubs and the league as a whole.
From a player perspective, raising the draft age would have numerous benefits. Crucially, it would mean draftees did not have to juggle school and football commitments, giving them some breathing space to focus on their studies.
It would give them an extra year to just live their lives – at that age, many of their friends will be off starting uni, with a three or four-year degree separating them from the workforce. Those years can afford them the opportunity for travel and personal development.
Coming into an AFL system at 18 years of age, young players are not afforded that luxury. They live and breathe football six days a week for the vast majority of the year, and may have few opportunities for personal development.
The football system can be so all-consuming, and affording kids the opportunity to spend another year travelling, pursuing further study interests or engaging in other passions can only be a good thing for their long-term wellbeing.
This may also help address the issue of homesickness for players drafted to interstate teams. For many draftees, moving interstate to their new club is the first time they’ve lived out of home. Learning to adapt to a new environment as well as to a full-time job can be a daunting experience.
If these players have had a chance to travel and experience life outside of school and home, it may help them adapt better to an interstate move.
On a more existential level, it may help them to appreciate their football careers more from an earlier age by giving them more perspective.
Many retired footballers comment that they didn’t fully appreciate how lucky they were to be playing football for a living until they were near the end of their careers.
An extra year between school and being drafted may help aspiring draftees realise that they don’t want to be laying bricks or working at a fast-food chain like their friends, and make more of their opportunities earlier in their careers.
In addition, entering the draft a year later may help them to make smarter financial decisions when they are drafted.
Earning an inflated salary in their first year, with little experience of how money works in the real world, could mean that some younger players don’t value money, and are out of touch with how much those in the general workforce earn for their work.
Hopefully, having an extra year to experience earning money and what normal wages look like would give them perspective and encourage them to make beneficial long-term financial decisions.
On the other side of the coin, for clubs, drafting a player is a huge investment, often upwards of $300,000 for the salary, training, development and support of a first-year player.
Often clubs draft players on the back of a few good games, or a particular talent, but do not have a clear idea of how that player will develop. This can see draftees spend two to four years on a list before they play a game.
Clubs would be much better served drafting players with an extra year of development under their belts.
It would allow them to more accurately judge whether that speculative ruckman might develop into a handy player, or whether a dour key defender can develop a more offensive side to his game, rather than waiting several years to then determine that a player won’t make it.
One of the arguments advocated by proponents of the current system is that raising the draft age would hold back those who are ‘ready’ to play AFL, consigning them to a year in the football wilderness twiddling their thumbs.
However, ‘ready’ is a subjective term – basing a teenager’s readiness to play AFL on their exposed TAC Cup form can be risky, as even the best underage players can have trouble bridging the large gap in level between underage and AFL-level football.
We’ve seen Tom Boyd, Josh Schache, and Paddy McCartin have this issue in recent years. First-year draftees who do make an immediate impact at AFL level are rare – only those in the elite bracket.
The majority of those who get drafted will take time to adjust to the higher level game, and may be better served with an extra year of development under their belt.
I also disagree with the argument that those players who are ‘ready’ when they are 18 would become disillusioned in that extra year.
Many TAC Cup players have little to no experience playing in State league competitions – that extra year could be a perfect opportunity for them to spend a year developing their fitness and adjusting to a higher tempo of footy. This may require changes to the way the VFL operates, but it would be worthwhile.
Leaving the draft age as it is just because raising it may hold back a handful of the most elite players does the game a disservice.
Structurally, the TAC Cup system and State leagues may need to change, which would be an expensive and lengthy process; however, this has never stopped the AFL before. The league has shown time and again that if it thinks something is worthwhile, it will make it happen, regardless of logistical speed humps.
With all the mooted changes to the fixture system and match review panel interpretations swirling around at present, the league is looking to find ways to change the game for the better.
Raising the draft age is one change that would have a significant impact, and the sooner it’s done, the better.