When they zig you zag: The key to cracking premierships

AFLBOLDPredictions Roar Rookie

By AFLBOLDPredictions, AFLBOLDPredictions is a 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.

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    The Crowd Says (44)

    • June 13th 2017 @ 8:41am
      Matthew Natoli said | June 13th 2017 @ 8:41am | ! Report

      I like this a lot, surely the blues will be a destination club again next year when they win the flag. Even Gibbs decided to stay instead of going back to boring old Adelaide!!!

      • June 13th 2017 @ 12:34pm
        Paul2 said | June 13th 2017 @ 12:34pm | ! Report

        Gibbs didn’t want to stay. He wanted a trade to Adelaide; Carlton didn’t allow it (or made the trade prohibitively expensive for Adelaide).

    • June 13th 2017 @ 8:55am
      Fairsuckofthesav said | June 13th 2017 @ 8:55am | ! Report

      Good article. A Tassie side is the next step.

    • Roar Guru

      June 13th 2017 @ 9:29am
      Paul D said | June 13th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

      Voss, Akermanis were all born in Victoria & moved to QLD around the age of 10-11. White was from Alice Springs. Although I suppose you said Northern states. That sort of recruiting wouldn’t happen now that the AFL has divvied up the NT into indigenous recruitment zones, he’d be playing for the Demons now.

      I still think we got rather lucky during those 3 years. We were lucky success started before anyone got toey, and also lucky to lure Leigh Matthews to the club – an immense signing that I think played a huge role in convincing several of our imports that we had intent at the club.

      By contrast, I can only agree that the Lions suffered for years from poor coaching since his departure – the factors you’ve touched upon affect quality of staff off the field as well as on – and with no salary cap on assistants it was inevitable Brisbane would wind up with the bottom of the barrel in terms of coaches and support staff. Obviously steps have now been taken with the AFL’s assistance to redress this, and we can already see the difference it is making to have some experienced heads in the box. It’s not a magic bullet but it’s a big step in the right direction.

      I don’t see how the AFL is ever going to redress this situation while the game is so Victorian-centric though, ultimately all the money, accolades and attention is to be had in Melbourne and we on the fringes should just roll up our sleeves and get on with things as best we can.

      • June 13th 2017 @ 10:22am
        AFLBOLDPredictions said | June 13th 2017 @ 10:22am | ! Report

        Thanks for your comments.

        The ‘go home’ factor to visit Primary School friends perhaps not as strong ?? . . And yes the Northern reference was included specifically to address and encapsulate White.

        The current Lions list is also made up of a disproportionately high number of Queenslandners – Apsley must be one hell of a junior club – so really nothing new there either.

        A lot of clubs are clearly already down this path, North Melbourne a clear standout in chasing big name free agents, in writing this article I wondered are they really stupid or really smart?

        As one might say that by publicly stating their desire to recruit these big name players they are driving up the the prices for them, potentially knowing they they can never really get them to Arden street, but in doing do making these clubs eat up precious salary cap room and getting some advantage back?

        • Roar Guru

          June 13th 2017 @ 11:20am
          Paul D said | June 13th 2017 @ 11:20am | ! Report

          Personally I think North are just trying to get a player on a 10 year contract so it makes it harder for the AFL to ship them off to Tasmania.

          And draft spoiling has been going on for years, every year there’s someone saying a Victorian club should call out all the qld academy kids early to force us to spend higher picks to match them, so it makes sense that clubs are trying to indirectly squeeze rivals salary caps. It’s even more risk-free than draft spoiling because they’re under no obligation to actually offer the sums they’re talking about, whereas with the draft a Vic club could wind up with a qld kid who didn’t really want to be there.

        • June 15th 2017 @ 1:13pm
          Steve said | June 15th 2017 @ 1:13pm | ! Report

          In addition to the above comments, I think what needs to be considered is that AFL equalisation has gone a long way to making the competition far more exciting and competitive. The Bulldogs premiership surprised the entire AFL world and this season the competitiveness of all sides on any given day is clearly visible. Being daring and creative off the field may mean your club needs to chase that player they know they need and may never develop or draft for certain. Can’t knock the smaller clubs for trying. And a smaller club can become a bigger club in much the same way so its not a matter of smaller and bigger clubs. All are subject to the constraints mentioned in this piece, just ask a Hawthorn supporter.

          • June 16th 2017 @ 6:18am
            AFLBOLDPredictions said | June 16th 2017 @ 6:18am | ! Report

            Totally agree Simon. Only the most one eyed of supporters would think that a move towards a more unbalanced competition is a good thing.

            And yes clubs can transition from being a small club to a big club or vica versa (their have been plenty of examples of that – Hawks being a club ready to merge in 96, Pies being a financial basket case before Eddie took the helm, Blues being a powerhouse before fading the last 15 years before current resurgence).

            But I would say the Bulldogs were on the way to achieving this by excelling at the draft table and player development. Their list is full of talent picked out from all levels of the draft, their record over past 5-7 years the equal of any club.

            Their drafting of Boyd was less of a Hawthorn esq move to put a missing piece in place but more of a gamble given the unproved record of Boyd and the price they had to pay to get him.

            But if you believe Boyd was the difference you can’t say that gamble hasn’t paid off!

    • June 13th 2017 @ 10:53am
      Paul W said | June 13th 2017 @ 10:53am | ! Report

      “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”.

      Ok, you’ve got a bite. Toyd doesn’t play, Dogs don’t win. Three goals, two BoGs in the Norm Smith Medal and many people think he was unlucky not to win it.

      He’s already repaid every long suffering Dog’s supporter with three serviceable finals, followed by a memorable Grand Final.

      Not sure what you’re on about.

      • June 13th 2017 @ 11:46am
        AFLBOLDPredictions said | June 13th 2017 @ 11:46am | ! Report

        Agree that was a topical call and it’s not the be all and end all of the article. But I just saw the Dogs of 2016 as a team of role players, and if he wasn’t there someone else would have filled that role? Would he have even played if they had a full list?

        The bigger point is that it was an incredibly risky trade, they type that will more often than not paint the team into a corner in terms of inflexibility of list and future trade options.

        The Dogs, it would seem from an outsider looking in, had to pay a huge premium to get Boyd to commit, awesome they won the flag but I wouldn’t bet on that trade as I think it will fail more times than not. Other clubs shouldn’t follow that model.

        • Roar Guru

          June 13th 2017 @ 11:50am
          Paul D said | June 13th 2017 @ 11:50am | ! Report

          What we have seen from the Tom Boyd experience is that clubs are now trying to fast track development of their talls football sense by throwing them into the ruck and the midfield. Boyd had spent years getting double teamed by experienced defenders while at GWS, seeing him finally able to get in amongst the play instead of constantly running hither and thither – usually fruitlessly – for a couple of touches a game was a revelation. Beveridge deserves every plaudit for taking a punt on that.

          the pies are now doing it with Darcy Moore, and you can bet he won’t be the last to spend some time through the middle.

          • June 13th 2017 @ 3:51pm
            I ate pies said | June 13th 2017 @ 3:51pm | ! Report

            Boyd is 21 – wait until he’s 26 with another 100 games under the belt; he’ll be unstoppable

    • June 13th 2017 @ 10:53am
      Leigh said | June 13th 2017 @ 10:53am | ! Report

      Good article, much better reading than a lot of other football writing out there.

      That said..

      Boyd was basically best on ground on GF day and I think it’s silly to say his impact didn’t matter in that game.

    • June 13th 2017 @ 11:15am
      Paul M said | June 13th 2017 @ 11:15am | ! Report

      Good article…!

      While liking the general theme of the article…the little snipe at the swans (“think Bondi”) overlooks how hard they have worked to meet your first 2 criteria…:

      1. a history and culture of success
      2. a large supporter base that translates to a more recognisable and valuable brand;

      Number 1 has come through hard work during the Roo’s years. And even then in a woeful attempt to hang onto their game the old Melbourne AFL elitists came after us for playing “boring”…!

      Number 2 is a little more interesting and something which is beyond most of the Melbourne centric supporters. You could argue that a recognisable and valuable brand can generate a large supporter base rather than the other way around…thus the reason why the swans have always targeted a headline grabbing Key Forward as part of their list management.

      What the Melbourne centric fans fail to realise (and the swans should be flattered why they do) it’s not so much about winning GFs…it’s about survival…it’s about getting a brand / identity in a city that drops their support like bad smells at an all you can eat German Brew house.

      If your Essendon, Collingwood or Hawthorn…you can do pretty much anything (and the last few years has shown this) and then when the cycle turns the fans will come in droves. The Swans are getting there…but it has taken decades…and they are not there yet.

      So sometimes it’s more important to create hype around your club to ensure it remains a destination club…sometimes it more important to have the best player in the league in your team to generate excitement in a city that is very easily distracted. If that coincides with winning GFs…great…if not…if it keeps the turnstiles turning then it’s a success…!

      • June 13th 2017 @ 7:03pm
        AFLBOLDPredictions said | June 13th 2017 @ 7:03pm | ! Report

        Thanks for your comments, I enjoyed your point of view on the different and unique problems faced by Sydney (and/or sides from non AFL states). The Bondi Beach reference wasn’t a crack at the Swans, just part of the Sydney package. I am sure most players in the AFL would choose recovery sessions at Bondi Icebergs over just about pretty much anyone else, but yes, I agree the Bloods culture is the number one selling point.