The AFL and its players have failed to meet the challenge of change in the new CBA

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert


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    The AFL and its players reached a six-year, circa $2 billion agreement yesterday, after almost 18 months of protracted negotiations. It is a profoundly disappointing deal, which does nothing more than spend the league’s newfound bounty.

    This column was intended to be a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of the AFL’s new collective bargaining agreement. Something in the spirit of the column I wrote in February 2016, when the league and the AFL Players Association were set to kick off negotiations scheduled to concluded in a few months.

    Instead, it is a lament.

    The AFL and its players had a once-in-a-generation chance to revolutionise the league, modernise its practises, and fix a raft of issues in the player market which have developed over the past few years. Instead, it appears the two parties spent more than a year arguing about how much money each was going to spend.

    Spend they will.

    The nuts and bolts
    As you already know, the salary cap will increase from $10.37 million per club in 2016 to $12.45 million per club in 2017 (this year – more on that in a bit). The players have also secured a 3.8 per cent increase in the maximum amount payable under Additional Service Agreements (ASA), with that cap lifting from $1.07 million to $1.11 million.

    It’s a small increase, but every dollar counts. It means the Total Player Payments cap for the 2017 football year is $13.55 million, up from $11.44 million.

    From there, the cap growth is much more meagre. The salary will increase by 1.2 per cent in 2018, 1.3 per cent in 2019, and two per cent per annum in the three years through 2022. The ASA cap increases by three per cent per annum for the remainder of the agreement.

    According to reports, the AFLPA was successful in achieving its number one objective: securing a fixed proportion of certain AFL revenue for its players. Collateral produced by the AFLPA suggests the players will receive 28 per cent of league-wide revenue, excluding some sources of club revenue (mostly gaming revenue, and donations).

    In this spirit, the league conceded the PA’s second key consideration: an agreement that the players would receive a slice of any unbudgeted revenue, to be paid to the player retirement fund (which itself has been boosted significantly, and resulted in an increase in player retirement benefits).

    This is key, and the first instance of where not having the agreement itself to parse is an issue. It is not clear whether the AFL has actually conceded to the players on the issue of them earning a fixed share of revenue, or whether they have agreed to dollar amounts which look like a fixed share.

    That’s a matter of detail, but could hint at reasons why the rest of the agreement is a bit bland.

    The AFLPA is claiming it as a huge win. Indeed, it is the only material detail they wanted to convey at yesterday’s press conference.

    It wasn’t all, of course. Other interesting information released includes:

    • All Category A rookies will be available to play from Round 1, 2018. Under the previous agreement, up to two rookies could be nominated as available to play, and others had to wait until a listed player was placed on the long term injury list.
    • Players no longer have to pass through restricted free agency before becoming an unrestricted free agent. This is a technical one, so bear with me. Under the previous agreement, a player coming out of contract in their 10th year or later who had entered into that contract in their seventh year or earlier was classified as a restricted free agent. That differed to a player who entered into a contract in their eighth year and came out of contract in their 10th – they would have been unrestricted free agents. That technicality has been ironed out; any player with ten years of service at one club is now an unrestricted free agent.
    • Minimum salaries have been increased across the board. The listed player minimum salary has increased from $84,465 in 2016 to $100,000 (18.4 per cent), rookie minimum from $57,940 to $71,500 (23.4 per cent), and first round pick base salary from $74,740 to $88,000 (17.7 per cent). Out of interest, AFLPA CEO Paul Marsh said at his press conference that players at the bottom end of the salary scale would get increases that were greater than the league-wide salary increase. Those amounts increase again in 2018 to $105,000, $75,000 and $95,000 respectively. Over the two-year period, those benchmarks increase by more than the overall salary cap – just.
    • A raft of new spending on player education, welfare and health. The are too many changes to this area to mention, but suffice to say the Players Association has feathered its own nest nicely in this respect – it is set to receive significantly more funding to deliver non-football programs to players over the term of this agreement

    That’s what we know now. It’s significant, but not everything. Indeed, we should all be far more interested in what wasn’t achieved in this negotiation period.

    Be like the shark
    The AFL and its players have failed to grasp the nettle of reform, and have condemned the league to another five and a half years of archaic player regulations which will inevitably come back to haunt it.

    As best as we can tell from the information which has been released, there has been no change to practically every rule regarding player listing and movement in the new CBA.

    The players retain their anachronistic and absolute right to veto any trade.

    Draftees remain committed to their first club for two years and two years only.

    The rookie list is still a thing, despite Category A rookies (which is 90 per cent of rookies) being allowed to play at any time.

    Free agency remains available to far too few players for it to be a meaningful part of the player movement system.

    Players not already in the AFL system can still only join through a draft, and delisted free agents only their status for the few months after they are delisted.

    There was no meaningful reform to modernise player listing, management and movement regulations. There will now be no meaningful reform to modernise player listing, management and movement regulations until at least 2022.

    It will mean clubs will still be held to ransom by players who demand to be traded to particular clubs. It will mean non-traditional football states will continue to have less than 18 months to convince their Victorian-origin players to sign beyond their draft contracts. It will mean the frankly ridiculous distinction between a fully listed player and a rookie listed player remains.

    The AFL and its players couldn’t even agree on proposals regarding free agency in time for the announcement. Three options are on the table, and the AFL has decreed that the players will have to pick one: lifetime free agency (once you earn free agent status in year eight, you are a free agent for the rest of your career when you come out of contract), portable free agency (the service limits of eight and ten years are career-based, not club-based) or early free agency (a new type of free agency for players earning below the AFL average wage in year four of their career).

    They are all meritorious options, although the third is on the radical end of the spectrum and could throw up all sorts of strange outcomes. The first two are no-brainers and should be implemented in tandem; the players will get one of them. Frankly, it’s absurd.

    On face value, it appears player movement was barely discussed during this round of CBA negotiations. That should come as a surprise to us all. Both parties have squibbed a genuine opportunity to modernise player regulations.


    AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

    I am Bender, please insert girder
    The other disappointing outcome of this CBA negotiation is there appears to have been no removal of restrictive regulations regarding player access and other information sharing. That goes beyond players having greater opportunity to share their human side – a topic which has received great attention over the past few days.

    The 2015-2016 CBA contains almost 20 pages of regulations regarding player access, appearances, broadcast policies, licensing of their likeness and other matters of branding. The new agreement looks set to usher in additional regulations, which could hinder our ability to better understand and enjoy the softer side of the league.

    Not only that, the players have bargained for a review or something similar of privacy related to their performance data. This is troublesome. The AFLPA has made a bunch of noise in recent months about the AFL’s desire to see player GPS data used in broadcasts. The AFLPA was is on the record as holding out against this, concerned that the information might be used to highlight player weaknesses.

    What a crock. It is no different to a player being criticised for not kicking a goal or having fewer possessions than their career average.

    This, plus the PA’s continued reticence to divulge any material related to player contracts, leaves the paying fans poorer. It reduces the richness of coverage and analysis of the game, and helps contribute to the misinformation and disinformation that is increasingly spread by media organisations desperate to find things to say about players and clubs.

    Given the way all of this is regulated, the AFL and its players had a golden opportunity to help chart the way forward. Instead, conservatism once again reigned supreme. We will be poorer for it.

    Essendon Bombers fans AFL 2017

    AAP Image/Julian Smith

    So what?
    This column can’t just be a rant railing against what didn’t happen. Things still clearly changed, just not at all to the extent that they certainly could have and perhaps should have.

    My concerns are not that the AFL should have made change for the sake of change. Ultimately, the fact things didn’t change is in itself revealing – both parties placed great stock in the need to spend the league’s bounty, and were obviously comfortable that the current rules and regulations across the rest of the league were fine as they were.

    The reason to change these things is to enhance the competition; give the clubs and those who run them the tools to be more competitive and more cunning and smarter and better than their opponents.

    It’s the same for player access and other off-field features of the game. It isn’t about the players, who will on average take home close to $400,000 per annum by the end of this agreement. It’s about providing the paying customers – the fans – with a richer experience.

    I disagree, but here we are.

    Without the full agreement to parse, we can only react to what we see in front of us. There will be change, mostly as it relates to the impact of the large increase in the salary cap in 2017.

    Please note, the 20 per cent increase in the salary cap is for this football year. It does not mean every club has an extra $2 million to spend on players in the coming off season. It does mean every club will have to pay its currently-listed players more than they had planned; in October last year the AFL told the clubs to plan for a 10 per cent increase in the cap for this season.

    So clubs who may have been managing a tight salary cap will have a bit of extra breathing space. How much will depend on a few things.

    First, many outlets have reported large swaths of the playing group had negotiated for their salaries to increase in line with the salary cap. That means they will get an automatic bump of 20 per cent. That will absorb a large chunk of the extra increase.

    Second, the CBA requires clubs to pay their players a minimum of 95 per cent of the salary cap and ASA allowance each year. 95 per cent of Total Player Payments is $12.9 million. Taken in conjunction with the AFL’s advice to plan for a 10 per cent lift in the cap – which would have taken the 2017 TPP cap to $12.6 million – and it means many clubs will only be required to spend an extra $300,000 in 2017 than they otherwise would have.

    It is something, but hardly enough to go on a spending spree.

    Clubs will be able to take that up to five per cent amount they bank and spend it on next year’s salary cap instead, which could result in some clubs making some silly-sounding deals for players work within the economic parameters of the new CBA. The maximum amount a club can bank from this year’s salary cap is $680,000, which they can take forward and spend in the next football year. If that’s the case, said club would see its TPP cap increase from $12.9 million to $14.4 million in 2018, before it fell to $13.9 million in 2019.

    Big signing bonus, anyone?

    That’s a long way of saying the salary cap bonanza many have foreshadowed is likely to be less explosive than we think. There will still be some large deals handed out this year, because the 20 per cent bump in the cap is carried forward, but I expect the volume of deals made will not be significantly higher than usual.

    The clubs that will be in the strongest position to capitalise are those who have plenty of players coming off contract in the 2017 year. They will have greater flexibility to shape their club-wide total player payments than clubs without many players coming off of contract, and liquidity leads to deal. It could however be a double-edged sword, because it will mean players who are off contract will be likely targets of other clubs who have some extra cash.

    Without proper information on who has signed where, until when and for how much it is difficult to provide much more insight.

    For now, two things are clear. There is a pile of extra money being forced down the AFL player pipe, which will lead to some volatility in the market over the next year or two as we bed down the new salary structure of the league.

    But more importantly, and on a disappointing note, many of the worthwhile reforms to the league which were right there within the grasp of the players and administrators alike will be left to wither on the vine.

    Money talks – perhaps a little too much.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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    The Crowd Says (67)

    • June 21st 2017 @ 6:56am
      Brad said | June 21st 2017 @ 6:56am | ! Report

      Ryan, on Monday on Talking Footy they spoke about WCE and Adelaide being the only two clubs not passing it onto their players?
      What did they mean by this and if true what does it mean for those two clubs?

      • June 21st 2017 @ 7:58am
        GJ said | June 21st 2017 @ 7:58am | ! Report

        Brad – below is excerpt from another article by Josh Elliott published here today.

        “Some players had ‘uplift clauses’ in their current contracts that will see them automatically get the 20 per cent pay rise, but not all do, and it has been said on Footy Classified that Adelaide and West Coast in particular have not included them in any of their contracts.”

    • Roar Guru

      June 21st 2017 @ 7:28am
      Cat said | June 21st 2017 @ 7:28am | ! Report

      Well written Ryan, and I can’t agree more. What a wasted opportunity to address the wide ranging player movement issues that are fast being a blight on the game.

      • June 21st 2017 @ 8:56am
        Tom m said | June 21st 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

        I cant see how you could complain about the current player movement issues Cat. Geelong have been the largest benefactors in free agency and have exploited all the loopholes. Taking away a players right to veto a trade would mean many of the deals you have done in the past would never have happened. (Dangerfield, Henderson etc)

        • Roar Guru

          June 21st 2017 @ 9:09am
          Cat said | June 21st 2017 @ 9:09am | ! Report

          Sorry, not sorry, that my team has navigated the current rules to benefit themselves – thats what they are supposed to do!
          Unlike some people, I can look at the industry as a whole, not just with one eye opened and my team coloured glasses on.
          Whatever the rules are, my team has shown they are willing and able to move with the times so I am not worried about the rules changing.

          • June 21st 2017 @ 5:57pm
            Mattician6x6 said | June 21st 2017 @ 5:57pm | ! Report

            So now as Geelong has benefited from the rules you wish to tighten them, that is just looking at the industry with blue and white hoops cat.

            • Roar Guru

              June 21st 2017 @ 8:17pm
              Cat said | June 21st 2017 @ 8:17pm | ! Report

              Wrong on every level. I am all for loosening, not tightening. Players have all the power, the pendulum needs to swing back the club way to achieve a proper balance. Currently players can move in contract and out of contract where ever they want to go. Clubs cannot make any moves unless a player wants to go somewhere and then only to a single club specified by that player. The club has no chance to work a fair deal out because it is all or nothing.

              • June 21st 2017 @ 8:24pm
                Mattician6x6 said | June 21st 2017 @ 8:24pm | ! Report

                Even with the players having the power what are the examples were clubs have been screwed in the process?

              • June 24th 2017 @ 8:07pm
                Steve009 said | June 24th 2017 @ 8:07pm | ! Report

                Look at the Brisbane Lions for your example.

              • Roar Pro

                June 21st 2017 @ 8:35pm
                anon said | June 21st 2017 @ 8:35pm | ! Report

                Look at that diva Ablett. He’ll force the Suns hand and he will go to Geelong next year. Disgraceful.

              • June 21st 2017 @ 8:45pm
                Mattician6x6 said | June 21st 2017 @ 8:45pm | ! Report

                I guess a future point of a club getting screwed is acceptable anon

    • June 21st 2017 @ 9:28am
      Callen said | June 21st 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report

      Great article Ryan. This EBA was only about one thing-money. The players and the AFLPA whine and moan about the game being too long, the season being too long, the unfairness of trading and free agency etc. They don’t really think those things, they just wanted more money for doing it.

    • Editor

      June 21st 2017 @ 9:53am
      Josh Elliott said | June 21st 2017 @ 9:53am | ! Report

      Good read Ryan and I agree, it was disappointing – but not ultimately surprising – to see no real change made aside from significant increases to player salary.

      The issue I think is that the AFL has already given up far too much ground to the AFLPA on the player movement front, to the point where it no longer has any bargaining chips to win some of it back. There’s no chance to say “we’ll introduce free agency if we take away trade vetos”, because they’ve already been given both.

      I believe the AFLPA for example pushed back on a move to extend first-round draftee contracts beyond the initial two years saying they would only do so if the bar for free agency was moved significantly lower (a disequal trade if ever there was one).

      I can only imagine what they would demand in order to give up trade vetos – though most likely they would flatly refuse to consider it under any circumstance.

      Personally I think it will be problematic for so long as both arms of player movement remain player directed – it would be a more balanced system to have trades be club-directed and free agency be player-directed, and I would be happy to relax the rules on free agency if that became the case.

      Otherwise we have a state of affairs like current, where contracts mean little and free agency is just a slighlty different form of trading.

      Without the bargaining power or leadership to go after that kind of change I don’t see things improving on that front unless they become so drastically untenable that the league essentially knocks over the entire existing player movement system and rebuilds it from scratch.

      I reckon probably the key issue in this is that the CBA is worked out between the AFL and the AFLPA, with seemingly little input asked for from clubs and fans, even though both of those are a key stakeholder in the game and I believe should be given a great involvement in this decision making-process.

      The AFLPA does an almighty job making this as good as it possibly can for the players, but it has to be remembered that sometimes what is good for the players is not good for the game, and so it is important to give the clubs and fans a say in that process as well which would hopefully lead to a more level playing field.

      Re the possible free agency chances, I think surely free agency for life should be brought in, portable free agency I don’t think would be bad either but I would say it’s necessary so long as trade vetos exist.

      If players make the decision to seek a trade early in their careers, it’s fair to say they shouldn’t be free agents till they’ve served some time there, it would only be if players are forced into trades, which they currently cannot be, that it would be unfair to deny them that.

      Four-year free agency might not blow up the game immediately but would be a very dangerous precdent to set now as the median wage will only continue to go up in the future. I’d be very concerned about the possible impact of bringing it in – maybe after five or six years, but not four.

      Lastly, get rid of the rookie list. It’s not not even a rookie list any more, it’s just a way of allowing clubs to give players less money. And not even substantially less – like maybe ten grand a year less, in a $12 mil salary cap. Now we’re going to have a separate rookie draft for essentially no reason. Mind-boggling.

      Wouldn’t be entirely opposed to seeing it re-designed as more of a ‘supplementary’ list from which players can be cut or signed at any time of year, but in its current state it is almost an entirely meaningless distinction.

      • Roar Guru

        June 21st 2017 @ 10:03am
        Cat said | June 21st 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

        If players make the decision to seek a trade early in their careers, it’s fair to say they shouldn’t be free agents till they’ve served some time there, it would only be if players are forced into trades, which they currently cannot be, that it would be unfair to deny them that.

        How about recycled players who served their full contract out at their first club, then were delisted and subsequently picked up by another club? I think its fair they not have to serve 8 years at a new club to qualify for FA. The lack of ‘portable’ FA has never made sense to me. Should just be based on time in the game, not with any particular team.

        • Editor

          June 21st 2017 @ 10:19am
          Josh Elliott said | June 21st 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          That’s a fair point Cat, I hadn’t considered it from that angle.

    • Roar Guru

      June 21st 2017 @ 10:11am
      Paul D said | June 21st 2017 @ 10:11am | ! Report

      Personally – I think you’re all wrong to complain that the AFL didn’t do anything about player movement & trade vetos, from a northern state POV at least. The reason I say that, is that you’re demanding action in the future to address issues that have already occurred in the past and are likely to lessen as time goes by.

      I firmly believe that the growth of the academies and an emphasis on developing homegrown talent will stop the exodus of players to heartland states that has peaked in the years just gone by. Assuming of course the AFL doesn’t lose its ticker on them and succumb to further cutbacks in the draft concessions because of shrieking from Victoria et al.

      If the AFL works towards ensuring all clubs have decent facilities & better working conditions (the flights from WA is a great initiative in this regard) then you’re not going to see the one way player exodus as much and it won’t be necessary to embark on a messy trade rules war with the AFLPA.

      The only way I can see enough momentum building to tackle that one in 2022 is if you get the start of an entrenched divide developing between rich & poor clubs in heartland states in part because of players picking & choosing which clubs are successful – if it’s only the northern clubs being affected I can assure you nothing will ever get done beyond window dressing and sympathies all round, not while the AFL has half the teams based in Melbourne and HQ is at Docklands.

    • June 21st 2017 @ 10:20am
      Leighton said | June 21st 2017 @ 10:20am | ! Report

      Money talks. How true. What is also often not recognised is how excess money poisons any creative, visionary and decent impulse.

      Banality rules, mediocrity reigns and everyone gets their cut (except the supporters) and its left to the communications folk to spin it. 18 months this took.

      The game is all the poorer by the emasculated state of AFL clubs, ever weakened and infantilised by restrictive rules and the drip feed of bailouts, debt facilities and concessions. The AFLPA have gotten away with it for now, but if the local economy tanks as it will, the sight of players getting an average 400k p.a. will stick in the craw of many supporters, especially as the venality of free agency dominates the headlines.