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Dear Gillon, here's how to fix trades, free agency and the draft

Gillon McLachlan says there's no chance of a Tasmanian AFL team in the near future (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
28th January, 2018
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Regular readers here on The Roar by now have likely clued into the fact that I am one of those detestable AFL fans who seems almost to prefer the machinations of trade period and the draft to footy itself.

What can I say? I love footy. But I’d probably be equally as enraptured by an hour-long show each week that just shows Stephen Wells playing around with spreadsheets on his laptop. I am what I am.

That said, I believe, and I think there would be a lot who agree with me, that there’s a lot of problems with the way the AFL currently does things in terms of trading, free agency and the draft.

Clubs take draftees onboard at the moment not knowing whether or not they’ll still want to be there in three years time.

Consider that from the 2014 AFL draft, just three years ago, six of the top fifteen players taken – 40 per cent – have already moved to different clubs.

On the other side of the coin, players in their late teens or early 20s are being forced into life-altering decisions about whether to move clubs earlier than they should be.

Finally, fans are being treated to a trade period often so devoid of action in the early stages that listening to Terry Wallace on the radio has somehow become a thing that people do. What a dystopian nightmare it is.

I’ve got a few ideas to fix all that – ideas that will benefit players, clubs, and fans.

The draft

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Let’s start with the draft, because this is where players start also. Let’s make this an ‘auction’ style draft, where instead of having a series of picks in order, AFL clubs make bids for players using a stockpile of draft points.

This isn’t a new idea and has been floated by a few pundits already. Adrian Polykandrites wrote a great article about it here on The Roar in 2016.

At the end of the season instead of receiving draft picks, each club would receive a certain value of draft points (possibly based on the current index) tied to their finishing ladder position.

Then at the draft clubs take it in turns to nominate a player and put an opening bid on them, and all 18 clubs have the opportunity to participate in an auction to draft that player.

This wouldn’t necessitate getting rid of the father-son or academy rules – clubs with those privileges would simply bid as normal, but receive a discount on points spent if they are the winning bidders.

How would it benefit players?
An auction draft would mean players are more likely to join clubs where they want to stay, because they are drafted to the clubs who want them the most (and can afford them).

Take for example Tom Boyd in the 2013 draft. GWS didn’t really need a key forward but had pick 1 and couldn’t justify not drafting him.

In an auction draft, GWS would more likely have let the opportunity to draft Boyd pass, and spent the equivalent value of pick 1 on drafting two players that are more suited to their specific needs.

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Instead, a team like the Western Bulldogs, St Kilda, or Collingwood (who had multiple top ten picks that year) probably would have made the highest bid on Boyd, and he would’ve landed at a Victorian club that saw him as a key part of their future without all the anxiety and hubbub of requesting a trade after his first year.

Tom Boyd chases ball

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

How would it benefit clubs?
An auction draft means that every club has a crack at every player, rather than being confined by where their picks fall in the order. As a result, clubs will by force of the market wind up paying a fairer price for the player they want.

Obviously some clubs are simply not going to have enough draft points to be in the mix for the truly top-line players, but every club that retains the majority of their points after the trade period will have a reasonable shot at most players in the pool.

This saves clubs a whole lot of fretting about whether or not a certain player will be available at their next pick – instead they can simply decide how many points they think a player is worth and bid to that, knowing that they’ll have their turn to make a bid just like everyone else.

An example of this could be Gold Coast last year who took a real bolter in Wil Powell inside the top 20 because they were worried other clubs would take him before their next pick, No.42.

In an auction draft, Gold Coast would not need to ‘overpay’ by coughing up the equivalent of a top 20 pick for Powell, but instead would only need to outbid other potential suitors when his name came up in the nominations.

They could even get a bit clever and try to game the system a little – either by throwing up his name early in the nominations and hoping that other clubs aren’t yet willing to spend their points on him, or waiting until late in the piece when they might already have spent them.

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How would it benefit fans?
An auction would make the draft fantastically entertaining! While it would mean that the draft goes for a bit longer – likely becoming a full-day event – it would make it a lot more unpredictable and enjoyable to watch, even for those with relatively little knowledge of the players involved.

At the moment the draft has two key problems that cause boredom levels to skyrocket. The first is that the early part of the draft is always at least semi-successfully predicted by experts like Cal Twomey in advance.

The second is that we inevitably hit something of a dead zone after the first 30 or 40 picks where the names being read out are often only faintly familiar to even the most ardent of under-18s watchers.

An auction draft would make it very hard to predict with genuine certainty where just about any of the players in the pool might end up, and would also showcase the human drama that is inevitable in any auction.

If you’ve never gone to an auction house and just watched with interest as people make decisions in the heat of the moment to bid or not bid, believe me, you’re missing out (it’s also a lot of fun to just raise your hand on anything that’s being sold for a dollar and see what you get, I once wound up owning a large collection of rusty teapots this way).

Even if you know nothing about the player involved, can you tell me you wouldn’t enjoy the drama of Stephen Silvagni and Adrian Dodoro staring each other down in a bidding war like James Bond and Le Chiffre? That’s exactly the kind of watchability that the AFL should be looking for when it comes to the draft.

Adrian Dodoro Essendon Bombers AFL

(Photo by Michael Dodge/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Trades

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I’ve said once or twice before here on The Roar that I believe the way to fix trading in the AFL is to take away the rights of players to veto trades.

If you’re the AFLPA you probably already closed your browser window after finishing that sentence but please, hear me out. What I’m proposing may mean that players lose that right, but they gain plenty in return.

The issue at the moment is that trading and free agency are both almost entirely player-driven (particularly when it comes to players of significant value), and are essentially two roses by different names.

While trading is a little bit more complex and does give clubs the right to block a player’s movement if still contracted, this is almost never done by clubs, and it has a history of fairly mixed results when it does happen.

How do we change this? What I’m proposing is a radical change to the initial draftee contract that would allow clubs to automatically re-contract their younger players to an industry standard wage without needing to negotiate with the player.

Let’s divide AFL players into two groups – younger players and older players. I’m up for a good debate on where the cut-off should be, but let’s roughly say 24 or 25, the point at which a typical 18-year-old draftee will have played six or seven years of footy.

Younger players, under my proposal, would not negotiate their own contracts. They would get a standard two-year contract when drafted that included options for their club to automatically extend them up to that six or seven-year mark.

How is their wage then determined? There would be a formula agreed upon by the clubs and the AFLPA that pays every young player a base wage, and then they receive bonuses on top of this related to metrics such as games played, club best-and-fairest finishes, All-Australian nominations, Brownlow votes (or wins), AFLCA MVP votes (or wins).

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Essentially, these players would have an automatically determined wage that reflects their accomplishments to date in the AFL – rather than putting clubs in the awkward position of trying to pay young players on potential.

Clubs would be required to make a call on whether or not to extend a younger player’s contract before the trade period begins and if not then they would be able to sign with another club of their choosing as a delisted free agent.

Older players would negotiate their own contracts as AFL players currently do. If out of contract at the end of the season and not willing to agree to a new contract with their club, they would immediately become unrestricted free agents. More on that later.

Since salaries of younger players are unable to be accurately planned for by clubs they would not be considered a part of the salary cap – the salary cap would be reduced, and would only apply to the older players on a club’s list.

Any player who is contracted at a club for the next year would be eligible to traded without consent to another club – however, older players would be able to request, at the club’s discretion, that their contract include a no-trade clause.

How would it benefit players?
This system takes away the ability of a younger player to walk out on their club and go elsewhere. So how can it possibly benefit players?

Well, ask this: why do they have that right in the first place? Primarily, it is done so that young players have a way of getting a fair financial return for their services.

The system works, sort of. Young players generally do get paid well enough because clubs are anxious about retaining them – or because they do choose to go elsewhere for bigger bucks.

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But this can be problematic. Requesting a trade, or even just considering one, has a way of catapulting players into the spotlight.

Consider the lashings Jake Lever was copping in October, or the way Tom Boyd has been almost constantly criticised during his career at the Western Bulldogs. It’s not healthy.

Jake Lever Adelaide Crows AFL 2017

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

What my proposed system would do is automatically guarantee young players in the AFL a fair wage as according to what they’ve achieved at the level, without forcing them to make big career-changing decisions before their careers really begin.

Because every club pays young players the same standardised wage there’d be no financial reason why a young player should need to seek a trade, and because these wages are paid outside the salary cap there’d be no reason why clubs should choose not to renew and pay fairly a player who deserves it.

And keep in mind of course that as per the auction draft, a player is already more likely to be starting their career at a club that really values them, making it less likely that they should want or need to move clubs early on.

Also, there could be some restrictions put in place to make sure that players are not bounced around unfairly by clubs trading them against their will.

A ‘cooldown’ rule that means a player cannot be traded more than once in a period of three years without their consent would prevent scenarios where players find themselves moving every twelve months.

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Younger players who are traded interstate could also be paid a wage bonus if traded interstate in order to compensate them for the costs and difficulties of moving.

A system of compassionate free agency could be considered to provide a way for players going through a generally unforseeable crisis (such as a seriously ill family member) to move home.

And of course, this should all be backed up by a significant investment in supporting the mental health of players, providing services to help them cope with homesickness and deal with other common problems that face new AFL players.

How would it benefit clubs?
This would be a massive headache remover for clubs when it comes to building their lists, giving them confidence that they will be able to retain the players they draft for at least the first six or seven years of their career.

Consider a situation like the Brisbane Lions faced with Josh Schache early in 2017. He had played barely more than a season of football, and only gone okay without starring, but rumours were abounding that Victorian teams were willing to offer him as much as $800,000 a year to come home.

What kind of insane rock and hard place scenario is that? The Lions looked to have a choice between either letting a former No.2 pick walk out the door, or massively overpaying a kid who had done little to deserve it.

Clubs deserve the chance to really work with and develop a player from when they first arrive until when they’re hitting maturity without needing to worry about an opposition club poaching them – and this system gives them exactly that.

It’s also worth pointing out here that the draft points system would make trading a lot fairer and easier for clubs.

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A case in point would be Jake Stringer this year – instead of the Bulldogs umming and ahing over whether or not to take two second-round picks for him, Essendon could simply trade them the sum value of two second-round picks, which would be much more appealing.

There’d be no need for endless haggling over trading a first rounder and a fourth rounder but getting a third and fifth back, instead clubs could simply settle on what is a fair number of points to pay, and do the deal.

Jake Stringer Western Bulldogs AFL

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

How would it benefit fans?
Much like clubs, fans would be able to have some confidence in knowing that new draftees who arrive with the club will be sticking out the early years of their careers there, and won’t seek a trade after two years proving to be a wasted investment.

Consider the scenario Brisbane fans were in at the draft this year, forced to ask themselves whether they wanted to take the ‘risk’ that Cam Rayner might not want to live in Brisbane, or draft a player of less talent simply because they were more likely to stay.

That’s not a mentality that should be forced upon fans if you want them to love the game, especially not in expansion states where this scenario is more likely to come up, and where clubs need all the fans they can get.

Also, these changes would make the trade period much more interesting to follow. Using points instead of picks would, both in the draft and the trade period, give us a common baseline to understand just how much clubs value the players they are recruiting.

Free agency

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So younger players are essentially locked in at the club that drafts them, unless the club decides to trade them. What happens after that?

This is where power swings decisively in the favour of the player. Now they’ve got the right to negotiate their own contract, and if they don’t like the offer from their club, they can sign elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.

This is only fair. I think we can all agree that at some point in their career a player deserves to have the power to control what club they are playing at, and what salary they will accept to do so – just not too early.

If clubs lose free agents, they don’t get any sort of compensation value for them departing. Instead, their compensation is that they can go and use the salary cap room they now have spare to spend on a free agent of their own.

How would it benefit players?
A lower age bar for unrestricted free agency is something that the AFLPA has been wanting for a long time and this delivers it.

Yes, under this system, players are required to ‘pay their dues’ by being essentially tied to the club that drafts them for the first six-to-seven years of their careers – but by giving up a little freedom there, they gain much more here.

Here, now, at the point in a player’s career where they have made their mark on the AFL and are beginning to reach the peak of their powers, they can go negotiate a big-money payday at the club of their choice no strings attached, and they have the power to do that earlier on than the current system allows.

In addition to that, removing the compensation pick will mean we no longer have scenarios where players like Tyrone Vickery or Chris Mayne are basically forced to move clubs because their current teams would rather have an inflated compo pick than have them.

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Tyrone Vickery Richmond Tigers 2015 AFL

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

How would it benefit clubs?
Yes, the deadline by which a club has to convince a player to stick around rather than leave via free agency jumps up a little earlier in the grand scheme of things, but because they are able to hold them in place via automatic contract extension options until that point, clubs should have a suitable amount of time to win the loyalty of the player.

If they can’t do it in six or seven years, maybe they don’t deserve it – it’s definitely a net gain for clubs in terms of the balance of power over player movement.

Clubs no longer need to scoff as they see Fremantle get a top 25 pick for getting rid of Chris Mayne – and watch all their picks after that slide down one spot in the order – either.

And of course, clubs now have access to go shopping at what will be a much bigger, much less complicated, much more active free agency market. Bringing in a prime-age player for free more often? Who doesn’t want that?

How would it benefit fans?
A free agency free-for-all would be far more entertaining than the way free agency currently plays out, where maybe half a dozen players move all year and many of them only do so because they’re effectively being forced out by their own clubs.

This system cuts out a lot of the time spent listening to trade radio waiting for something interesting to happen – if a players wants to sign somewhere, they do. If a club wants to make a trade deal, they do.

As a fan, that’s much more appealing – we can spend more time talking about the deal that did happen, and not the deal that might happen.

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Also, without compensation picks tempting clubs to force players out, fans are more likely to see players they’ve grown attached to remain with their clubs.

In short

Players lose the ability to walk out on their club uncontracted at a young age, but they gain the guarantee of fair wage without needing to negotiate for it in the early part of their career, and have access to unrestricted free agency much earlier on.

An auction draft means they’re likely to start their career at a club that values them more than others would, and while clubs are able to trade them without their consent, restrictions are put in place to ensure this isn’t done to their detriment.

Clubs gain a confidence in knowing that when they draft a player, they’re going to get the chance to work with them over the first six or seven years of their career if they choose to, enough time to really make them feel at home at the club.

They are no longer held ransom by players requesting trades, but have the ability to make trade deals as they see fit, and using points rather than picks instantly makes drafting and trading simpler and fairer.

Fans can stress less about young players walking out of the club after two years, get a more entertaining draft and trade period, and using points rather than picks can enjoy analysing draft and trade deals in a more smoothly comparable way.

I’m not saying this a perfect or complete proposal – there are still considerations to be had over how list sizes might change, how mature-aged draftees would be handled, exactly what the formula for determining a younger player’s wage would be, and many other things.

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However, broadly speaking, I reckon these changes would make life better for players, clubs, and fans. What more could the AFL want?