Exclusive unpublished material: How priority picks made tanking, rebuilding and improving AFL lists a whole lot murkier

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Tanking isn’t the same as rebuilding. The former brings with it sinister connotations which don’t exist in a stock standard team sports tear down. It is a grand statement.

    Below is an excerpt from what became volumes of unpublished material prepared by a range of contributors, including yours truly, for the upcoming Australian rules football book Footballistics: How the data analytics revolution is uncovering footy’s hidden truths. You can pre-order your copy at ABC Books ahead of its release on Monday, June 18.

    Almost every professional sports team will have undergone a rebuild in their history, but very few will have tanked.

    Deliberately losing for some sort of consequential gain goes against the zeitgeist of sports, and is generally frowned upon as a strategy. Notwithstanding, we have seen tanking pay off in many global sporting leagues, most recently the Houston Astros in the MLB and the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA.

    While the AFL, MLB and NBA have player drafts, the implications of the draft are fundamentally different in each league. This is because basketball has five players on the court at any one time, and playing lists of just a dozen names. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, with the iterative battle between pitcher and batter the most significant influence on the contest as it evolves.

    By contrast, Australian rules football has 18 players on the field, and 22 available in any one game, plus a playing list of up to 45 names. Therefore, the scope for a single player to transform a team’s prospects is severely constrained in our native football code.

    Nonetheless, the draft is the primary means for players to enter the AFL system, and draft picks are the only way to access them.

    Tanking for reasons of improving draft position is absolutely one of the incentives governing the AFL. At the time the Melbourne situation was unfolding, the AFL had an extra incentive layered on top: the priority pick system.

    The Melbourne Demons face an angry crowd

    (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media)

    From 1993 to 2011, the AFL would grant teams that finished under an arbitrary wins threshold over a given period of time (at first in a single year but over time that changed to multiple years) an additional pick early in the draft.

    Anyone with a rational brain can see this is a terrible idea, albeit one with a reasonable intention. The priority pick rule, governed by a hard threshold of wins and losses to determine eligibility, creates a bonafide incentive for a club or multiple clubs to win few enough games to qualify for an extra pick.

    This was one of the many push and pull forces affecting the league for almost two decades. And it took almost the entirety of that time for the AFL to realise the incentives it was regulating into its economy.

    At first, a priority pick was granted based on a club’s performance over a four-year period. There is no public record of the criteria used to determine eligibility for a priority pick. Sydney received two priority picks in the 1994 draft, after winning seven, one, three and four games in the 1991 through 1994 seasons, for example.

    The second iteration of the priority pick system, which ran from 1997 to 2005, was relatively simple as it introduced a hard threshold. If a team finished with less than 20.5 premiership points – five wins – in a season, they received a priority pick. In those days, a priority pick was played prior to the first round, meaning it gazumped the usual order of the draft. If there was more than one team with a priority pick in a given year, the picks were allocated in reverse ladder order.

    This was changed ahead of the 2006 season, with the AFL introducing a tiered wins threshold system. If a team finished with less than 16.5 premiership points – four wins – in a single year, they would receive a priority pick in between the end of the first round and the start of the second of the draft. If a club did this for two seasons in a row it would receive a pre-first round priority pick.

    According to the AFL’s 2005 annual report, the league’s clubs were split on the issue of draft assistance. When formally asked for a view, three clubs wanted the existing five win rule retained, three wanted the priority pick system abolished, nine wanted to introduce a multi-year assessment system of some kind, and one wanted a working group established to research the issue in more depth.

    Between 1997 and 2005, the AFL handed out 16 priority picks (just shy of two per year on average), with nine of the league’s 16 teams receiving at least one extra selection under the five wins or less rule. However, no team received more than two.

    The Carlton Blues were one of the teams that made two priority selections. They met the criteria for a third priority pick (chronologically it would have been their first) in 2002, having finished last with three wins. However, the club was stripped of both this and its regular first round pick on account of a systemic breach of the league’s salary cap earlier in the decade. The first two players selected in that draft were Brendon Goddard and Daniel Wells.

    Some notable modern players were selected with those 16 priority picks: Nick Riewoldt (St Kilda, 2000), Luke Hodge (Hawthorn on-traded by Fremantle, 2001), Luke Ball (St Kilda, 2001), Chris Judd (West Coast, 2001), Adam Cooney (Western Bulldogs, 2003) and Jarryd Roughead (Hawthorn, 2004) – among a host of other outstanding players on the modern era.

    Hodge-Hawks-AFL

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Of course, while the player who was actually selected with the priority pick is the man most often identified as the ‘bonus’, the reality is it is the player picked after the priority pick who is the bonus. In that case, for instance, Lance Franklin was the additional player Hawthorn was afforded through its 2004 priority pick.

    Following the 2005 tightening of the rule, a further 12 priority picks were handed out to clubs that met the revised criteria. However, most of these selections (ten in all) were granted in between the first and second rounds. This limited the impact on the integrity of the top of the draft, but did not represent a material slowing in the pace of priority pick distribution: from 16 in nine years (1.8 picks per year) between 1997 and 2005 versus 12 in six (two picks per year) under the revised criteria from 2006 to 2011.

    The success of the revised criteria was to reduce the number of first-round picks conveyed as priority picks. Just two were granted in the third iteration of the priority pick rule: Carlton in 2007 (who selected Matthew Kreuzer) and Melbourne in 2009 (who selected Tom Scully).

    In the 2012 pre-season, the AFL, with the unanimous support of all 18 clubs, abolished the wins threshold-based priority pick system. The priority pick was not removed from the league’s economy altogether, with the AFL Commission able to award a priority pick on a discretionary basis and guided by a formula that is held in confidence.

    If the previous rule had been in place, the league would have delivered 12 priority picks in the five seasons spanning 2012 through 2017. Melbourne would have received three, including two top-tier picks in 2013 and 2014, on account of seasons that yielded four, two and four wins respectively.

    Carlton (2015), Essendon (2016), Fremantle (2016), Gold Coast (2012) and St Kilda (2014) would have received one end-of-first-round priority pick. The GWS Giants (2012 and 2013) and Brisbane Lions (2015 and 2016) would have first received an end of first round priority pick before graduating to the top-tier pick in the second year of their respective runs.

    None of this arose. Instead, the clubs are now required to apply for a pick, rather than the AFL Commission handing them out if a formula suggests it should be granted.

    To date, just one application for a priority pick has been granted: to the Brisbane Lions following the 2016 season. Brisbane was awarded an end of first round priority pick, where the old formula would have awarded the club a top tier pick in the same year.

    Dan Rich vies for the ball

    (AAP Image/David Crosling)

    The application process is not necessarily public, however it has emerged Melbourne applied for one in 2014, Carlton in 2015, and the Brisbane Lions again applied in 2017. No application was granted.

    While adding a political layer to proceedings, it could be argued the fact a priority pick is still on offer retains some of the bad incentives of the old system. It could also be argued that the direct relationship between ladder position and draft order is too strong an incentive – in a purist sense, it is still an optimal strategy for a team out of contention for a premiership to attempt to drop down the ladder to improve its draft hand.

    One proposal to address this is the introduction of a draft lottery, as exists in the NBA. Instead of receiving a pick based on finishing order, clubs would receive better odds in a lottery draw for draft picks based on finishing order.

    A club that finished in 18th position would receive a 50 per cent chance of receiving the number one pick, versus a club that finished in 17th receiving a 25 percent chance, and so on down the draft order. This introduces some additional uncertainty, clouding the incentive and perhaps making clubs think twice about waiving the white flag as a season draws to a close.

    In saying this, the Philadelphia 76ers employed an open and transparent tanking strategy as part of its rebuild, in spite of the reduced odds of receiving the best pick available in the draft. All that happens is the line moves a little further in one direction or another.

    For it all, the evidence suggests priority picks are not the panacea many may have assumed they were during the early 2000s. Collingwood is one of only three cases where players picked with priority selections have played a central role in a team’s premiership. Thomas, Pendlebury and 1997 priority pick Josh Fraser were all members of the Magpies 2010 premiership team.

    West Coast won a premiership with Chris Judd on its list in 2006. He was traded to Carlton a year later, and retired after an ACL tear in 2015.

    The other is Hawthorn, who won four premierships between 2008 and 2015 – including three in a row from 2013 to 2015 – with three players selected with priority picks on its list.

    Jarryd Roughead (2004) and Xavier Ellis (2005) were selected by Hawthorn with priority picks it was granted, while Luke Hodge (2001) was picked by the Hawks with a selection traded to it by Fremantle. Roughead and Hodge were at Hawthorn for the entirety of the run, while Ellis moved to the West Coast Eagles at the conclusion of an injury-interrupted 2013 season (when he missed out on the team’s premiership victory).

    Jarryd Roughead Hawthorn Hawks AFL 2014

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    Otherwise, no other player selected with a top-tier priority pick has been involved in a premiership team with the team that selected him. Indeed, the legacy of priority pick players could be an increased propensity to move clubs: 12 of the 18 players selected in the priority pick round of the draft have changed clubs before the end of their respective careers, with Paul Hasleby (Fremantle, 1999) and Nick Riewoldt (St Kilda, 2000) the only two to have retired as one club players to date.

    Does it mean tanking isn’t worth it? Like the charge itself, it is difficult to say with any certainty.

    In lieu of taped recording of a club administrator or coach delivering an edict to his or her football department, there is no way of proving whether a club tanked in black or white terms.

    However, what is clear is the AFL created a situation where all clubs had a genuine incentive to lose games of football, which created the preconditions for generic rebuilding strategies to take on a darker shade of grey.

    Pre-order your copy of Footballistics: How the data analytics revolution is uncovering footy’s hidden truths here, or pick one up from your favourite bookstore from Monday, June 18.

    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 (31)

    • June 15th 2018 @ 6:45am
      The Ghost said | June 15th 2018 @ 6:45am | ! Report

      The old boys network that run Carlton have turned this once mighty club into the laughing stock of the AFL. Years of mismanagement at the top has seen this club make mistake after mistake. McKay has been responsible for the decimation of lists and the drafting of duds. SOS the master recruiter has filled the list with rejects who go from bad to worse. Fresh eyes are needed at the top. Carlton haves real chance of getting the wooden spoon trifecta. Real Carlton people have had enough.

      • Roar Guru

        June 15th 2018 @ 1:58pm
        Cat said | June 15th 2018 @ 1:58pm | ! Report

        Whatever you say Matthew

    • June 15th 2018 @ 9:35am
      Leighton said | June 15th 2018 @ 9:35am | ! Report

      Would love to see a PhD student take up the challenge of understanding success of Australian rules clubs in the AFL. So many variables are consistent (salary cap, draft, number of games played etc) that it could be most revealing.

      Look forward to picking up a copy of the new book Ryan. Great to see plenty of serious analysis and thinking on sites such as The Roar.

      • June 18th 2018 @ 4:29pm
        Fat Toad said | June 18th 2018 @ 4:29pm | ! Report

        I think that the unifying factor is pretty much the same across all sports and AFL teams. You can have a good administration without taking the cup, but you can not get the cup without a good administration.

        While a team can have most of the characteristics required to win at the highest level, a strong administration brings all of the requirements together more often and for longer.

    • June 15th 2018 @ 10:39am
      dbjm said | June 15th 2018 @ 10:39am | ! Report

      Great article and interesting analysis.

      One point though, you missed a third club where a player selected with a priority pick ‘played a central role in a clubs premiership’. Pretty sure most would agree that Chris Judd played a pretty important part with the Eagles in 2006

      • Columnist

        June 15th 2018 @ 1:00pm
        Ryan Buckland said | June 15th 2018 @ 1:00pm | ! Report

        Thanks, that was a very big oversight, particularly as a West Coast fan myself…

        • June 16th 2018 @ 12:57pm
          Lroy said | June 16th 2018 @ 12:57pm | ! Report

          Ryan is an Eagles fan??

          From this moment forth I agree with everything you have ever said or written in your entire life.

    • Roar Guru

      June 15th 2018 @ 10:56am
      Paul Dawson said | June 15th 2018 @ 10:56am | ! Report

      Re: the draft I’d like to see a change to the formula whereby recent years of making finals are included in the mix.

      Clubs could be assessed on how many years out of say, the last 5 they have played finals and have that deducted from their draft pick order. Eg. Sydney would get a -5 to their draft picks at the end of 2018 as they’ve played finals in all 5 years

      Sides that haven’t played finals at all during the last 5 years could receive an elevation of +5. If sides want to tank to not play finals that’s their daft call but I doubt anyone would. Basically means the longer you’re playing finals, the more the draft is weighted against you. Try and force the equalisation a bit more.

      I’ve dummied up a table of how it would look for the first 2 rounds (note this doesn’t include trades, future picks etc, I know lots of these were traded)

      Original Pick – Club – Updated order

      1  Carlton 1
      2  Brisbane 2
      3  St Kilda 3
      6  Gold Coast 4
      4  Western Bulldogs 5
      5  Essendon 6
      7 Melbourne 7
      9  Collingwood 8
      8  Fremantle 9
      19  Carlton 10
      10  Geelong 11
      20  Brisbane 12
      11 North Melbourne 13
      21  St Kilda 14
      13  Port Adelaide 15
      14  Adelaide 16
      12  Sydney 17
      16 Greater Western Sydney  18
      15  Hawthorn 19
      24  Gold Coast 20
      17 West Coast 21
      18 Richmond 22
      25 Melbourne 23
      22  Western Bulldogs 24
      23  Essendon 25
      27  Collingwood 26
      26  Fremantle 27
      37  Carlton 28
      28  Geelong 29
      38  Brisbane 30
      29 North Melbourne 31
      39  St Kilda 32
      31  Port Adelaide 33
      32  Adelaide 34
      30  Sydney 35
      34 Greater Western Sydney  36
      33  Hawthorn 37
      35 West Coast 38
      36 Richmond 39
      40  Western Bulldogs 40

      • June 15th 2018 @ 11:29am
        truetigerfan said | June 15th 2018 @ 11:29am | ! Report

        Would’ve loved to see this in place for the past 30 odd years! It certainly has merit. Plenty of clubs would resist to the bitter end though.

      • June 15th 2018 @ 12:45pm
        Tom M said | June 15th 2018 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

        I like it Paul, seems to have merit.

      • June 18th 2018 @ 2:00pm
        GJ said | June 18th 2018 @ 2:00pm | ! Report

        Future picks makes it curly, with Adelaide for example having Melbourne’s first this year. Additionally, it’s quite possible that Adelaide could finish 13th this year, which under the current system I think would gift them their highest ever draft pick, 6. Especially considering this draft appears to have the best SA talent in a generation

    • June 15th 2018 @ 11:46am
      GoSwans said | June 15th 2018 @ 11:46am | ! Report

      I would give priority picks 2, 4, 6, 8 etc to clubs that have not paid finals for 5 or more years.

      I wrote the other day I think they went too far with tightening up. I think between first and second round probably doesn’t make that much difference whereas before first round do or extras in first round do. Once you outside the top 10 the draft becomes a bit of a lottery while those in the top 10 are likely to have long careers..

      I also like the idea of a draft lottery.

      The current system does not do enough to enable equalisation.

      • June 15th 2018 @ 12:47pm
        Tom M said | June 15th 2018 @ 12:47pm | ! Report

        Equalisation is a separate issue. Until the player veto on trades is lifted then we will never have an equal comp list management wise.

    • June 15th 2018 @ 12:38pm
      tashawk said | June 15th 2018 @ 12:38pm | ! Report

      I am curious about the value of high draft picks.

      Has anyone seen any figures showing the average draft position on premiership teams and if there is a trend how do the various team lists at the moment for each club compare.

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