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Exclusive unpublished material: How priority picks made tanking, rebuilding and improving AFL lists a whole lot murkier

Melbourne fans jeer as the team leaves the field after the 2013 AFL round 02 match between the Essendon Bombers and the Melbourne Demons at the MCG, Melbourne on April 06, 2013. (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media)
Expert
15th June, 2018
31
1522 Reads

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Below is an excerpt from what became volumes of unpublished material prepared by a range of contributors, including yours truly, for the upcoming Australian rules football book Footballistics: How the data analytics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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.