List reductions are coming. Everything that’s being said makes it seem like an inevitability.
While the reduction will likely be over the space of a few years, it will dramatically change the way list management operates.
The commonly mooted number is 35, down from the current AFL list size which is around 45.
Last year a quarter of clubs used 35 or more players at senior level, clearly showing that the current rules surrounding list management will need to change to fit this new reality.
The AFL’s recent additions of the Pre-season Supplemental Period (SSP) and Mid-season Draft, which allows clubs to add players to their list throughout the pre-season or in the middle of the season, will only become more important and needs to be expanded upon.
Currently a club needs a spare list spot to use one of these systems, which is created by either deliberately leaving a spot open after the draft and trade period or by putting a player on the long-term injury list.
But with smaller list sizes, teams need the ability to add players to their list at any time throughout the season and cover for short-term injuries.
A model similar to the NBA and NFL might need to de adopted, where teams have the flexibility to bring in players and sign them to different types of contracts (an equivalent to ten-day contracts in the NBA for example).
The biggest issue is the difference in pay between the AFL and international codes, meaning that there might need to be guarantees or protections put in for state league players who are signed throughout the season, especially if they are moving interstate.
List reductions will also transform the practices list departments use when deciding whether to recruit or re-sign a player.
For footballers currently in the AFL system, veterans, injury-plagued or depth/fringe players are the most likely to be affected.
Champion players like David Mundy, Kade Simpson and Shaun Burgoyne might have decisions on their playing futures taken out of their hands.
Clubs usually sign or keep players who struggle to get on the park due to injuries, current examples include Ben Jacobs, Lynden Dunn and Harley Bennell, but with smaller list sizes the decision to re-sign these types of players will be harder to make.
We saw examples of these scenarios in the lead-up to the mid-season draft last year, where Heath Grundy and Shaun Grigg both retired to free up list spots for their respective clubs.
Jaeger O’Meara’s comments on decreasing list sizes also stand out, where he said reductions could be beneficial because of a current dilution of talent in the AFL.
In theory this is correct, as smaller list sizes should mean that only the best players are in the league.
But there is also the fact that it is hard to justify giving someone a list spot, no matter their talent, if they cannot consistently take the field.
This was a situation O’Meara was in once during his career, where he did not play a game in 2015 and 2016 and only played six in 2017.
This is not to suggest that O’Meara would not currently have a spot in the AFL if there were smaller list sizes while he was injured, with his talent and skill he would have a place on virtually every club’s list during that time.
This is to highlight that clubs might not be able to carry injury-plagued players in this new environment even if they are talented, because a spot on an AFL’s team list will become so finite.
When looking at drafting and recruiting, footballers who need to develop (a “project player”) and players from outside the system are the most likely to be affected.
Clubs could take fewer risks when drafting a player, focussing on how physically and mentally prepared they are for the rigours of the AFL.
Stories like Mason Cox’s and Mark Blicavs’, products of the Category B Rookie system who do not have a football background, might become rarer or even disappear.
While it’s impossible to know the full extent and form list reductions will take, its seemingly inevitable arrival will massively change the current AFL system.