After months of rumour and intrigue, the AFL’s player exchange period will start today with the opening of free agency – allowing 2020’s free agents and their clubs of destination to at long last being making their moves.
It’s the ninth year since free agency was introduced in 2012 and likely to be the most controversial yet as a number of players and clubs work their way through deals that are attracting significant attention.
In particular, Brad Crouch’s mooted move to St Kilda is beginning to stretch the technicalities of the free agency compensation system as speculation grows around just what pick will be offered to the Crows in exchange for his departure.
As is only typical of trade time, a wide range of supposed salaries have been floated regarding Crouch’s contract at St Kilda, with claims that he’ll be making anywhere between $550,000 to $750,000.
A recent Fox Footy article suggested that any free agent moving clubs this year will most likely need to be paid a salary of $800,000 or more for their former club to receive Band 1 compensation.
Even the most optimistic estimates of Crouch’s St Kilda deal aren’t at that level – but perhaps that’s set to change.
For the Adelaide Crows, the gap between Band 1 and Band 2 is as big as it could possibly be. Band 1 would mean having the first two picks in the 2020 AFL Draft, while Band 2 means getting Pick 20 in exchange for Crouch’s departure – and that will likely be blown out even further by other compensation picks and father-son and academy bidding.
The Crows have made it clear that, should the AFL offer them only Band 2 compensation, they are likely to match St Kilda’s offer and force the Saints to trade for Crouch.
That is something that neither club wants to see happen. Whatever trade deal could be struck would undoubtedly be of less value to Adelaide than Pick 2, and of more cost to St Kilda than signing Crouch for free.
Both clubs, therefore, have an incentive to work together and engineer an outcome that benefits both – there are only two problems.
The first is a question of money – whatever that magic number to secure Band 1 compensation for Brad Crouch is, do St Kilda want to pay it? While it could save them a first-round draft pick, the Saints – who signed Brad Hill on a lucrative deal last year – will need to be just as considerate of their salary cap as they are their draft assets.
The second is the far more contentious one: it’s a rort, clearly, and it remains unclear whether the AFL will see it as such.
I don’t think this is controversial to say. Pick 2 is far more than Brad Crouch is worth, and paying nothing to sign him is far less than the cost should be.
St Kilda’s Pick 14 in this year’s draft is about right, and if that’s what they have to pay for him, it would probably be a fair outcome. But the AFL’s free agency compensation rule is affording both clubs the opportunity to have their cake and eat it too, at the cost of a little less cake for everyone else.
Gillon McLachlan has said in the past that he wants to help clubs at the bottom of the ladder rebuild as quickly as possible – but the cavalcade of complex systems the league has introduced into the draft in recent years is making that more difficult.
A club like North Melbourne for example currently holds Picks 2 and 9 in this year’s draft, crucial assets in what many pundits believe could be a long rebuild.
But between possible compensation picks for Brad Crouch, Jeremy Cameron, Joe Daniher and Zac Williams and academy bids for Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Braeden Campbell (or Reef McInnes, or Lachie Jones), North’s picks could easily get pushed out to 4 and 15 through no fault of their own.
By the AFL’s own draft pick value that would be a loss of 840 points or the rough equivalent of Pick 23, an early second-rounder.
Does that help clubs rebuild? For the lucky few in any year who can get overs for a free agent or happen to have a good academy player coming through, sure, but for most it just makes life a little bit harder.
I recognise that using my own club as an example probably comes off a bit self-interested, but it remains a salient point. And if you think I’ve only picked up the cause now that North could be affected, enjoy this flashback to me criticising compensation picks as long as five years ago.
And for what it’s worth, given the even nature of the top end of this year’s draft, the player taken at Pick 4 may be just as talented a prospect as the one who goes at Pick 2. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.
But that won’t always be the case – and what might happen to a club like North Melbourne this year could happen to yours in any other. Surely the majority of us agree: this isn’t how we want the system to work.
This isn’t a criticism of Adelaide or St Kilda. In fact, the same controversy could and perhaps should surround the impending offers for Joe Daniher and Zac Williams, with Crouch’s example more punchy largely because of how early Band 1 compensation would come in for the Crows.
It’s every club’s job to seek out and secure (within the rules) the best possible outcome for themselves. It’s the AFL’s job to create a system that stops something ridiculous from happening.
What’s the solution? The league already has something of a mechanism in place, and that’s where the crux of the controversy may lie when it comes to the Brad Crouch deal.
Embedded within the free agency formula is the provision that an expert panel reviews all free agency formula outcomes and has the power to recommend a change if they believe there’s been a ‘materially anomalous’ result.
That would mean that, even if St Kilda are able to finagle a contract big enough to trigger Band 1 for Brad Crouch, the league still has the power to knock it down to Band 2 if they feel that’s appropriate.
Will they, would they, could they? We’ll only know once the deal goes through and even then we may not know for sure. But if that’s the dilemma the AFL is handed by the formula, the decision they make could shape the tone of free agency for years to come.
Block Band 1 for Crouch and clubs just might get the message that they need to be more realistic when it comes to free agency compensation. On the other hand, let it go through and you’re giving a green light to all that this system was made to be rorted.
In the longer term, I believe two foundational changes need to be made to help future-proof the system.
The second is that the league should review the free agency system and the awarding of compensation picks in a thorough way, and at the very minimum should introduce a rule which protects the top ten picks in the draft from being preempted by compensation or priority selections.
That would mean that any future priority picks or free agency compensation picks doled out by the AFL must come in no earlier than Pick 11, ensuring that – with the exception of the occasional top-ten father-son or northern states academy prospect – the first ten picks of the draft are protected for the sides who missed finals to use without the risk of their value being degraded.
An argument could be made for extending that protection out to the entire first round or even further still, which I’m not necessarily against – but it must cover at a minimum the first ten picks of the draft.
Right now as the AFL reconsiders every aspect of the competition landscape and negotiates a new CBA is a perfect time to fix some past mistakes and make the system a little fairer for all. Here’s hoping we see that happen in the coming weeks.