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The AFL list size debate: How big should squads be?

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Roar Guru
15th December, 2021
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AFL list sizes have been changing drastically for the duration of the national era, with almost annual tinkering of rules and at times sweeping changes made with no time for clubs to plan in advance.

After the AFL reduced list sizes from 52 to 42 in 1994, the innovation of the rookie list was dreamt up in 1997 for clubs to add players between 18 and 23 years of age to address the shortfall via a new draft mechanism.

There were two main drivers for these changes, one being that the expansion of the competition to 16 teams was diluting the talent pool, while players themselves wanted a greater slice of the salary cap pie and rookies could take what they were given.

Then the further expansion to 18 teams led to the need for the AFL to regulate the rookie list, with the expansion to eight places allowing teams to list up to 50 players overall, although this was trimmed several times until the current cap of 44 places was reached.

With compromised drafts following the admission of the two newest clubs, AFL clubs have sought out competitive advantage outside of the national draft, with more and more mature age players being recruited, resulting in the Category B rookie list being modified to include international players, undrafted academy players as well as code-hoppers.

There have been exceptions to the general rule, with GWS enjoying expanded list sizes (and salary cap) far longer than all other clubs, while the Suns had their extra list spots reinstated after appealing to the AFL Commission for desperately needed concessions.

Of course, the most recent round of list size cuts was only meant to be a temporary measure during the Covid-19 crisis, however, powerful lobbies such as the AFLPA want list sizes normalised (again, bigger cut for the top echelon of players) while clubs want more players (and more money to pay them).

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The average salary of an AFL men’s player on the primary list in 2020 was $259,651, down from $363,430 in 2019, which will revert in 2022 as the salary cap expands once more and clubs can shift gears out of the austere gridlock that has limited player trading.

This begs the question: should the millionaire players be the main beneficiaries of this sudden slush fund, or, should list sizes be extended again ahead of the 2023 season?

First of all, it was the best-paid players who wore the brunt of the nine per cent salary cap reduction, although different clubs managed this in different ways with some asking players to agree to holus-bolus across the board pay cuts, while others pushed their existing contracts under the revised cap and back-ended key contracts.

West Coast went to its players asking for a seven per cent cut to all salaries while guaranteeing that the club would not go chasing big-money players unless a marquee player left before the salary cap went back up, with several clubs following this model with some variation on the size of the cut.

Tom Barrass of the Eagles looks happy after his team's win

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Gold Coast decided to defer payments, which has led to their much-maligned salary dumping strategy to get millions off their books, while Collingwood had an absolute dumpster fire trying to conceal their creative accounting from previous years of back-ending Adam Treloar and co.

At the other end of the scale, the VFL has just announced a ten per cent increase in the salary cap, from $100,000 to $110,000 for AFL clubs and from $200,000 to $220,000, which is welcome news for the part-timers trying to get a match payment from time to time, but there are AFL players whose pay cuts were more than their club’s whole VFL salary cap and the pay gap will only continue to get bigger.

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All of this leads to the alternative option that the AFL can enact, which is to increase list sizes in 2023 in order for fringe players to benefit from the cap increase and for all clubs to revert to equal list sizes.

Currently, Category A rookies may be paid at any rate, but $80,000 is paid outside of the salary cap, while Category B rookies are on minimum chips and have their entire salary paid outside the cap.

List sizes for 2022 are set at 36 to 38 primary listed players, four to six Category A rookies and up to two Category B rookies, with a maximum of 44 players overall, although clubs may place players on the long term injury list to create space for extra players to be added in the preseason or midseason.

In contrast, the Suns have an additional five rookie spots with presently 47 places filled ahead of the supplementary selection period where they will look to fill their last Category A spot and Category B spot with train-on players and undrafted Academy players.

Taking the Suns as the exemplar rather than the exception, what if this 49-player model were to be applied to the entire competition, rather than asking Gold Coast to delist a disproportionate number of players in order to bring them in line with the remainder of the competition?

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

Arguments for increasing list sizes abound and ways in which it could be done are the fodder of online discussions, from creating new rookie categories for taller players and youth development to giving clubs the flexibility to have greater or fewer players under the same salary cap conditions.

Before the cancelled NEAFL season in 2020, the AFL had lined up some innovations where AFL clubs could sign two club players who would line-up for their non-AFL team week to week, but be able to play for the AFL club’s reserves in the case of too many injuries.

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The top-up player debacle reached ridiculous proportions during the VFL season when the Suns had to beat the border closure on the day of their cancelled games and arrived in Melbourne without enough players to field two full teams the following week, which is a Covid issue but the back up players were only going to be teenage kids anyway because the whole system is skewed that way.

Unfortunately, the AFLPA is one of the strongest organisations in the industry and they don’t want big lists, but neither did they like the list size cuts or salary cap reduction, so the answer lies somewhere in how current players feel about list sizes and where they land in compromisation.

As with AFL expansion in the past 11 years, the next expansion into Tasmania also puts downward pressure on list sizes because there is an argument that clubs losing two or three players each to the new team will have to replace them with inferior players.

The corollary to that, as mentioned in the Carter Report in the viability of a 19th team in Tassie, is that the population is increasing at a greater rate than the number of AFL players has risen through expansion, while the length of playing careers is more than twice that of historical averages.

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The final argument in favour of increased list sizes is that the second tier competitions around the country cannot compete wage wise with bush leagues, while the ever-present spectre of a national reserves competition faces staunch opposition from the WAFL and SANFL.

At the end of the day, in 2022 around 800 players will be paid about a quarter of a billion dollars, but only half of them will actually play at AFL level each week with the other half either not playing at all or playing tier two footy alongside guys lucky to get a couple hundred bucks, which just isn’t fair.

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