A Free Agency system has finally arrived in the AFL. Whilst this very topic barely raises and eyelid in American sports, it is a significant step in allowing players greater control of where they would like to continue their careers without the uncertainty and heartache of being at the mercy of the drafting system, be it the November National Draft or the Pre Season Draft in December. Situations like Luke Ball’s during the off-season and, if we rewind some 7 seasons ago, Jade Rawlings and Nick Stevens, must be avoided. Whilst Ball eventually ended up at his club of choice (Collingwood), he could well have done without the anxious wait come National Draft day, and the preceding 5-6 weeks where it looked as if the path to get to the Lexus Centre would be blocked by a number of clubs with earlier picks than the Magpies’ 30th selection.
But, at least he got there in the end. The same cannot be said for Rawlings and Stevens in the 2003 off-season. Both men wanted out of their respective clubs at the time (Hawthorn and Port Adelaide), Rawlings to continue his career at North Melbourne with his brother Brady, and Stevens to return to Melbourne and pull on the black and white stripes of Collingwood. Unfortunately for both, they had to rely on trades getting done, with both men left high and dry at the end of the player swap deadline. The Western Bulldogs were hovering with the 1st selection of the Pre-Season draft and took Rawlings against his wishes, and Carlton doing the same to Stevens with the next pick.
No, it’s not right that men like the aforementioned trio, who have provided great service to the game for a number of years, can be left disgruntled and bitter with their original clubs when all they wanted was a fresh change and to part on amicable terms. So the AFLPA has finally got its way, Free Agency will be here come the conclusion of the 2012 season. However, there are a couple of minor adjustments I would make in order to improve the model released be the AFL earlier in the week:
Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agency: The minimum qualification of 8 seasons is far too high. I can understand the concern if this was lowered, as clubs want to protect younger players that they have nurtured in their system wanting out for inadequate compensation, but I think the following proposal would still protect clubs whilst giving players with 4-7 seasons at AFL level a greater say in their futures.
- Restricted Free Agency: Open to players who have a minimum of 4 years in the AFL system but no more than 7 and remain on an AFL list (they have not been delisted by their club). Basically a Restricted Free Agent is able to negotiate with his club of choice and then, once presented with a formal contract offer, this is to be lodged with the AFL. The player’s current club is notified of this, and the terms reached with the new club. They then have a ‘First Right of Refusal’, which is present in the current AFL Free Agency model. Basically this means that his current club has the right to match the deal proposed by the 2nd club. If so, the players can then choose to remain at his current club under the new terms agreed, or sign for the new club. Should he sign for the new club, compensation in the form of draft pick(s) is to be determined based on the average yearly salary of the new contract. This is important as back-loaded contracts cannot be exploited.
For example, if Brett Deledio of Richmond was out of contract and wanted to explore Free Agency, and say, Carlton had agreed to pay him a 3 year deal of $500,000 a season, Richmond can match that offer. Deledio can either stay under those terms or leave. Should he choose to leave, Carlton must offer draft pick compensation commeasurable to the average salary of the new deal. $500K should be worthy of at least a 1st round pick, players of $600K-$700K might be worth one first and one second round pick, whereas players over $800,000 might be considered worthy of 2 1st round selections.
This model gives the player between 4-7 greater flexibility to move teams, whilst still protecting the original club with compensation adequate to the player’s ability. It also means that players who are chasing dollars make the new team have to pay a greater form of compensation, ensuring fairer dealing and elimination the possibility of losing a relatively young player for nothing via the PSD. Also, why should a Restricted Free Agent, who works a deal with a team, then face the possibility of the drafting system if his old team matches the contract offer? Isn’t this what we should be trying to eradicate?
- Unrestricted Free Agency: A player is classified as an Unrestricted Free Agent if they have served 8 or more seasons at AFL level. Also, players who are delisted by their teams regardless of years served also fit under this category. Players are free to negotiate with their club of choice, and once a deal is reached they are free to sign with this team. No compensation is awarded to the current club. The no compensation point is something that teams would not like, but taking the American model into count, the “compensation” for the team has been the years of service given. In the case of Ball, he would’ve been able to sign for Collingwood immediately upon agreement of terms.
The Salary Cap: Each team should have the exact same Salary Cap. I know this isn’t possible, with the Gold Coast and Western Sydney teams entering the league in the next few seasons. It probably will not equalise out for a decade, perhaps never if the AFL has their way, but if every side has the same money to spend on players, surely that isn’t advantaging one team over another?
Trading future draft choices: This is a practice that is commonplace amongst American sports such as Ice Hockey and Basketball. This basically allows teams to exchange future year draft picks in the trade period. The benefit is that it will allow more trades to be completed. How often over the years have we heard from a club “this player is worth 2 1st round picks” and clubs trying desperately to get a 3rd party involved? This need would be eliminated.
To use the Shaun Burgoyne move from Port Adelaide to Hawthorn as an example, Port put 2 1st rounders as the price on his head. Hawthorn only had one selection, so it needed a 3rd team (Essendon) in order to get the extra 1st round pick needed to complete the deal. It even needed Geelong’s intervention in order to on-trade a host of 2nd and 3rd round choices in order to satisfy the 4 clubs. These deals are often painstaking and can sometimes fall through at the 11th hour.
It will also allow teams who think they might be a star player away from a premiership to take a calculated punt on their future in pursuit of a flag. If progress continues at Essendon, a couple of years from now it may think that it needs to add an elite midfielder to its list in order to challenge. The Bombers want to make a play for, say, Trent Cotchin of Richmond, who is in contract and therefore a trade needs to be struck. The Tigers ask for 2 1st round selection, the Bombers give up its 2011 1st round and 2012 1st round in order to get the deal done. Of course its finishing position in 2012 will determine how high this draft selection is.
Footy fans might worry that the sky will fall in. That Free Agency will widen the gap of rich and poor clubs. That the traditional powers will dominate like in days pre the draft and salary cap. The competition is so even because of these 2 mediums in place, and if you look at sports which also have drafts and salary caps, no team has completely dominated an era. Yes, sides have made consecutive finals and Championship games, but we’ve seen this already in recent seasons with Geelong (2007-09) and the Brisbane Lions (2001-04). The game has moved forward in leaps and bounds in terms of professionalism, both on and off the field. The AFL’s player movement system must also get with the times.