This column is an open letter in response to this article posted on AFL Online.
Paul Roos has described AFL free agency as the “greatest de-equilisation policy we’ve had in the 100 years of footy.”
His response comes after the announcement James Frawley has selected premiers Hawthorn as his destination of choice. St. Kilda coach Alan Richardson believes the current model favours the higher clubs at the expense of developing teams.
With AFL free agency period starting today, it’s a good time to reflect on how the first two seasons of free agency have played out and reflect upon the urgent need for changes in this system. The AFL’s quasi free agency system at present is inadequate at best.
Is Alan Richardson right? Is the current free agency model fundamentally flawed?
Background on AFL Free Agency
After years of mounting pressure from the AFLPA, the AFL embraced the concept of free agency in 2010 with rules established for the first off season of free agency beginning at the end of the 2012 season. The premise of free agency is to allow players to transfer from one club to another, without the restraint of trade and restriction from a players original club.
The Players Association argued the introduction of free agency would allow players the ability to leave after a predetermined period. It would also allow players who lacked opportunity to find greater opportunity at another club. The AFL and AFLPA developed a system where a player who had served his club for 8 years and was in the top 25% of player salary in the corresponding year would be classified as a restricted free agent. Any player who fell out of contract after 10 years of service was classified as an unrestricted free agent. Players who were restricted free agents were unable to move club freely if the players original club agreed to match the offer of an opposing club. If a club did not match the offer presented, the AFL will compensate a team for the loss of their player through a draft selection in the national draft. Its value is determined by the contract length and amount. Any player delisted by his original club was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent regardless of years of service.
During the first two off seasons, 29 players have moved through free agency, 14 players in 2012 and 15 players in 2013. Some of the games biggest names Lance Franklin, Brendan Goddard, Dale Thomas and Nick Dal Santo have taken advantage of the new age of professional Football in Australian and embraced free agency for varying personal reasons. These teams they left, received compensation for the loss of these superstars, but I pose the question why?
In a new age of professionalism and player movement where loyalty now plays second to players seeking to maximise their potential earnings in a limited career time frame, the AFL has let both the players and the clubs by introducing a half hearted, poorly conceived free agency system. Alan Richardson is right, the AFL free agency is flawed, but not in the way he might believe.
Gillian, here are five suggestions for how you can dramatically improve inadequacies of the AFL free agency system
Suggestion one. Make all players restricted free agents from the day their initial contract expires.
This is not as radical an idea as we in Australia may believe. One look at professional sporting organisations in America have long required player to be restricted agents for a predetermined period of time.
While this might seem dramatic, I have logic to support my argument. By making players restricted free agents from the end of their initial contract, you allow clubs to match any offer a rival AFL club offers them. In essence, you give them the Rights to First Refusal. To frequently players who are high draft picks who move to an interstate clubs and holding their clubs to ransom at the conclusion of their initial contract.
In the past names such as Jeff White, Scott Thompson, Jack Gunston and Taylor Adams have left their clubs after their initial contracts, placing their clubs at risk of getting a diluted return in regards to value for fear of the player walking to the preseason draft
At the end of 2013 season the Brisbane Lions lost five players who had been at the club for less than 3 years. Sam Docherty (pick 12, 2011), Elliot Yeo (pick 30, 2011), Jared Polec (pick 5, 2010), Patrick Karnezis (pick 25, 2010) and Billy Longer (pick 8, 2011). All of these players were first and second round draft picks with massive potential upside. However due to their initial contracts expiring the players were able to push their way out of the club. Opposition teams had the Lions over the barrel and were able to force Brisbane to take draft selections in the 2013 draft well below the cost spent to bring them to the clubs for fear of receiving nothing in return if they did not meet the demands.
Clubs need the Rights to First Refusal, to stipulate if a player is targeted by an opposing team, that the team who drafts the player has rights to hold onto their asset, without fear of losing him for nothing.
Making all players restricted free agents also means the need for a preseason draft becomes irrelevant. Delisted players can move freely as delisted free agents.
Suggestion two. Extend initial player contracts for higher draft picks.
One of the fundamental issues facing AFL teams is the inability to lock in early draft picks for a period beyond the AFL mandated 2-year minimum. I propose that the AFL consider creating a system where high draft picks earn longer initial contracts that lock in their service at the club they have been recruited.
I’d consider a model that radically changes the way top draftees are secured by their football club. Instead of all players being locked into 2 year initial contracts, This proposed model below would provide teams with an option to secure their draft picks on a longer term contract.
- Pick 1 – 5, a minimum 4-year contract.
- Pick 6 – 10, a minimum 3-year contract with a team option on the 4th
- Pick 11 – 20, a minimum 3-year contract.
- Pick 21 – 30, a minimum 2-year contract with a team option on the 3rd
- Pick 31 – onwards, 2-year minimum.
This model would allow the AFL club to create and foster relationships with the top end talent and demonstrate a commitment between the player and his family for an extended period. Players on contracts that extended beyond the 2-year minimum would earn the maximum allowable under the proposed maximum salary cap (see below).
Suggestion three. Create a maximum salary cap pay scale based on years of service.
With a modification in the initial contracts of players, it is vital to consider the remuneration players would receive. I’ve proposed a scale salary cap system similar to systems used in the NBA, where players have an ability to earn maximum contracts depending on years played in the AFL system.
I propose this as a way of negating the impact of opposition clubs attempting to poach younger players, by offering large contracts. By enforcing a maximum player salary dependent on years played in the system draftee clubs are more likely to match an offer on their player as it will not impact significantly on their salary cap.
However, compromise needs to be met if players are forced to have restricted earning potential while they are restricted free agents. I propose a reduction in the length of time a player is a restricted free agent. At present players, qualify for free agency after playing 8 years in the AFL system. Players who have been in the system between 8-10 years and are in the top 25% of player salary are restricted free agents, while all other players both who are not in the top 25% and have played 8 or more seasons are unrestricted free agents. I propose a reduction to make all players unrestricted free agents after 7 years of service. The effect would allow players to gain the freedom to move freely earlier as a compromise of being restricted earlier in their career.
The attempt to bring in maximum player payment (MPP) will no doubt be met with skepticism. However, the model has proven successful in the NBA and allows clubs to manoeuvre and create trades around available room in a clubs salary cap. The mechanism promotes trade and movement.
The MPP for restricted free agents (1-7 year players) will provide clubs the ability to match any offer presented to their player.
All numbers on this scale are based on the assumption the 2015 salary cap value will be $10.071 million.
Initial 2-year contract Pick 1-20 (1.5% of total TTP) $151,065 per year.
Initial 2-year contract pick 20 – onwards (1% of total TTP) $100,710 per year
3 year player (3% of total TTP) $302,130
4 year player (4% of total TTP) $402,840
5 year player (5% of total TTP) $503,550
6 year player (6% of total TTP) $604,260
7 year player (7%) $704,970
The question asked is how do clubs possibly retain the stars of the game when they become unrestricted free agents after their 7th season. An upcoming example is Adelaide’s Patrick Dangerfield who on the open market will no doubt field offers of $1 million plus to gain his services and move home to Victoria from South Australia in the 2015 off-season. Adelaide as the team whom drafted Patrick Dangerfield needs the ability to not only matches an offer from an opposing club but to exceed the offers presented. Allowing clubs the ability to offer a salary that was for example 2% over the maximum salary allowable would provide teams with an advantage to retain their star players. The AFL could also consider introducing a soft salary cap that allowed the retention payment (2% of total TTP) to be paid outside the salary cap.
Unrestricted free agents – No ability to match offer.
8 year player (New Club) – (10%) $1,007,100
8 year player (same club plus 2% – 12%) – $1,208,520
Suggestion four. Compensation? What compensation.
An argument I hear regularly is what compensation my team should receive for losing an unrestricted free agent. The answer is, your club should get nothing in return. You have had that player for a large period and got the value of your initial draft selection over 8 plus years. What you gain as a team through the loss of a free agent is room in your salary cap to bring players in either through trade or free agency yourself.
A prime example of this is Hawthorn. At the end of 2013, they won the AFL premiership but lost their marquee player in Lance Franklin to the Swans. While they did receive compensation, they used part of the estimated $1.1 million space in their salary cap to target Ben McEvoy during the trade period. Subsequently the Hawks have now used their remaining cap space to lure James Frawley from Melbourne as a free agent to the club.
The Adelaide Crows have done the same after losing Kurt Tippett. The available cap space allowed them to target free agents Eddie Betts and James Podsiadly. The remaining salary they hope to use to retain the services of Walker, Sloane and Dangerfield who all fall out of contract at the end of 2015.
Suggestion 5. Declare player salaries.
Create transparency in the market by removing the cloak and dagger mystery of how much a player is being paid at his respective club.
Imagine list managers scouring the player salaries of each club to find players they believe are underpaid. Transparency will increase mid range player wages and promote movement and trade. The mechanism will either make a team pay their player more and reduce that teams salary cap, or push the player to another club who will remunerate his output.
Does that mean the coaches are right?
St. Kilda coach Alan Richardson is right. Our current free agency model is fundamentally flawed. However, that does not mean the concept of free agency is wrong, merely the model needs to be fixed.
To borrow the infamous words of Mark Williams on the premiership podium in 2004, Paul Roos – “You were wrong!” free agency is the catalyst to equity in the AFL. The AFL just has to move away from this quasi free agency model and embrace true free agency in its entire splendor.
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