Free Agency has Rich Rewards

It appears the AFL will drip feed details about the introduction of free agency at the end of the year.

We have now learned that teams losing a player through free agency will be entitled to a maximum of one draft pick, which is less than Geelong and Melbourne received when they lost Gary Ablett and Tom Scully to Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney respectively.

This will only fuel criticism of free agency.

Jacob Surjan
Jacob Surjan - Unrestricted free agent.

Most of that criticism seems to surround the possibility that it will make the strong teams stronger, and if quality players leave struggling clubs for strong ones, then the reduced compensation will again entrench the inequity of the AFL’s system, on top of imbalance in the fixture and financial returns from stadium deals.

One small fact that seems to be overlooked by everyone who makes this criticism is that the salary cap will remain the same for all clubs, except the new clubs who have concessions, and the Sydney Swans, who appear to have retained their salary cap bonus on cost-of-living grounds.

A top notch player leaving Melbourne to go to Carlton in order to win a premiership would likely have to take a pay cut, something I don’t believe Greg Wells had to do under the old system.

The move to free agency is another move to improve the consistency of the system. For many years, the AFL has been caught in a hodge-podge system, where players are not free agents, like in soccer, but can be drafted to a team 1000’s of kilometres away from where they grew up, which is what happens in America’s main professional team sporting leagues, such as the NBA and the NFL.

In soccer, players are scouted and recruited to club academies from as young as 12-years-old, so it makes sense that clubs who spend enormous amounts of money on developing talent are compensated when that player is transferred to another club.

But players have great control over where they play, and a young football star in Birmingham is not going to be drafted to play for Bayern Munich.

In America, high schools and then colleges develop the talent, and the professional leagues draft the talent based on previous performance, generally with the worst performed teams having first access to the best talent. Sound familiar?

This situation sounds most like what happens in Australian Football, with schools and underage clubs developing the talent to be accessed by AFL clubs in ascending order of previous years’ performance.

What also happens in the USA is a salary cap and free agency. And this is what should happen in the AFL.

Under the proposed system, highly rated players (based on their salary) will become restricted free agents after eight years.

Considering the average length of a draftee’s career is much shorter than eight years, hasn’t the player paid back the club that drafted them through eight years of service?

For example, Brett Deledio is about to enter his eighth AFL season. A number one draft pick, he is already a life member at Richmond after playing 150 games. One would suggest Deledio has already produced sufficent output for the Tigers that they have received good value for their pick.

At the end of the year, even if he wants to leave and is out of contract, Richmond can still match the financial offer made to Deledio and he must accept that offer, as a restricted free agent. Hardly an unfair set of circumstances for Richmond.

There is also a basic issue of fairness involved in a system where players cannot ply their trade in their desired location.

While I was unhappy to see Luke Ball leave St Kilda, I’m glad he got to where he wanted to go, because the system should work like that for a player who was not clearly in his old side’s best 20 players.

The NFL is the best example of a blended system of restricted and unrestricted free agency, based on draft location and service to a team.

It also compares favourably to the AFL in terms of size of team rosters and the nature of the game. Their system has ensured that about half the teams that make the playoffs each year are new compared to the previous year, and perennial minnows can make the Superbowl, such as New Orleans and Arizona.

So it continues to baffle this correspondent and football lover that so many are still opposed to free agency.

Much of this opposition is based on misinformation or old-fashioned thinking. I’m hoping, like much change that occurs in our society, that come November 2012, most footy followers will have realised that the sky hasn’t fallen in, a number of players have had their careers prolonged by getting to clubs of their choice, and that we’ve actually moved closer to a fairer and more even competition.

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