This is the way the Salary Cap is meant to work

Collingwood are facing a salary squeeze. While St Kilda keep annoucing the signing of some of their mid-range players, almost everyone expects Brendon Goddard to be left with nowhere to sit when the music stops at the end of this year. Carlton can’t afford to address their list needs because they are paying their current players too much.

Welcome to the season of the salary cap, where the lack of actual football these last three weeks has meant that the footy media has turned its attention to matters relating to the retention of players and how much they will be paid.

Two years ago Gary Ablett left Geelong. He took much more money from the Gold Coast than he was being offered by Geelong, and what he was being offered was all Geelong could afford. That money, now not being spent on Gary Ablett’s salary, then went towards the retention of other players. The year after Ablett left Kardinia Park, Geelong won another premiership. All’s well that ends well.

Geelong and Collingwood share four of the last five premierships. It’s natural for them to face an uphill battle to fit all their required players under the salary cap, considering they are the best performed teams. The phrase that gets thrown around is “takes less money to stay”, rather than be paid at “market value” somewhere else.

The best example of a salary cap squeeze was Essendon in the early 2000s. They eventually lost premiership players Blake Caracella, Damien Hardwick, Chris Heffernan & Justin Blumfield. The youngsters who replaced them in the side never performed to the same level, and Essendon haven’t won a premiership in twelve years, or won a final in eight.

Here’s the thing: that’s exactly what the salary cap is designed to do – help redistribute the talent. While the AFL cannot enforce a “talent cap” because it would involve inexact and subjective judgments, they can enforce a “salary cap”. When the squeeze eventually hits, you can play it out like Essendon and move on effective foot soldiers looking to be paid “market rate” and replace them with unproven youngsters, or you can just keep on keeping on like Carlton did and eventually you’ll get caught with cheating the salary cap and the AFL will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Simple.

What distorts the effectiveness of the salary cap is players taking less money to stay at a successful club. Put simply, the salary cap is in place to prevent clubs accumulating a disproportionate amount of talent on their list, and if players are being paid less than market value, then the effectiveness of the salary cap is compromised.

It’s easy for successful clubs to do this because the amount of money between what they are being offered by their current club and their market value is often less than $100,000. Let’s face it: AFL footy is financial small fry compared to the money earned by other sporting stars around the world. If a player is offered $300,000 per year to stay at their successful club, and $400,000 per year to move, then at the end of the day the player will probably only see $50,000-$60,000 of that money once their agent and the taxman have had their share.

With Ablett and Tom Scully, this was not the case – the difference between the two offers was probably more like $500,000 per year, which using a 60% rule after taxes and agent fees, translates into nearly $6,000 per week extra into your pocket. Wouldn’t you love to be on that sort of coin?

The reality of the situation is perhaps Collingwood shouldn’t be able to keep Dayne Beams and Travis Cloke. Perhaps St Kilda shouldn’t be able to keep Brendon Goddard, although this is a little different because St Kilda currently sit in the middle of the pack, and haven’t won anything. Geelong couldn’t keep Gary Ablett, although now they apparently have the money to afford a young midfield stud like Travis Boak.

The longer term point to make is that, in this era of transition and new teams, eventually the AFL will want to get back to a situation where clubs don’t spend long out of the finals. Geelong, Collingwood and St Kilda have each made at least the last four finals series, Hawthorn and Sydney four of the last five. On the other side of the coin, Melbourne haven’t made the finals since 2006, Port Adelaide since 2007, Richmond since 2001. The cycle of ebb and flow in the AFL has stopped to a dribble, and one way that can be altered is a more equitable distribution of the league’s talent across the 18 clubs.

And that means players being paid at market value. Collingwood supporters will be annoyed if they lose one of their good players, and considering I wear his number on my back to watch games, I’ll be annoyed too if Brendon Goddard leaves St Kilda. But for the good of the game, that may just be what needs to happen. Perhaps that is the way the system should work.

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