As the second year of free agency draws to a close it is a good time to reflect on the success of the current model.
Primarily and undeniably free agency has served to create a more fluid market for player movement.
In 2013, 43 players found new homes, with 14 of those players utilising some form of free agency to do so. Players and clubs have taken to free agency with great professionalism, generating some great individual success stories.
Brendon Goddard was a shining light in a difficult year for the Bombers; his leadership through the midfield was rewarded with the best and fairest award.
While a player like Tom Murphy, an impressive former delegate of the AFL Players’ Association, moved from Hawthorn to the Gold Coast in the hunt for greater opportunity – playing 17 senior games and providing invaluable leadership.
In between, there are names like Roberton, Moloney, Chaplin, Pearce and others, who have flourished in their new environments.
Free agency has also benefited the competition as a whole. I am sure Buddy Franklin will do great things for the game in New South Wales and already his move has added spice to the rivalry between Hawthorn and Sydney, ensuring they will play twice next season.
When the players agreed to the current free agency model we knew it would be a work in progress and something constantly under review.
I feel it’s a very balanced free agency model that was appropriate for the AFL environment at the time it was introduced. However, anecdotally we may be seeing the model currently favoring the stronger clubs by boosting their ability to attract players through free agency.
In its current state, free agency is shining an even brighter light on the need to achieve genuine equalisation within the game.
Once equalisation measures are implemented to correct some of the structural inequalities that currently exist, free agency should become a critical tool for developing clubs to revitalise lists quickly.
Prior to the introduction of free agency we were one of the only professional sports where players didn’t have the fundamental right to choose their employer, at any stage throughout their careers.
The labor market within the AFL is already heavily restricted through the salary cap, the National Draft and the trade system, not to mention commercial restraints on players.
The relatively limited version of free agency currently in place provides players with this basic right towards the end of their careers, but it is free agency with the training wheels on.
The qualification criteria is onerous given players must commit eight years’ service at the one club before they are eligible and then clubs have the ability to match any offer if they are a top ten paid player.
Furthermore clubs have the ability to contract players out of free agency, and if they do lose players they free up salary cap space that can be used to re-contract their own or attract others. For these reasons, and others I won’t go into here, the complicated ‘indirect compensation system’ under the current model is unnecessary.
Some might suggest increased player movement through an extended trade and free agency period signifies the death of loyalty in the game. But I would dispute this. Previously loyalty was all one way, player to the club, but now players have greater control over their destiny, loyalty is now a two-way street.
Free agency encourages clubs to provide a first class sporting workplace, with players preferring clubs with a strong culture – which can only be good for the game.
With genuine equalisation across the competition and further relaxation of the player movement market, free agency will assist in balancing the competition by providing developing teams with another mechanism to regenerate playing lists more expeditiously.
Whilst equalisation and free agency are not yet perfect and we will continue to work closely with the AFL and clubs on improving both, a more fluid labor market has clearly been a positive for not only individual players but the game as a whole.