Time to level the playing field

Time to level the playing field

Reading Time: 3 minutes

JEFF Kennett is not someone you would expect to be talking up wealth redistribution. As the president of one of the most financially successful clubs in Hawthorn, and a former Liberal premier, you’d think he would be the last person to advocate ”football socialism”.

Yet late last month, he was out there identifying the lack of financial equality among the clubs as a real sleeper issue.

”Even with the draft, if a club isn’t financially strong, it has very little chance of getting into the top four,” said Kennett, identifying himself as a supporter of the conditional equalisation of the competition – while admitting it may be easier said than done. His concern is that recent history shows it’s the clubs which are able to spend more on their football department that produce better on-field results.
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In a cyclical way, the financially strong clubs produce better performances, which lead to better fixtures and even stronger financial results. But the fact the Hawks, Geelong and Collingwood have all emerged from dire financial situations not too long ago to become strong, should give hope to current strugglers.

Last week’s announcement of the new broadcast-rights deal for the next five years was certainly a landmark moment for our game. AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou and his team deserve all the plaudits they received for the work they have done to ensure such a bright future, one that is really a win for all stakeholders: clubs, players and, most significantly, supporters.

There has been discussion following the deal about player payments, pension plans and other player programs that could be funded out of some of the broadcast revenue.

What hasn’t really been discussed, but is also important to players, is the issue of equalisation and how the new broadcast deal provides scope to level the playing field in terms of club competitiveness.

How does this affect the players? When a player nominates for the draft, he is effectively putting his name in a raffle; he has no choice as to which of the 17 clubs – or 18 next year – he could be lucky enough to end up at.

Some players go to work in an environment that is resourced by millions of dollars less than other clubs. It would be great if every player drafted arrived at a club that was able to focus on how it could gain the edge on its opponents in the upcoming season, not on paying hefty interest bills.

Or to put it another way, wouldn’t it be great if twins drafted to Collingwood and Port Adelaide respectively were both assured of comparable facilities, coaching and recruiting resources, as well as a range of world-class sports-science and high-performance programs.

At the end of the day, a 100-pound dumbbell weighs the same in any gymnasium, and talented, driven players will generally rise to the top. However, I’ve witnessed the cumulative benefit which annual training camps, first-rate training and recovery facilities and a host of dedicated coaching and support staff can have in striving for ultimate success.

As part of its claim submitted to the AFL, the players’ association is taking a leading role in promoting equalisation. Our idea is certainly not about robbing the rich to feed the poor, or putting a cap or a tax on the current successful clubs. However, our league thrives on battles between competitive clubs and would not prosper if the heavyweights were knocking over poorer cousins week in, week out. All clubs should be rewarded and encouraged for striving for excellence. But under our plan, less-financial clubs ought to receive a bit of a kickstart to catch up to the pack.

Any assistance should not remove any responsibility of the clubs to get it right in running their own affairs.

At the moment, a large proportion of the money distributed to clubs by the AFL is given equally to all, while a small amount is reserved for special-assistance payments. We say there should be a small change in how the pie is distributed, with special or equalisation payments forming a slightly higher proportion of the overall distributions pie.

Despite being proud of, and grateful for, the success of my club (and long may it continue), it would be great to be hearing and reading about every club’s success in getting the very best out of its players by providing them with the best resources and opportunities to pursue their sporting dreams.

Luke Ball is vice-president of the AFL Players Association and a Collingwood premiership player.

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