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Club loyalty and free agency here to stay: Prendergast

Seemingly out of nowhere, free agency has again become one of footy’s hottest topics.

A number of football personalities have questioned the concept’s validity in recent weeks and have speculated on how free agency could shape the AFL competition in the years ahead.

Amidst the discussion, many seem to have forgotten why the players campaigned so strongly for free agency in the first place. Players simply want the same right that we all have – an opportunity to have a say in where they work.

‘In the first two years of free agency, less than 20 percent of eligible free agents have actually moved clubs.’

Is there any other industry in Australia where the workers don’t decide where they’ll ply their trade? There’s certainly no comparison to the draft system, which decides where each 18-year-old will commence his AFL career, regularly sending them interstate and away from friends and family.

Players have supported the draft and salary cap as mechanisms to help achieve competitive balance in the AFL. They understand that they may have to start their career at a club that’s not their first preference. That’s how it goes in many sports.

But those sports also have some form of free agency in place so that, at some point, players get a choice where they play. Prior to 2012, the AFL was one of the only sporting competition’s in the world that didn’t have any form of free agency in place. In all other Australian football codes (NRL, Rugby Union and A-League) and other Australian professional sports (Netball and NBL), all out of contract players are free agents.

The most common argument against free agency – and one that has been raised again recently – is that it will lead to a competition without any club loyalty. Footy is an emotive game in which club loyalty will always be a factor, and there are countless examples of star players who have turned down offers from rival clubs to remain one club players. This is what true loyalty is – staying at a club when you can otherwise leave, rather than staying because you have no genuine choice. If clubs create the right culture and ensure their players are happy and well looked-after, they have nothing to fear.

The other argument that often gets a run is that free agency will result in all the best players ending up at the top clubs. This notion ignores the fact that players have agreed to the salary cap, which stops this from occurring.

It’s important to note that, in the first two years of free agency, less than 20 percent of eligible free agents have actually moved clubs. For every ‘Buddy’ Franklin that opts to leave, there are four others – Travis Cloke, Bryce Gibbs, David Mundy and Shannon Hurn, for example – who stay put.

The names above highlight one of the problems of discussing free agency – people tend to remember those who have changed clubs, but not those that have overlooked free agency.

A piece that appeared on earlier this week pointed out that “Fifty-seven free agents appeared on the AFL’s official list when it was released in March, but re-signings and retirements have since whittled that number down to 29.”

‘This is what true loyalty is – staying at a club when you can otherwise leave, rather than staying because you have no genuine choice.’

That number has dwindled further in recent days with more re-signings and retirements. Given all but one on the list are unrestricted free agents – players who are outside their club’s top ten paid players or who have been at that club for 10 years or more – the list is likely to shrink further by season’s end. This year’s free agency period is looking to be the quietest yet.

Though free agency is still in its infancy, we’ve seen a handful of players revitalise their careers after shifting clubs.

While ‘Buddy’ Franklin’s nine-year deal at Sydney was certainly the biggest free agency story of 2013, it wasn’t the only way in which the Swans utilised free agency to build the squad that’s taken them to the top of the ladder this year.

Ruckman Tom Dericx played two games in the last two seasons at Richmond, but was picked up by Sydney as a delisted free agent and has played 12 matches in 2014. Defender Jeremy Laidler has also grasped his opportunity since arriving at the Swans as a delisted free agent. Having played five games in his past two seasons at Carlton, Laidler has become a staple of Sydney’s back six, playing 16 games so far this year.

The fact that less than 20 percent of eligible free agents have exercised their right to switch clubs since the concept’s inception suggests the majority of players are happy in their workplace, but for the others, free agency simply provides a vehicle to get them to the workplace where they want to be. After eight years of service, it’s not a lot to ask.