Default Fans

Free Agency shows players are rethinking rules

Change and evolution are inevitable in the AFL – through ­different rules and tactics for a start.

Dig a little deeper, however. The piece that is present but can’t be clearly seen or measured is what’s happening in players’ heads off the field.

Football has always been a business and a hugely successful one at that, including a spectacular past decade of growth including two new teams and even games being played internationally in New Zealand.

From a player’s point of view, it has always just been football. Or at least it was.

‘it is no surprise that clubs that have unlimited cash to spend on facilities, staff and equipment are consistently competing in the finals in September.’

As an “older” player in the football system, I am acutely aware of our responsibility on the club’s bottom line. The commercial reality is pressing a little harder. I’m constantly interested in how the club’s membership numbers are tracking, what profit margins we make from home games, how sponsors are financially supporting us and what the club’s annual profit or loss is.

Money plays a huge role in the success of clubs and it is no surprise that clubs that have unlimited cash to spend on facilities, staff and equipment are consistently competing in the finals in September.

I once played the game, enjoyed the lifestyle and never thought any more than what directly affected my teammates or me. Now, I am mindful of the responsibility that our direct results on the field and off have on the financial success of the club. Things like the importance of winning games early in the season so supporters buy memberships. It means the commercial environment of clubs and the AFL surrounding players is becoming a pressing and conscious factor in our week-to-week preparation.

We follow in the footsteps of the larger overseas sporting competitions, with European football and the major United States sports the obvious examples. These sports are businesses with high player movement, large transfer fees and long-term multimillion-dollar contract deals the norm. These same traits are becoming an annual event in the AFL calendar too. The majority of the international sporting clubs are privately owned, but it is the same for Jerry Jones who owns the Dallas Cowboys as it is for every club in Australia; they are trying to run a business, be successful and make money.

The interest and importance placed on last year’s certified bargaining agreement between the players and the AFL shows me that more than ever, players are thinking of their opportunity in the game and want to make the most of the benefits. I have never seen them interested in all the business aspects of football, but it affects our futures and us.

The concept of free agency demonstrates the recent change in mindset to football. The game once prided itself on loyalty and the sacrificing of oneself for the benefit of the club. That still plays a part, but now there is a sense of survival and making the most of your opportunity. This isn’t always based on money, as I know that isn’t the key motivator for all players. Factors such as better opportunity, more success and lengthening one’s time in the game are considered throughout a career.

As a player who has been in this industry for over a decade and has experienced many of these changes first hand, I sense this is only the beginning of players being encouraged to consider their own individual needs and future opportunities.

Do I still love going to training every day and playing in front of large crowds on the weekend? Absolutely! But what I am aware of now is a long way from the naive teenager that started playing this game because it was simply footy and fun in 2002. As the game continues to change, so do the players.

This article was originally published in the Financial Review and can be accessed here.