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Players to fight for slice of cash

AFL players are willing to use fundamental planks of the competition – the salary cap and draft – as bargaining chips to win a percentage share of the code’s revenue.

With a clear mandate to fight for what would be profound change in the AFL’s financial set-up, AFL Players’ Association chief executive Paul Marsh has told Fairfax Media this is a “now or never” issue in forthcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

Marsh, who negotiated a percentage increase for elite cricketers before joining the AFLPA nine months ago, believes top AFL players are comparatively underpaid.

“I’d much rather work with the game to get to an outcome, but I don’t think that it’s our job to be sitting back and taking no for an answer.” – paul marsh

He is convinced footballers deserve more financial “skin in the game” and, at the direction of the AFLPA’s board and delegates, is prepared to pull some major cards to win the percentage cut. “Without giving away our strategy, I think we’ve got significant leverage,” he said.

“There are restraints that we agree to in the current CBA that a normal worker wouldn’t agree to: draft, salary cap, commercial restrictions, these sorts of things.

“We agree to these restraints on the proviso that two things occur: one is that players get a fair deal, the other is that the competition is competitively balanced. Where we sit at the moment is that we don’t think that those two things exist to the level that we believe they should.”

Asked whether players would refuse to continue supporting the draft and salary cap in order to win a percentage share of the AFL’s revenue, Marsh responded: “We don’t want to get to that point. We want to have a constructive negotiation … But you do have to understand the leverage you’ve got, and sometimes you have to use it. This is a bit of a now-or-never time for us on what’s a very important issue. So we’re going to be strong.

“I’d much rather work with the game to get to an outcome, but I don’t think that it’s our job to be sitting back and taking no for an answer.”

Despite strident words on the percentage-of-revenue issue, and an extraordinary competition-wide meeting of players at Melbourne’s casino in the last CBA negotiations, the AFLPA ultimately backed down on the key bargaining point. Marsh suggested that won’t be repeated: “That’s certainly my view.”

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Asked to describe how players are restricted by the AFL and their clubs from a commercial perspective in 2015, Marsh said they were “significantly” limited in personal endorsement earnings due to major sponsorships of the league and its teams.

The AFL’s salary cap, he said, “clearly restricts what players can earn.” And on the draft, he added: “It basically forces players to play for a club that, in a lot of cases, they may not want to play for”.

“Personal attacks don’t bother me in the slightest… This job is not about me prosecuting what I want, it’s about what the players want.” – Paul Marsh

The average salary of an AFL player is $250,000 and, for the past five seasons, the average career of a player is around six years, according to AFLPA data.

In an extended interview to appear on Saturday, Marsh said he has found the AFL industry “pretty welcoming” generally. Having had a publicised taste already of butting heads with an industry heavyweight, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire, Marsh says he has no fears about being at loggerheads with code chiefs.

“Personal attacks don’t bother me in the slightest. It’s about making sure the players are behind you. This job is not about me prosecuting what I want, it’s about what the players want,” he said.

Marsh was reticent to judge the backdown on the critical percentage share of revenue issue after former AFLPA chief executive Matt Finnis, now at St Kilda, and his deputy, Ian Prendergast, led the association through the last CBA.

“I think the players, now, have got a better understanding of what they should be receiving,” Marsh said. “And I think that this time around is an opportunity for us to take another step forward.”

The AFLPA will not put a figure, publicly, yet on what players see as a fair percentage cut of the game’s revenue. Marsh said it would be ill-advised to confirm that until the next AFL media rights deal is brokered. With the AFLPA and AFL having only preliminary discussions on the next CBA to date, it’s anticipated conversations will commence in earnest before the end of this year. Marsh estimates it will take at least six months to settle.

Tim May negotiated a landmark percentage cut of Cricket Australia’s revenue for Australian cricketers but Marsh, who was CEO of the ACA for nine years before winning the AFLPA post, negotiated an increase in the percentage share that cricketers earn. The AFL-AFLPA CBA expires in October 2016.

This article first appeared in The Age and can be accessed here