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Time for a cool head on free agency

It’s fair to say Free Agency has had its detractors!

We’ve had the odd email from Doomsday Danny and heard call-back hysteria from plenty of Negative Nancys who claim ‘Free Agency will kill the game’… not to mention the odd feedback from a Concerned Coach or two!

I am replying to all of these groups on behalf of the AFL Players’ Association, with an explanation that should be of interest to anyone who simply wants to understand more about this thing called free agency.

‘In a recent PA survey, 97 percent of players indicated that they support free agency.’

As the free agency period begins to wind down, it’s important we all take a deep breath and have a bit more perspective about the:

  • Why? Free Agency was introduced;
  • What? The actual impact of Free Agency has been; and
  • How? It actually works.

Players pushed for Free Agency due to the AFL being the only elite professional sport in the world without any unfettered freedom of movement.

The model that has been introduced is unique to the AFL and, in my view, very conservative and measured. Click below to see an infographic that explains the model better than I can with a keyboard!

Free Agency Explained

For players, free agency is about choice and balance. It’s about providing players with a fundamental choice as to where they ply their trade, a choice which is open to every other worker in Australia.

In a recent PA survey, 97 percent of players indicated that they support free agency. The equal top three reasons players would look to move clubs were:

  1. The location of the club (proximity to friends and family);
  2. To extend playing career; and
  3. To earn more money.

These reasons make sense. I’m sure in weighing up your next job, these things will be priorities also!

Players are already subject to many restraints. They don’t get a say in where they start their careers, due to the draft. Their financial income is restricted by the salary cap, and their ability to earn money outside the game is heavily restricted by rules relating to sponsors.

As things stand, players only get to make a genuine choice about where you play after 8 (or 10) years at their club.  Considering the average career is approximately 6 years, this is a long time!  And if they move clubs, they go back to square one and start again.

Free agency – which players fought for and won – is what gives them this choice.

AFL 2012 Rd 07 - Melbourne v Hawthorn

Contrary to what some say about free agency killing the game, with the AFL introducing competitive balance measures designed to ensure all clubs have the capacity to spend 100 percent of the salary cap, we believe free agency will become an important tool for clubs looking to regenerate their playing lists more quickly than they’ve been able to do traditionally through the draft and trades.

Even the Saints’ Head of Football, Chris Pelchen – the man responsible for overseeing list management at a club which some say have suffered most at the hands of free agency – seems to get it.

“I think there’s been a degree of hysteria around free agency this year.” – Chris Pelchen, St Kilda Head of Football

Pelchen recently said, “I think there’s been a degree of hysteria around free agency this year. I think we need to give it time to work and while it does at the moment look like the top clubs have benefited from free agency, it will work itself out.”

Let’s not lose sight of the fact clubs have the ability to match the offers of restricted Free Agents, stopping them from leaving via free agency, and that a club that loses a free agent not only frees up salary cap space to replace him, but also receives a compensation draft pick.

The AFL Commission has indicated recently that its priority is to ensure the recently introduced competitive balance measures are effective (i.e. soft cap on football department spending, revenue sharing and unequal distributions of AFL monies to address inequities amongst clubs). The PA welcomes this commitment, given players shouldn’t have to be the ones who continue to bear the burden of balancing the competition, as has predominantly been the case historically.

To those who are screaming blue murder on behalf of the “weaker clubs” who are apparently being “attacked”, let’s remember we still have the salary cap to stop the best players from all ending up at the one club. In fact, whilst the focus has been on a small number of high profile players, more than 50 percent of free agents that have moved clubs have gone to a club below them on the ladder.

Some have also said free agency will be the end of loyalty. We disagree. While we’re all for club loyalty, and love the concept of a one-club player, true loyalty comes when you actually have a genuine choice. Clubs don’t own players, and it’s up to them to create strong cultures and supportive environments for players. It’s up to clubs to create environments of success, with good cultures, where players want to stay. That’s only going to be good for the industry and increase the competition amongst the clubs.

Whilst there may be a perception that free agency has increased player movement, less than 20 percent of eligible free agents have moved and levels of movement haven’t really changed in the last 30 years, as you can see below.

last thirty years players changing clubs

We have been consulting with clubs and players and will monitor this player movement period closely before finalising our position prior to the upcoming review of the current model.

Passion drives this great game. So whilst this information may not change your opinion, which you’re absolutely entitled to, I hope you find it useful.



Club Loyalty and Free Agency Here to Stay