Australian Football Contract Negotiation

AFL Issue No.1: Free Agency

I have briefly touched on AFL and free agency in the past, but a story came to light this week that has brought it back on the agenda.

Player Agent Ricky Nixon has said that over the past couple of years, players that he has represented have been severely affected by the lack of free agency. He also stated that if this was to happen again, then he would take legal action against the AFL. In fact, he already has law firms lining up to take on the case. [Lawyers line up for free agency fight]

Ricky has some allies in this battle. Player agents Paul Connors and Michael Quinlan, and probably the biggest of them all, the AFL Players Association (AFLPA). Even Brisbane coach Leigh Matthews believes that free agency is “inevitable”. [Matthews calls for free agency move]

Under the current system in the AFL, the only way of recruiting is through drafts and trading. The National Draft pits players at a fixed price. That’s fine, this happens in most drafts throughout sport in the world. Trades occur during a fixed trade period, and the player must agree terms with the other club before they leave. If a trade is unsuccessful, a player can still be de-listed.

What the AFL has at the moment that is similar to free agency is the AFL Pre-Season Draft. This is where players who have been de-listed or are un-contracted can be picked up by a new club. The player sets a contract that they want and if a club wants to draft them they’ll accept. However, it is a draft, so the player must go to the club who chooses him first, which is not necessarily the club he wants to go to. Therefore, the likelihood of a player going to the club of his choice through this system is difficult. Not to mention this is the last draft to occur, and clubs may already have full senior lists. Last year only 6 of the 16 clubs nominated to pick players up in the Pre-Season Draft.

So let’s pose a hypothetical. I play for Club A and want to play for Club B. I’m disappointed with Club A and ask for a trade to Club B. A trade can’t be finalized, so I enter the draft and end up playing for Club C. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Most AFL fans are against free agency. They see it as the right for other clubs to poach their players and end up with a talent rich list. However, what is overlooked is that there still is a salary cap, so not all that much will change. Also, clubs can freely de-list players (while still paying them), so why can’t a player end his tenure with the club?

Team loyalty is another argument. The open market will ruin a player’s loyalty to the team. But why shouldn’t a player get the price he deserves? If a club isn’t paying the player as much as another would, one may argue that it is the team that isn’t loyal to the player.

The proposal put forward for free agency is in two forms: Restricted and Unrestricted.

Restricted free agency would allow a player to negotiate with another club after 6 years with his original club, but his original club would have the right to match the offer. This seems fair, as it is above the average AFL career of about 3-4 years. If the club values the player enough, they’ll make the offer, and if they can’t well then it’s up to them to try and convince him to stay. Not to mention this option becomes available after 3 years in the NFL.

Unrestricted free agency requires a player to serve 10 years of service at a particular club. After this time, a player is free to negotiate with the club of his choice, no strings attached. This is available in the NFL after 4 years.

Obviously there needs to be some protection for clubs, and that is where the 6 year rule fits in nicely. Only superstars like Chris Judd get contracts longer than 3 years, so if they see something in the player, why not sign him for a longer period? Also, as I have previously stated, the salary cap is the leveler for the clubs. If a club cannot afford the player, it is up to the club to convince him to stay regardless. It wouldn’t be the first time players have taken pay cuts to remain at a club. Look at Geelong this year. They have many of their premiership stars coming off of contract at the end of the season, and already their captain Tom Harley has said he’ll take a pay cut to keep the team together.

A player should be able to determine his own price, not get told what they should earn by their club. Some element of power should exist for the player. Some would argue that Chris Judd held all the cards with his latest deal (Chris would have gone to Carlton regardless whether West Coast traded him as they had the first pick in the Pre-Season Draft), but a player like Judd, with that much bargaining power is very rare. Many other leagues around the world allow players to move freely once their contract expires, so why not AFL?

Back to the original story, Ricky Nixon argues that if free agency existed in the AFL, some of his players would still be playing football. Under a free agency system, a club would be able to see which players are available and make their offers accordingly. This would allow a player to freely negotiate with other clubs to get the best deal he can, instead of waiting till the very last draft in hopes to get picked up by their club. A Full Back might be exactly what a club needs, only to be snapped up by another team and lost in the reserves at a club with a higher draft pick and two Full Backs already on their list.

The free agency debate will not go away. Everyone is throwing in their two cents. There are so many stakeholders in the AFL that it would be impossible to please everyone. However, the push for free agency will continue on Monday, when AFLPA boss Brendon Gale will meet with head of the AFL, Andrew Demetriou to discuss the topic. [AFL players turn against ‘socialism’]