OPINION

Free agency working against AFL's aim of a level playing field

Geelong is highly likely to pick up last year's Coleman medallist Jeremy Cameron from the Giants. Photo: Albert Perez/Getty Images
Geelong is highly likely to pick up last year's Coleman medallist Jeremy Cameron from the Giants. Photo: Albert Perez/Getty Images

The double-edged sword of free agency is becoming blatantly obvious and the AFL's aim of equalising the competition is suffering as a consequence.

While free agency has improved player movement, it works directly against mechanisms instituted by the league such as the draft and salary cap to produce a level and fairer playing field.

Yet another concept imported by the AFL from US professional sports in 2012 as a preventative measure to avoid players going to court over restraint of trade, free agency is one of many mechanisms working against equalisation and in no small way the league has contributed to this situation with other rules and changes including the long-time father-son rule and club academies.

The national draft and salary cap were introduced in the mid-1980s to prevent powerful clubs dominating the competition and help struggling teams rise quickly up the ladder. But the league's strategy is not working. Already this century, Brisbane and Hawthorn have won three consecutive premierships, Geelong took out three flags in five years and last week Richmond made it three in four seasons.

Hawthorn's successful reign between 2013-15 is a stark example of how a powerful club worked the system to remain at the top and maximised its success.

Despite the Hawks losing arguably their best player, Lance 'Buddy' Franklin, to free agency when he transferred to Sydney at the end of 2013, the compromised drafts earlier this decade after Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney's inclusion in the competition made it difficult for clubs below to challenge them and by virtue of their status as a destination club they were able to attract key defender James Frawley as a free agent from Melbourne at the end of 2014. Frawley went on to play in a premiership in his first season with Hawthorn.

In the Tigers' case, they also used free agency to their advantage, picking up spearhead Tom Lynch from struggling Gold Coast. Lynch has played a key role in Richmond's past two premiership campaigns.

In return, the Suns received compensation in the form of pick three in the 2018 draft, which they used to secure the highly-rated Izak Rankine.

This year Geelong, runner-up to Richmond in last week's grand final, is highly likely to pick up last year's Coleman medallist Jeremy Cameron - subject to a suitable trade being completed as the Giants have matched the Cats' offer. If the deal comes off, Cameron would form a potentially-lethal combination with this season's leading goalkicker Tom Hawkins.

Last Friday, Geelong added another free agent, Hawthorn triple premiership wingman Isaac Smith, to its list for next season.

Geelong has added free agent and former Hawthorn triple premiership wingman Isaac Smith to its list. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Geelong has added free agent and former Hawthorn triple premiership wingman Isaac Smith to its list. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

The 'secret formula' used by the AFL to assign compensation draft picks for losing a free agent is loosely based on a player's age and the contract offer, but clearly, it is flawed.

For example, Essendon receives pick seven in this year's draft for losing Joe Daniher, who has played 15 games in the past three seasons, to Brisbane - compare that with the raw deal Hawthorn received in gaining pick 19 for Franklin, a dual premiership forward and multiple Coleman medallist.

Maybe there should be a sliding scale of compensation - if a bottom-four team loses a free agent that club may receive more, while a top club such as Geelong may forfeit its first-round selection in the draft.

The AFL could do worse than revisit a rule that achieved the desired result, elevating a perennially-struggling club to its first VFL premiership in 50 years.

Under the guidance of future league president Allen Aylett and legendary coach Ron Barassi, North Melbourne lured three veterans from other clubs, Barry Davis (Essendon), John Rantall (South Melbourne) and Doug Wade (Geelong), who were allowed to transfer under the short-lived 10-year rule in the 1970s.

The Kangaroos, who were wooden spooners in 1972 before Barassi's arrival, won the flag three years later with Davis as captain.

Setting the eligibility for free agency at 10 years seems fairer to clubs than the current tenure of eight. Clubs invest plenty of time and effort into players' development and often the fruits of that labour may not be realised for a long time.

While lower-ranked clubs are able to attract mid-range players, the best free agents want to go to clubs in the premiership window. So the bottom clubs flounder as the top sides continue to flourish.

The famous line in Midnight Oil's 1982 hit song Read About It accurately depicts the current state of affairs: "The rich are getting richer, the poor get the picture."

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  • This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.