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Money, Money, Moneyball - North Melbourne's List Management

All the things I could do, if I had a little money, it’s a rich man’s world

Whether you support them or not, North Melbourne are a club you have to seriously admire. To have battled adversity as they have, including a debt of more than $8 million in 2007, and constant calls for them to relocate out of Melbourne to either the Gold Coast or, more recently, Tasmania; and to have done this all without the reliance that some clubs have on pokie machines, is cause for recognition and commendation.

Indeed, in many ways North are an outlier. Their list is not particularly glamorous; there is no Franklin or Dangerfield, but rather Waite, and Higgins, and Marley Williams. Nor do they possess the kind of players you’d really expect children to be running around the playground pretending to be. Yet there is Ben Brown, kicking bags of goals and one of the most recognizable faces in the game. He is a seriously marketable figure at Melbourne’s smallest, but arguably the league’s most honest, club.

Brown is an interesting example of what North Melbourne’s list management strategy once was and, potentially, an example of why that strategy should return. Drafted out of the VFL, from Werribee, at age 21, you could have forgiven most clubs for overlooking the Tasmanian, and yet there the Kangaroos were, willing to take a punt on a kid who had shown enough promise in the state leagues. To now sit equal first in the Coleman Medal race, in a side which this year has shown glimpses of being competitive but still sits outside the 8, is proof enough that there is talent lying around in the state leagues to take a chance on, much like Geelong have with Tim Kelly or Richmond have with Kane Lambert.

Shaun Higgins, equally, represents the kind of shrewd moneyball recruitment North Melbourne previously engaged in. To sign a player as a free agent who had struggled to keep fit and string together consistent games at the Bulldogs, and then manage to keep him on the park for the most part, to the point where he won the Syd Barker Medal last year for the best and fairest, and to be in Brownlow Medal contention this season, shows exactly what targeted what targeted recruiting, and careful management of free agents can achieve.

Likewise, signing Jarrad Waite, a player who had frustrated Carlton fans for years with his inconsistency, including his constant injury and suspension cycle, represents the same kind of shrewd recruitment. Granted, Waite has not been able to shrug off his injuries in the same way that Higgins has. In his first season at the club, Waite led the Roos’ goal kicking and this season has proved an effective foil for Brown, kicking 26 goals in his 11 games.

So what does this all indicate?  Waite, Higgins and Brown all joined the club over the course of 2013 and 2014, which was followed by a period of relative success for the club, making consecutive preliminary finals in 2014 and 2015, and winning their first 9 games in 2016. However, after the wheels fell off in the back half of that year, and the club scraped into the 8 on percentage, the controversial decision to not offer deals to four high profile veterans, in Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo, meant the Roos had ample salary cap space to begin to pursue high profile free agents. While this obviously could be beneficial, the club has abandoned the strategy that had served it so well. It ceased targeting free agents likely to come to the club, like Higgins, Waite and Dal Santo, and began to attempt to target genuine stars of the competition.

It’s not a secret to anyone that Dustin Martin had an incredible individual season last year, capped with a flag and a Norm Smith Medal, after having re-signed with the Tigers before finals started. However, North had made an offer to Martin reportedly in the vicinity of 7 years at $10.5 million, which would have made him the highest paid player in the history of the game. For this kind of offer to be turned down represents a few things: firstly, obviously loyalty still means something in football, although this may also have had something to do with Richmond’s on field success last year. Secondly, North obviously have a longing for a player with genuine, ready-made star power who can bring fans in the gate. And thirdly, the Roos don’t have the sort of lure that many “destination clubs” in the league have, like Hawthorn and Geelong.

Similarly, North’s failed targeting of breakout star Josh Kelly, son of former Kangaroo Phil Kelly, highlights that the Roos simply do not possess the ability to draw in the biggest names, or not yet anyway, in spite of a revamped training base, a track record of success in recent times, and a young and fairly exciting list.

Kelly, winner of the Kevin Sheedy Medal for best and fairest at the Giants, turned down a 9 year, $10 million deal. Of course, Kelly is still young and rumours persist that at the end of his next contract he will sign at North Melbourne, but their failure to sign him last season is indicative of the fact that the club is not in a position to simply abandon the strategy that had previously made them successful.

After those two, high profile failures in free agency, North’s aggressive recruitment strategy for this season would have surprised no one. However, to have publicly targeted a young up and coming player like Jordan de Goey, by offering somewhere in the vicinity of $5 million over 5 years, only for the Magpie to re-sign at his current club for a 2 year deal worth closer to $1.4 million represents yet another significant defeat for their current approach to list management. Additionally, the club lost out on Crows Vice Captain and Victorian Rory Sloane, who signed a five year deal with Adelaide. To have continued to fail to land a big fish in free agency or the trade period is obviously an embarrassment for the club, who doggedly looked at player movement as a way to rejuvenate their list after the end of 2016, when the aforementioned veterans were moved on.

Why are players choosing to reject North? Perhaps it’s the same reason why Shaun Atley has passed up other potential offers, and re-signed with North. Why change a comfortable situation? When asked about the offer North made to De Goey, Nathan Buckley noted that players consider more than just money, speaking about connections, friendships and the overall environment. North has to do more than throw cash at players, they have to offer an improvement to a player’s current situation as a whole.

North Melbourne’s latest target is Port Adelaide’s Jared Polec, to whom they have offered a long term deal worth around $700,000 annually. Polec is a good player in a good side, the kind of player who you add into a top 6 side to really catapult them into premiership contention. But North Melbourne are not there. Instead, they are going to use their much vaunted war chest to sign a good player without much name recognition or star power, who probably won’t bring too many extra numbers through the gate. Indeed, four years ago it may have made sense for North to target a younger Polec to complement their recent additions, by providing run and carry off half back or on a wing. Instead, now, they will pay likely overs simply as a result of their desire to land anyone in free agency.

North Melbourne have obviously not had the reputation of being a wealthy club. They are battlers; a real blue collar side in a league that is increasingly white collar.  For sure, that is something to be strongly admired. Their reputation is that oft cited phrase, ‘Shinboner Spirit’, something intangible which truly defines the club. Throwing money at every free agent who is available is not the Kangaroo way. Their list is not built on glamour or flash, but hard-nosed, tough, old school footballers like Ben Cunnington and Jack Ziebell. If North want to become like the AFL’s equivalent of Chelsea or Real Madrid by attempting to sign every superstar in the league, then more power to them. But it seems to make more sense to target the Waite’s and the Higgins’, rather than the Martin’s and the Kelly’s.

The stars don’t want North Melbourne, so North needs to seek out the skilled players that do.

I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love


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