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The Next Big Deal - How the AFL can improve on its Collective Bargaining Agreement

For years now, the concept of the draft as an equalization measure, let alone one that is seen as a source of long-term success has been laughed at. Whilst teams invest in trusting their own process, and accumulating high draft pick after high draft pick, it’s been the already successful sides being able to sign big fish to complement even bigger fish to solidify their standings that have reaped the rewards.

The salary cap? Even worse. The supporters of the competition are consistently treated to make-uppy rules around this, as panic-driven marketing allowances, minor detail driven exceptions, back-ended/front-ended contracts are thrown around the big deals of the competition, as we’re expected to rely in good faith that the deals are all above board, and such terms would have been available to any of the other 17 clubs wanting to join the race for a particular gun.

It’s even more difficult to justify using the introduction of free agency as a symbol of equalization, either to prop up struggling teams against the proficient, or even the rights of player vs. club, as we see more players, particularly those long in the tooth fall victim to a need to be rebuilding, reimaging, regrowing the club’s list with the lure of a free draft pick on offer.

In June 2017, the AFL and the AFL Players’ Association agreed on a six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, which covered, but not limited to, a 20% increase in player wages across the board, how player appearances are managed, the use of their image to promote the game and leave entitlements. Whilst Free Agency was tinkered with, mostly with respect to the required years served to become eligible to be considered one, very little progress was made in comparison to some of the bigger global sports who have seen free agency as a part and parcel of their respective code for decades now.

With the NBA playoffs in full swing, it seems only appropriate to look at the results of their Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2011, only after the result of a player-led league wide lockout that sees the league boast the best rights for an individual athlete against those of their franchise represented in any sport. In particular, eight aspects of that agreement that would make a seamless transition into the AFL’s off-season.

Do these rules discourage club loyalty and encourage players to chase rings/championships? On the whole, yes. But they do also simultaneously promote teams developing their own, and giving them every chance of retaining the fruits of their labor.

Let’s take a look:

The Amnesty Rule

For the first 4 years of the CBA – any franchise were allowed to terminate the contract of one player whose performance falls far short of the extremely large salary they initially agreed to pay him without the salary being counted in the salary cap.

What a difference this one could make to the AFL landscape. Forget the myriad of hypothetical “The Swans are bottoming out, they should trade Buddy to a contender” trades that will dominate the rest of the season – imagine if the Swans could just cut their losses with him, escape a hit to the salary cap, and then use that amount to instantly rebuild and be competitive again?

What if the Saints had actually lost to the Gold Coast Suns in Round 1? Would Alan Richardson have been sacked? If so, would a new coach at Moorabbin want to wipe their hands clean of the 5 year deal given to Dan Hannebery and roll the dice somewhere else at the end of the year?

Allowing teams to amnesty contracts will also give clubs more flexibility and willingness to consider riskier off-field propositions. Consider a Ben Cousins scenario, where teams have very little to lose (financially, anyway) by taking the punt.

The Rose Rule

A player coming off his rookie contract may be eligible to earn 30% of the salary cap (rather than the 25%) if he passes certain criteria in respect of awards – i.e. MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA teams or starting in 2 All-Star games.

Whilst you’re probably not going to see an individual AFL player earning 30% of a team’s salary cap here (about $3.6 million a season), and we’re probably not going to see the AFL bring in caps on how much an individual player can earn any time soon either, the appeal of players being able to earn extra coin (perhaps outside of the cap if they sign with their original team?) is huge to me.

I think it instantly incentivizes and adds a lot more prestige to some of the game’s highest awards – for arguments sake, lets use the Brownlow, the All Australian team and a newly reformed State of Origin series as the hypothetical measuring stick here.

In recent years, only Chris Judd and Gavin Wanganeen have won the Brownlow anywhere near to their rookie deal. All Australian reps with less than 50 games? In the last decade, only 4 players have been able to reach this target – Tom Stewart last year with 42 games, Jake Stringer in 2015 with an even 50, Chad Wingard and Jeremy Cameron in 2013 with 43 and 37 apiece.

Perhaps if you were to introduce a secondary tier of cap-free salary for those who make it under 100 games as well. The figure does not expand by much:

2018 - Tom Stewart (42 games), Patrick Cripps (81), Clayton Oliver (60), Max Gawn (99)   

2017 - Josh Kelly (84), Jeremy McGovern (79), Zach Merrett (81), Joe Daniher (93), Matt Crouch (72),   

2016 - Max Gawn (61), Dane Rampe (98), Toby Greene (98), Marcus Bontempelli (64), Jeremy McGovern (55)   

2015 - Easton Wood (87), Jake Stringer (50), Chad Wingard (89)   

2014 - Brodie Smith (76), Nat Fyfe (92), Dyson Heppell (84), Luke Breust (91)   

2013 - Chad Wingard (43), Jeremy Cameron (37)   

2012 - Dayne Beams (83), Trent Cotchin (86), Nic Naitanui (77), Josh P Kennedy (86)   

2011 - Ben Reid (53)   

2010 - James Frawley (61 games), Jack Riewoldt (68 games), Mark LeCras (78)   

2009 - Joel Selwood (70)   

Whilst all of those names stayed with their side past their initial contract, one would ask how much above market value was paid to keep them, and subsequently who did this shake loose from their list in the process?

The way I see it, if a player wins the Brownlow within 3 years of your first game, a maximum of 30% of your salary of your next contract is outside the cap if you stay with your initial club. 20% of your salary if you make All Australian within 50 games, and 10% if you make it within 100 games, and a further 10% for each State of Origin game you play in that time up to the maximum 30%.

It encourages players to play State of Origin again, encourages teams to let them, rewards teams for developing their own with effectively the salary of a player in their best 22 for free.

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The Luxury Tax

Teams are entitled to go over the salary cap by as much as 65% of the total cap, but pay a luxury tax ranging between $1.50 to $4.25 for every dollar they exceed the salary cap, and redistributed evenly amongst the non-luxury tax paying sides.

Not sure this one seamlessly fits in to the ranks of the AFL, without private ownership and plenty of AFL sides on AFL handouts as it is, but the rest of the ideas probably require this being mentioned to contextualize things.

If the AFL introduced a luxury tax system, as has previously been advocated by Eddie McGuire in the past, I suspect you’d lose teams very quickly. I’d imagine the competition is loathe to return to the days of Richmond and Collingwood trying to outbid each other with outrageous amounts for players well above their real value in the early 80’s, and subsequently sending Richmond to the brink of extinction.

Do all-star teams work in the competition as they do in the NBA? Arguably, Geelong’s elite midfield of Ablett, Selwood and Dangerfield, and to a lesser extent, Collingwood’s squad of A-grade midfielders with the return of Dayne Beams, has said, no, it hasn’t. The way the game is being played demands role players, particularly those who run both ways, and are prepared to do the unfashionable gritty things to make the others look good. Six very good attacking mids won’t win you anything.

Hard & Soft Salary Caps

This one can be explained as simply as that a hard salary cap contains no exceptions, this is the amount each teams are given - good luck in how you use it. A soft salary cap will have conditions and provisions allocated to various types of players that either provide a discount or an exemption from the cap altogether.

Why the AFL persist with a hard salary cap with randomly made up provisions based on how much they feel like promoting the game in the northern states at that very moment is beyond me.

I suspect, however, that the time for this to change, has probably passed, given that the Gold Coast Suns look likely to be able to retain players for a change this season. A soft salary cap that provides an extra loading for players being retained by their initial clubs compared to what is spent on recruiting new players seems a no-brainer to me.

If the Suns or the Giants are prepared to not only invest in a top 10 pick rather than offloading it for mature talent, to pick a player from a traditional football environment, put the time into developing them, and then see them walk out for a better offer back home after 2-3 years, they should be given a loading to compete with that. As should any club that value and invest heavily in their player welfare, recruiting and development.

If I’ve drafted Player A at Pick 1 to my Middle of Nowhere side, and after two years, is considering leaving, I should be given a 20% loading on my offer that does not count against the cap. Either no dollar figure is going to keep them, or the player ends up with a decent pay-day to keep them there. Win-win.

The Mid-Level Exception

A team is entitled to sign one player to the average league salary for a maximum of 2 years without it being included in the salary cap.

In practical NBA terms – the Charlotte Hornets, a perennial mid-table and small market team, were able to attract veteran point guard and four time championship winner, Tony Parker to come to them on a $5 million a year deal earlier this year (which just so happened to be the average league salary).

At 36, Parker’s best days are behind him, but probably would have never left the Spurs to come to such a team to provide a veteran presence, instead of either accepting a bench role at San Antonio, or retiring. End result – the league benefits from having a big name continue to play on, teach and mentor the kids developing in a market devoid of big names to do the teaching.

On a more extreme and bizarre note, the Golden State Warriors were able to use this loophole to convince DeMarcus Cousins to accept a league average salary (having previously given up $209 million to stay at the Kings a season earlier) in exchange for a chance to win a very easy championship ring rather than attract his full value on the open market, which would be about 10 times that. The things we do for success huh?

As it stands, the average salary in the AFL is $371k. More than a substantial amount to convince a player to play on for a chance at a flag, as opposed to hitting up suburban grounds every week. Imagine how much greater appeal the mid-season draft will have for your team when there’s a decent chance you could convince a recently retired great to occupy spot 38 on the list for free, rather than some bloke with decent VFL form that you’ve never heard of?

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Rookie Scale Salary

As it stands, the first year salary on offer for the number one pick in the NBA draft this year will be approximately US$6.8 million. Second pick? Coming in slightly less at $US6.088M, with pick three getting US$5.467M after that. The initial salary depreciating in value by about 10% by each pick, before getting down to the NBA minimum of $838k. Good money if you can get it.

Are we expecting that sort of salary to turn up in the AFL at all, let alone on first year draft picks? Absolutely not.

But if the AFL are serious about protecting its turf and its talent pathways, having long been the poacher of talent from junior cricket, NBL basketball and athletics, it’s time to take that to the next level and put on display a set salary for the top 10 picks, with the difference between what is on offer and the standard rookie contract being fronted by the AFL.

We’ve all heard the stories about talents who’ve gone out of their way to avoid getting picked up by certain clubs in the draft – run-ins with the law, deliberately tanking pre-draft meetings with clubs. Would this be such a thing if there was genuinely huge money on offer to go top 10 in the draft?

Two-Way Contracts

Speaking of attracting talents from other codes, this rule would look at the other end of the scale. Instead of elite talents who could be elite at any code they choose – you also have to look at the speculative pickups who haven’t kicked a footy either before or in years – the Mark Blicavs, Mason Cox, Hugh Greenwood type pickups.

The issue with a lot of these players – especially the ruckmen, is that developing these blokes is going to interfere with your VFL reserves side with the demise of the VFL Development League at the end of 2017. St Kilda have proven the trendsetter in this regard with being prepared to loan their ruckmen out to the unaligned Frankston Dolphins instead, rather than try to fit all their ruckmen into the one side.

Currently the NBA allows franchises to sign prospective developmental types to a two-way contract, between the NBA franchise and a G League team (think the VFL of the NBA), which does not count towards the salary cap, but still gives the franchise the security of not letting that player be poached by anyone else.

As it stands, Sam Alibakis is signed to St Kilda as a Category B player. All 211cm of him – last weekend I watched him get absolutely torn to shreds by Coburg’s Peter McEvoy (brother of Hawthorn’s Ben) despite holding a 16cm height advantage. I’ve never seen a ruck battle quite like it, as McEvoy battled from underneath all day and used his guile and experience to outwit his less experienced but far more physically imposing opponent at every turn.

Make the arrangement he has with Frankston common place – give the standalone VFL clubs a lifeline and an incentive to be the home of such development taking place, St Kilda sign him, they can call him up at any time, Frankston get a ruckman for free, and no other AFL club can steal him. That should be the standard operating arrangement for a Category B player moving forward.

The Traded Player Exception

If a franchise trades a player away and receives a player in compensation on lower salary than what the original player was earning in return (or draft picks), that discrepancy between the 2 salaries can be used outside the salary cap in other trades made.

I like the appeal of this as a substitute for the current form of free agency compensation that we have now.

If a team trade away a player, usually willingly no less, why should the rest of the competition drop down a place in the draft order to compensate them?

As it currently stands in the NBA– if a player is traded to another team, 175% of their salary (minus the salary of any player received in return) can be used in their cap.

Imagine how that would have worked when the Hawks lost Buddy to Sydney. No pick 19 back, but the salary equivalent of 0.75 Buddy Franklin given to them as cap space. Given that they went on to trade for Ben McEvoy that trade period, I suspect that would have ended up meaning that McEvoy’s salary would have been free, and would have perhaps put them in a position to hang on to Xavier Ellis for free also, rather than losing him to West Coast for no compensation, as well as having another crack at a player of McEvoy’s salary too.

Seems far more reasonable, and if other clubs are going to lose out in the draft order, at least it would be in a situation that they can then control, or have some say over their fate.

 

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