We fall for goals and marks, not cap space and free agents

Hawthorn’s appearance in this weekend’s AFL Grand Final may or may not be the most impressive feat of any team in the salary cap era, however AFL fans are unable to make this determination.

With the advent of free agency in the league in 2012, the AFL now finds itself stuck between two conflicting desires: (1) maintaining the long-held sense that club loyalty from players is more than an illusion in the AFL, and (2) wanting to maintain the interest of fans during the off-season as they discuss the potential movement of players between teams.

But in sports where free agency and a salary cap are combined in an attempt to maintain parity – such as the NBA, NFL and NHL in America – these two desires cannot both be fulfilled if fans are to feel truly informed about the league.

In the US, a sense of player loyalty has been a casualty of free agency as the culture of teams or “franchises” bidding for players is well entrenched. Leagues happily cash in on the year-round intrigue of where-such-and-such a player (LeBron James, anyone?) will play the following season. Meanwhile, teams promote money-saving trades or decisions to not re-sign expensive players as providing hope for fans: We’re worse and will lose more games now, but look at the money we’ll have that we can use to steal players from other teams next year! In order for fans to truly understand, appreciate and debate their team’s personnel decisions, fans are given access to salary information of each player in the league. And it’s this information – that the AFL has never released publically – that the league now must decide what to do with.

Let’s consider the example of 2014’s Grand Finalists.

At the end of 2013, Sydney signed Hawthorn’s Buddy Franklin to a massive 9 year contract. Franklin was a restricted free agent, meaning that Hawthorn had the opportunity to match Sydney’s contract offer and Franklin wouldn’t have had any choice but to remain with the Hawks. However, Hawthorn didn’t match the offer and…

How does one finish this sentence?

Is the correct ending “Hawthorn instead spent the money that they could have spent on Franklin on re-signing a number of their other players”? Or should it read “Hawthorn have since achieved an incredible feat, as they have reached the 2014 Grand Final despite being a whole Buddy Franklin contract under the salary cap, spending less money than any other Grand Finalist in the salary cap era”?

For we don’t know exactly what position Hawthorn were in. Had the Hawks re-signed Franklin, would they have had to lose other players who have since helped them reach the 2014 Grand Final? Or would they have been able to keep all of their players for 2014, but not have had any money left to re-sign some other players in 2015 and beyond?

And what of Sydney? Which of the Swans young stars – Nick Smith or Luke Parker, perhaps – are currently on small contracts, earning far less than their market value? Which of these players might the Swans struggle to afford to retain when they come off contract, partly because they are paying Franklin so much? And which teams – potentially even Hawthorn – will have money to throw at these players if and when the opportunity arises? Or, conversely, have the Swans actually timed Franklin’s contract beautifully as his salary will simply replace much of Adam Goodes’ once the legend retires, allowing them the “cap space” to re-sign their young stars?

Prior to free agency, “rebuilding” in the AFL meant either drafting or trading for young players and working to help them develop into stars. But in this new world, measuring the success of your club’s rebuilding strategy must also entail a sense of how wisely they are using their money, and how well placed they will be to spend some cash in the coming seasons.

In Australia, we don’t want to have these discussions, of course. We want to judge players purely on their level of play rather than their return on investment. We want to maintain our love of tradition and loyalty, as sons play for their father’s team and other players record their 300th game for a club.

AFL fans have learnt to allow small quirks to toy with these traditions without breaking them. This weekend, Josh Kennedy will be a key player for the Swans in what will be the second Grand Final in which he’ll have played against the team of his father and grandfather. In 2009, the Hawthorn father/son selection was struggling to break into the strong Hawks midfield, and was traded away to Sydney in exchange for draft picks.

Australian fans see this move as having made sense. A young, potentially good player couldn’t find a consistent game in the firsts, so sought a chance somewhere else. And in the end, Hawthorn lost out big-time as Sydney helped Kennedy to become a star.

But what Australian fans aren’t yet attuned to thinking about are the flow-on effects from such moves. Did Hawthorn really make the wrong decision, or would keeping a future star in Kennedy and paying him an appropriate salary have meant that they wouldn’t have had the money to recruit 2013 Norm Smith Medallist Brian Lake?

We don’t know the answers, and don’t want to ask the questions. We want a league which has its moral compass pointed squarely at tradition and loyalty, making an exception for occasional player movement that we can justify without thinking about club finances. We want our kids to grow up loving a team and choosing their favourite players without any sense of those players being commodities to be most effectively bought and sold in a league where prudent financial investment in players is the key to a Premiership.

But as free agency continues, such a traditionally Australian outcome becomes less and less likely.

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One Response to We fall for goals and marks, not cap space and free agents

  1. Phil says:

    Great article Cam. The Buddy thing is such an interesting example, and will probably point to a seminal point in the professionalisation of our great game. At the end of last year we were all wondering ‘what the hell is Sydney doing?’.I remember the AFL performed the usual contract investigation and were believed to have warned Sydney that the COLA may go, in which case ‘are you still prepared to go ahead with this deal?’. However, over time a few interesting things have become apparent to me, not least of all is the fact that they may be Premiers (again)! Also, we are learning that the salary cap is growing so fast that towards the end of his contract, he may not be considered all that expensive. And (as you’ve explained to me in person) his value as trade bait is still a very real thing, especially if a team needs to make salary cap space in 8 years.

    It will almost be a sport in itself to see how Australian AFL fans grapple with this cognitive dissonance. I hold out some hope that player loyalty will still be an important element to the game’s appeal, but perhaps just not as it currently exists. There will be a natural push (or rather pull?) from the fans to remain loyal and true to your colours. Players play for money, but they also play for fame and adoration as well (among other things of course) and so as long as that ‘pull’ is there, there will be some players who value club loyality

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