THIS week I have been amazed at some respected football identities and commentators bemoaning the opening of this week’s inaugural free agency period as a sad time in our game. Their sentiments have been that we have somehow lost a sense of loyalty and hope that underpins the very fabric of the competition.
Why does this amaze me? Because any sophisticated analysis of the AFL free agency system, along with those in the broader sporting world, suggests exactly the opposite is true. This week marks a significant step forward for our game that will support its continued growth and success for all stakeholders – the players, the clubs and the fans.
Fans of international team sport will be familiar with the concept of free agency, but might not have stopped to consider the difference in how our model has come about when compared to those in overseas competitions.
In the US, following baseballer Curt Flood’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to challenge baseball’s transfer rule in the Supreme Court, other baseballers took up the challenge, which eventually resulted in arbitration that secured the introduction of a free agency model. In 1993, the NFL and its players finally agreed to introduce free agency after years of labour unrest, strikes and litigation. Are you a European soccer fan? Think Jean-Marc Bosman and the abolition of the transfer system.
Even in the NRL here in Australia, the existence of a completely open free agent market can be traced back to Balmain player Dennis Tutty’s successful High Court challenge.
In AFL, free agency has been introduced by the players, the AFL and the clubs all coming together to agree on a system without the heartache, trial and agony that has happened around the world. All parties have recognised each other’s interests, and come up with a strong system that will work for our fans, clubs, players and, most importantly, our game.
This week we’ve heard the chimes of ”the poor/lower ladder clubs will never get anyone”. But this is simply untrue.
Supporters of these clubs can be really excited about the opportunities ahead of them – for the first time in the history of the national competition, they have the ability to quickly rejuvenate their list without reliance on other clubs consenting to a trade. I haven’t heard any Essendon fans upset at Brendon Goddard arriving at Windy Hill, but I have spoken with many Demons fans who are looking forward to Shannon Byrnes bringing some of his premiership experience to a young team.
As footy fans we ought not accept that the only way to the top is to bottom out, go back to the well and rely upon a succession of top-round draft picks maturing over several years before it’s our team’s turn to have another crack at the top four.
For the players, the benefits are clear.
As a player you don’t get to choose where you start your career, but for some players they now more genuinely have the capacity to choose where they finish it.
For the clubs, the benefits are no less obvious. The success of the Swans last Saturday demonstrates what can be achieved by identifying specific roles for specific players and recruiting accordingly. Think of Richards, Shaw, Mumford, Mattner, Kennedy, McGlynn and Morton. These players were never stars nor household names at their former clubs, but they have combined to form a premiership combination for the Swans.
And all of us live in hope that our team might emulate such success.
Matt Finnis is the chief executive officer of the AFL Players Association.
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