Almanac Footy Comment: The brilliance of the Sydney Swans Academy is changing the AFL landscape




Throughout the first four rounds of the 2021 home and away season, the Sydney Swans have been the most fascinating and exciting team to watch. They remain undefeated. Twelve months is a long time in AFL footy. Last year, when they played the Tigers, Damien Hardwick questioned their ugly game style, and now Sydney is completely exceeding everyone’s expectation.  The significant reason behind the rejuvenation, is the Sydney Swans Academy. Their success has sparked some controversy within Victoria, with many clubs feeling that Sydney has an advantage in both drafting and keeping top young talent.


Established in 2010 near the end of the Paul Roos era, the QBE Sydney Academy was created increase the overall AFL talent pool and strengthen the AFL code within NSW, which is predominantly a rugby league and rugby union state. The academy is set up with training hubs across nine different areas within New South Wales, to access potential talent in domestic and rural areas. The hubs can support up to 800 kids, male and female. Heeney and Mills are just two successful academy graduates (who made their debuts in 2015 and 2016), who illustrate the value of scouting talent from a younger age, to find the top young talent in all areas of NSW. Sydney have started the year strongly with fantastic talent like Gulden, Blakey, Wicks, Campbell, all graduates playing prominent roles, sparking curiosity among fans of footy as to how they keep the talent and if there needs to be restrictions in the retaining of that talent.


The AFL has attempted to adjust the rules for both the academy and father-son picks in 2015, where they introduced the draft value index. This is a system that involves the use of value points for each selection, with Number 1 having the highest points, for example. Clubs like Sydney and GWS have strong academies, and if they decide the club wants to draft a key player, they will have to pay the price with picks that are valuable to the draft pick. An example of the system benefiting Sydney is Nick Blakey in the 2018 draft, who was picked at ten. Sydney only had to trade picks 34, 39 and 40. This occurred because of an earlier trade completed involved Pick 26 being sent to the West Coast Eagles, for a future third-round pick.


This trade enabled Sydney to get enough draft points with lower picks to get Blakey. This trade raised questions about the legitimacy to the system really being effective in providing an advantage and caused a storm throughout the AFL within the Victorian-based clubs. They felt that Sydney were able to manipulate the rules, to maintain a draft advantage to keep all their strong young academy players without paying a greater price then they did.


Tom Harley, the CEO of the Swans, said in an article on, that they pay a significant price to keep the academy running at the level it is, annually paying $1 million a year to ensure the growth and development of the academy and the players inside. In comparison, other teams might invest their money into facilities within the club like gym equipment, recovery areas, or even getting better sports scientists. Sydney has chosen to place efforts into finding the best young talent. This has been an important strategy for Sydney when Australia football is not the predominant sport. It is also addressed the major problem of interstate clubs battling to keep players who want to go back to Victoria.


Sydney has been strategic in targeting their demographic wisely and addressing how they can ensure players do not leave the club, and how to hub these young talents. It is up to the AFL now to decide if they want to adjust the rules again with the drafting of academy players. Sydney has created  a blueprint to recruit younger talent. Big Soccer clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United all have established academies, where they can scout the globe to find and grow the best young talent in the world. Sydney has taken this approach to New South Wales recruitment and it has benefited them greatly. It is showing Victorian clubs what the future might look like, when recruiting and retaining younger talent.


With such impressive individuals, that have already come through and more to come from NSW, Victorian clubs might need to adjust their approach to recruiting academy systems.



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. Dr Rocket says

    Well done Chris – a very good summation of the benefits to football, not just the Swans, of the Academies.

    However, the Swans do not have access to all of NSW as you suggest in your second last par.

    The Giants have most of southern NSW & the ACT.
    And they have increasingly provided players for the Giants, the likes of Hopper, Himmelberg, Flynn, Finlayson, Perryman, et al
    Of course, the area was originally zoned to South Melbourne back in 1967 and proved to be a very fertile recruiting zone for the Swans – Quades, Carrolls, Danihers, Hounsell, Prentice, and many others.
    The Swans were not happy to not get this area when the Academies were set up.

    So they have worked hard to get players out of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.
    And the Academies should not get all the credit – which a lazy media portrays…
    The clubs have played a major part in shaping the players through their own development programs

  2. Just wondering whether we are in an interim phase of footy and that eventually clubs will be able to develop their own talent.

    It would be good if a lawyer could offer an opinion, but I suspect the law is on the side of the freedom of players in the commerce of football. But the players give up that right in the interest of growing the overall football pie, because more players derive a benefit from that approach.

    I say interim, because I can imagine a time when footy is more competitive commercially and some teams disappear and there is no incentive to develop junior footy because clubs other than your own benefit.

    This is a very long-term prediction.

  3. Nice one, Chris.

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