Thoughts, past and present, on Free Agency

Five years ago, I wrote the following about free agency in a piece about the big issues confronting the AFL in the decade ahead:

Any developments that upset this balance (the equalization policies that have created a strong, even competition), particularly those that risk significant player payment hikes or players being able to effectively hold a club to ransom pose a huge threat to the viability of the competition, both in a financial sense and in terms of maintaining the League’s enviably even competition. The challenge for the League will be to balance the understandable demands of players to gain greater freedom to ply their trade where they like and for whichever club can offer the greatest amount, with the need to maintain an equitable and financially viable competition.

Just this week, Chris Scott has argued that free agency should be abolished for this very reason, as well as to end the distasteful gossip and speculation surrounding free agents and their likely moves.

That this view should come from the coach of a club that, arguably, stands to benefit more than most from free agency, is interesting. But he is not alone. Adelaide’s Taylor Walker recently unleashed an unusually strong tirade against the AFL’s Americanisation of the game, in particular, bemoaning the decline of club loyalty that free agency is likely to cause. Walker has a particular axe to grind – the future of Patrick Dangerfield and his possible move back to Victoria. However, his point is well made.

Back in 2009, I was unsure how free agency would play out and in truth, it’s still early days. However, it strikes me that there are several free agency scenarios that are emerging:

  1. The big grab for cash where a (usually) big-name player will shift clubs on a deal that sets him up for life. Buddy Franklin is the obvious example. This was the scenario that I think I was originally most concerned about. However, I now believe that this will not be a major threat to the equilibrium of the competition. One reason is that because of salary cap constraints, opportunities to cash in like this will be relatively rare. The other is that in this professional era, most of the top players are already very well remunerated and are smart enough to realise that chasing big bucks is not the be-all and end-all.
  2. The low key move for greater opportunity. Typically, these moves are made by fringe players who have struggled for regular opportunities at one club and see better prospects elsewhere. In this case, it’s about opportunity rather than money. Mathew White’s move to Port Adelaide after a number of years as an irregular senior player at Richmond is a case in point. In most instances, the outcome is not likely to be a big deal as it will only be rarely that players achieve a massive transformation in their performance even if their hope of greater opportunity comes true. White has had a good year at Port but he ain’t Chad Wingard.
  3. The move for team success. This in my view is going to be the predominant reason for free agency moves and, therefore, the most threatening to the equality of the competition. Top players who’ve served their time with ordinary sides will typically move to the best sides for their last 4-5 years in the hope of playing in a premiership side. Brendon Goddard’s shift from St Kilda is an example. Not only did it hasten the Saint’s tumble down the ladder, Goddard has demonstrated only too clearly what the Saints lost by winning the Essendon Best and Fairest.

It’s pretty hard to see many free agency moves in the opposite direction to scenario 3. Occasionally we may see a veteran star moving to a lower side that he believes is poised to make a significant improvement (think Chris Judd’s move to Carlton – although his optimism proved ill-founded). But surely, given the choice of where best to play out one’s last few seasons, most players are going to play safe and aim for one of the top sides, thereby perpetuating the imbalance.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Dave Brown says

    The Frawley one this year will be interesting, Sam. That there is almost an incentive for both parties to part ways could be seen as perverse or perfect.

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