To trade or to draft, that is the question.

Remember when football was taken “one week at a time”?


This may still be true for those who take to the field every weekend through the Australian winter but it couldn’t be further from the truth for those in the football departments who shape and mould the playing lists for the 18 AFL clubs. Those football departments have grown beyond belief in recent times, so much so the AFL has placed a soft cap on the clubs spending in this department.


This, many will argue, is the most important resource a modern day club has at their disposal. Not only are they charged with identifying junior talent as it comes through the ranks (starting as young as U13 level) they are also tasked with managing and distributing the Total Player Payments to the playing list all the while keeping an eye on the future and supplying the coaching staff with the tools they need to succeed on field and ultimately they give the fans reason to hand over their hard earned in membership, game day spend and merchandise.


Restricted and unrestricted free agents (RFA and UFA) are being courted 3 or 4 years out from their eligibility for free agency and clubs are front ending, mid loading and back ending contracts in a constant juggling act to ensure they do not exceed the TPP. The goal though is and always will be on field success and there’s a couple of ways you can head to either achieve or sustain this success.


The two newest franchises, Gold Coast and GWS, were granted unprecedented draft concessions when they started their journey in the AFL world. These draft concessions (among other factors) have become almost impossible to manage for these two clubs as they lose top 10 pick after top 10 pick to rival clubs swooping on the virtual football factories the AFL built in yellow, red, orange and grey.


So the question is, how do you build your playing list for the future. Do you trade for established players, do you chase and woo UFA and RFA’s or do you go to the draft and build a squad from here? I guess it depends on many factors. Where are you on the ladder right now, where will you be in the next 2-3 years and where will you be in 5 years?


The first method, successfully used by Hawthorn in recent times requires a level of success in the first instance to create a program players are wanting to buy into. Port Adelaide have been called a “destination club” in recent years by securing top end talent like Paddy Ryder, Charlie Dixon and the three additions this trade period Tom Rockliff, Jack Watts and Steven Motlop by offering a program that appears to be set for finals action in the coming years.


Other clubs haven’t been able to attract these UFA or RFA’s to their clubs. North Melbourne put enormous offers in front of Dustin Martin and Josh Kelly only for both to remain at their respective clubs and play in a premiership and preliminary final respectively. Both choosing success over money, to coin a phrase.


So where to for the likes of North Melbourne, Brisbane and to a lesser extent Fremantle and the GC? Do they stock up on first and second round picks in the next two drafts and try and secure two or three first round picks in the 2018 “super draft” or do they once again try and attract FA and RFA’s with the promises of riches?


If they go down the draft path and secure a handful or top end picks they could risk the same fate as the GC, GWS and Brisbane. Spend considerable resources on identifying, drafting and developing these talented youngsters only to have the unenviable task of trying to fit them all into the TPP in years to come and, almost inevitably, lose some to the highest bidder when the young stars reach their football prime.


Or do they fill bags of cash up and build the so called “war chest” North Melbourne have and court free agents two or three years out from becoming available on the open market?


And what does each path do to the culture of the clubs?  How would it sit with long serving, hard as a cats head Ben Cunnington if North had successfully courted Dustin Martin to know the blow in from Richmond is on $1.5m a year while he’s on $700k?


You could choose to take the path Hawthorn have. You can release ageing stars to rival clubs when their best football is behind them to relieve salary cap space and trade for young stars looking to be a part of a culture and program that has achieved the ultimate success and appears to be avoiding the dreaded bottom out, aiming for a quick return to finals action.


If you’ve ever thought that a job in the football department of your club would be a dream come true perhaps think again, it could be a nightmare in broad daylight.

About Dave Boon

Alberton proud. Born in Adelaide's west I'm a third generation Port Adelaide fan proudly sharing my love of the club with a 4th generation. Typical Australian sports fan, footy in the winter, cricket in the summer. Golf, punting, fishing and drinking will occupy my other spare time. Tennis and soccer do less for me than you could ever imagine.


  1. Ben Footner says

    Good article Dave.

    The other strategy some clubs are going with (Hawthorn & Geelong in recent times, and now Adelaide attempting to replicate) is to ‘share’ the TPP across the whole squad in order to elevate the total value and depth of the squad.

    In all cases you could argue it has worked – however the approach has forced Adelaide to allow premium talent to walk out the door in search of higher earnings as we saw with Lever this year. Despite the fact that there is this obvious downside occasionally, overall as an Adelaide fan I think this approach is a good one.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    One of the issues that you’ve identified here Dave is that some clubs appear to be anything but attractive to those players that are looking for a move.

  3. That’s correct Mark and it could prove to be the undoing of the equilization system the AFL has developed. The likes of North and Fremantle could find themselves in the bottom half dozen for some years to come as they either struggle to land some quality FA’s or 1st round picks. Most sides will be prepared to trade out players to gain first round picks if that player is in a position they have depth in, for instance Goldstein last year or the year before, however if you haven’t got those players to trade or the player isn’t willing to leave how do you get those extra 1st and 2nd rounders you need to build the squad? I’m very happy that my side isn’t in that bottom half dozen right now as it’s becoming apparent FA and RFA’s are moving to clubs with potential for finals action and not the extra cash.

  4. Ben Footner says

    As I’ve suggested in the past, I reckon there needs to be a limit on how many FA’s a club can sign per trade period dependent on ladder finish (i.e. top 4 = 1, next 4 = 2, next 4 = 3 etc.).

  5. It certainly has merit, until some wig comes in with “restraint of trade” claims….

Leave a Comment