When the salary cap doesn’t fit

The differences between Geelong and Melbourne could not be more glaring since 2007. Joel Selwood must go to bed every night thanking his lucky stars the Cats had a poor year in 2006, allowing them to select him with pick no. 7 in the draft.

The Demons couldn’t get near Selwood in the pecking order, after finishing in the finals for the third consecutive year. Now Melbourne looks to be in the midst of a finals drought of Richmond-like proportions, with just winning a game against a team that’s been in the AFL longer than 5 minutes proving to be an impossible task.

Since 2007, the Demons have won just 24% of their matches, compared to a whopping 82% by the Cats. They also look headed for their third wooden spoon in this time, as Geelong eyes its fourth flag.

Putting it politely, Melbourne is a very ordinary team. Geelong is the exact opposite. But one of the few areas where the two teams have something in common, is how much they pay their players. A ridiculous AFL rule means the Demons’ squad is only permitted to earn 5% less than the Cats’ squad.

A few years ago, the league brought in a rule forcing clubs to pay at least 92.5% of their salary cap, concerned that clubs needing financial welfare like the Bulldogs and Kangaroos would never be able to field competitive sides, if they cut down too much on player payments. It was a rule that had good intentions, after all, how can a club keep supporters and sponsors interested if it isn’t competitive? (Yes Melbourne, how can it?) At the end of 2011, the AFL Players’ Association negotiated for this minimum salary cap amount to be increased to 95%, but if the AFL is genuinely concerned about Melbourne’s plight, it should do everything it can to ensure this rule is no longer enforced at AAMI Park.

Geelong struggles each year to keep its talented playing stocks intact, with many players opting to accept less money than they could receive elsewhere, in return for staying at a good club. Melbourne, on the other hand, struggles each year to reach the 95% minimum for a squad largely consisting of unfulfilled talent and useless hacks. To achieve the target, the Demons have to resort to front-loading contracts (i.e. paying money from the later years of a contract in advance) and spending over the odds to lure recruits from other clubs. Many people scoffed at the reported $750,000 a season paid to Mitch Clark and $500,000 a year deal for Chris Dawes. But it has to be argued, who else are they going to spend their salary cap riches on? James Sellar and Cam Pederson? They’ve already wasted draft picks on them.

It could easily be argued on output alone, Melbourne’s playing list is only worth 20% of what Geelong’s list earns, but the current rule means there are far too many Demons earning much more than they deserve. Maybe if they were on an incentive-based system where payment was only guaranteed for those who have a genuine crack for four whole quarters every week, they might have more players who at least look like they care.


  1. Adam Ritchie says

    Hey Barry.

    I’m surprised there isn’t more discussion on this. It is a farce that the Demons are, at most, getting paid 5% less than the players at the more successful clubs, at least in a purely footballing sense.

    As you point out, the salary floor has good intentions, and I advocate them. 95% is a ridiculously high bar. Without thinking too deeply about it you’d think something along the lines of 80% would be more reasonable. Prevents clubs from trying to save a buck at the expense of the onfield performances (I would think this is unlikely in the AFL universe, given there is no real benefit long term. On-field success is a big part of off field success. Salary floors are much more important in North American sports due to the nature of team ownership. Often one person owns the team, and, depending on their interests in their team, they will cut costs wherever and run the team like a business with the primary aim of turning a profit. The Phoenix Suns in the NBA are a good example of this. Their owner over the years has sold draft picks to other teams for money. Other teams have traded players on the cheap just so they can get under a certain salary ceiling and avoid paying expensive penalty taxes, while other owners are more than happy to pay these same taxes in their pursuit of success)

    Got off track there. What I was getting at is 80% would help prevent a massive drop-off in on field performances while allowing sides in rebuilding phases or near the bottom to not have to overpay players. This is just in a general sense rather than a Melbourne specific sense. Obviously Melbourne would probably still be overpaying even at 80, but I don’t think altering laws on a case by case basis is a good idea. The AFL isn’t exactly renowned for implementing new rules well, nor are they renowned for transparency (see the new priority pick system. Now the AFL just arbitrarily decides who gets one and when. The old points system was problematic, but at least we knew who would get one and why. Of course the easiest solution is to remove them entirely but I digress).

    It just seems fraught with danger. Who decides these things? How low are they allowed to go? Why can’t we go lower? If they are only paying X why do we have to pay Y? When do they have to start paying the 95% again? I can picture a situation where they are only paying 50%, throw absolutely crazy money at several free agents, and suddenly they are a completely new squad. Other clubs could justly ask why they weren’t allowed to pay 50% and launch the rest at free agents. I’m not suggesting any of these things are likely, but I don’t think the AFL would be wise to open pandora’s box. The current reality where the Demons are dramatically overpaying some undeserving players is the lesser of two evils in my opinion.

    I’d be interested to see what others thought.

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