Free agency was much-anticipated throughout the season, but seemingly for all the wrong reasons. Most people don’t like it when they don’t know what to expect.
There were plenty of questions heading into this uncertain time. Would it work? Would every eligible free agent want to leave their club, paving the way for a new era of constant player movement like other sporting codes around the world? Or would every free agent want to stay put, rendering the process entirely pointless?
These were the types of questions that crossed our minds this year, and they were obviously on the minds of those within clubs, as each team acted quickly to guard themselves from the possibility of a star player leaving by signing any eligible free agent they could during the season.
Now that the free agency period has come and gone, it wasn’t that bad and it worked out relatively fine. Some players exercised their right to seek another contract while others chose to stay with their club.
However, what free agency showed us is its ability to strengthen the richer clubs and weaken the poorer, and in a game that is always seeking to expand, this is concerning.
If a club makes an offer to a restricted free agent, that player’s club has the right to match that offer and therefore keep the player on its list. Perhaps this rule was made to protect clubs in a way. However, that player can, of course, decide to leave the club anyway and enter the National Draft.
The player’s original club therefore has a difficult decision to make. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the club can match the offer, have the player leave and get nothing in return, or it can allow the player to leave and receive compensation if it is eligible.
When a player is a free agent, he has the right to want to leave his club. In reality, when a player is offered a better contract at another club, it would be difficult to turn it down. This is where free agency fails.
What we saw was a club like Port Adelaide, an interstate team with fewer resources than other teams, struggle to hold onto its free agents. Richmond snagged tall defender Troy Chaplin while the Dockers took Danyle Pearce.
Clubs with more resources as well teams which are more likely to play finals for 2013 seem to be the going rate. Goddard moved from the Saints to Essendon while Melbourne lost Jared Rivers to Geelong and Brent Moloney to Brisbane.
However, players have always sought out clubs for these reasons. The difference is that free agency takes away the power a club like Port Adelaide or Western Bulldogs has during trade week. The opportunity for a fair deal on the club’s terms is gone.
Some may argue that teams simply need to be smart about the players they recruit and sign those on their list who are eligible for free agency before the end of the season. However, teams with more resources have greater opportunity to employ more coaches and recruiters who can scout for free agents who fit their needs during the season and have more of a chance of holding onto their own players. This leaves the clubs without such means vulnerable.
Yes, teams who lose a free agent do receive compensation. This compensation can be decent, as we saw with the Saints, who received a first-round draft pick for the loss of Goddard. The difference is that clubs lose the opportunity to evaluate for themselves whether or not that pick is worth the loss of the player in question. In fact, as we have also seen with this free agency period, many clubs feel that the compensation is not equal to the free agent that has left.
If free agency continues to this end, each and every year clubs in a more vulnerable position will continue to lose out. The message free agency sends is clear: learn how to compete or get more hooks on your club walls for wooden spoons.
If we want free agency to work, we need to consider the effects it has on the smaller clubs. Otherwise, instead of the gap closing between the rich and poor, it will become a chasm as some teams struggle to stay on firm ground.