The AFL has a draft problem.
Nothing in the AFL’s self-written rulebook has a greater impact on the league than the draft. It is the designed machination used to obtain ‘parity’.
Equally, nothing is as flawed.
Problems with the draft process are well documented.
Boiled down, the worse a team is, the better the young player it gets. By using a reverse-order method of drafting, the AFL incentivises teams to lose, with the goal being to turn around the fortunes of bad teams quickly.
Nearly every fault with the draft stems from the fact it is directly tied to the final record of a team.
Not only can teams tamper with the system while operating within it, but it also strips every single young player of the chance to have a say in the direction in which their career will heads.
These finely-tuned young prospects, for whom success is often not desired but expected, are forced to hand over control of their career before they’ve first taken the field.
The club chooses the player, and the player has to assume the position and accept it.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, all first-round draft selections are entitled to a base salary of $59,000. Second-round and third-round picks receive $53,800 and $51,000 respectively. Match bonuses are also built into these contracts, meaning a first-round draft pick who plays more than half of their debut season can expect to earn more than $100,000.
Still, in a league where the average career is only four seasons, it is unfair to handcuff players to a team not of their choosing for half that time.
The AFL could do away with draft picks and introduce ‘draft negotiations’.
Consider this: rather the team that finishes last in the upcoming season being guaranteed the number one selection in the National Draft, what if it was guaranteed the number one ‘offer’?
Said side would be able to offer more money than any other to the prospect it believed to be worthy of being selected first.
The team with first on-the-clock would be able to $271,700 – $6,500 more than the average player wage as of 2014 – to the player of its choosing.
As the draft order continued, each position would be able to offer $12,500 less than the one before it, before reaching the premiers of the year, who would only be able to offer $59,200 – the base payment for a first-round selection.
If the season was to end today, here is how the 2015 National Draft negotiations would look.
1. Brisbane – $271,700
2. Carlton – $259,200
3. Gold Coast – $246,700
4. Geelong – $234,200
5. St Kilda – $221,700
6. Port Adelaide – $209,200
7. Melbourne – $196,700
8. North Melbourne – $184,200
9. West Coast Eagles – $171,700
10. Western Bulldogs – $159,200
11. Essendon – $146,700
12. GWS – $134,200
13. Collingwood – $121,700
14. Richmond – $109,200
15. Hawthorn – $96,700
16. Fremantle – $84,200
17. Sydney – $71,700
18. Adelaide – $59,200
The same system could be applied to the second-round – built off a base pay of $53,800 and $5,000 increases for each position – and for the third-round using a base rate of $51,000 and $2,500 jumps.
Not only does the above scenario increase player power, it combats the scourge of many sporting leagues across the world – tanking.
“We can debate whether tanking is a huge problem, or the degree to which it works, but we cannot debate its existence,” NBA analyst Zach Lowe wrote of basketball’s battle with teams losing for the sake of draft positioning.
“The most common means of obtaining said franchise player is via the draft when he is first eligible to enter the NBA…The best odds of snagging such a player lie in being very bad, getting some lottery luck, and drafting in one of the first two or three slots.
“It’s one of several paths to a superstar, and it may well be the best one.”
The NBA currently employs a ‘lottery’ system, which sees the league’s bottom teams entered in a weighted-draw to determine the order of each year’s draft.
It has not stopped tanking either.
“In terms of management, I think there’s an absolute legitimate rebuilding process that goes on,” league commissioner Adam Silver said in an interview with ESPN.
“No player is going out there to lose. It’s so hard to win in this league, and it’s so complex.”
Silver also attacked the notion of ‘be bad to be good’.
In a ‘draft negotiations’ scenario, the onus would each team to make itself as attractive to potential players as possible – be it those at the top or bottom of the ladder.
While the premiers and contending sides would sell themselves on their on-field performance that season, lower teams would have to combine the additional money available with a positive future vision to woo potential club champions.
It would become a monumental risk for to entirely bottom out or ‘tank’, because the team would be doing itself a disservice from an advertising perspective.
At the same time, the large disparity in salaries would make it incredibly difficult, and arguably impossible, for teams with the lowest potential offers to steal the most coveted prospects.
Sure, it could happen on very rare occasions, but the list of 18-year-olds willing to turn down more than $200,000 per year would be a relatively short one.
In reality, it is very similar to the way clubs attract new talent in free agency. More often than not, the teams with money to spend are poorer performing on the field, while winning clubs have less to spend but a better short-term product to sell.
Admittedly, the outlined system is still flawed in parts and would be unlikely to ever see the light of an AFL executive boardroom.
But, eradicating a system widely acknowledged as flawed is something the league must consider. There must be alternatives to do so effectively.
This one isn’t perfect, and it has its own series of questions, but the league should consider it.
Or anything else, because what we have isn’t working.