Chris Judd, arguably the AFL’s best player, yesterday nominated Carlton as his preferred club for 2008 onwards. Following Judd’s announcement, the Blues will try to reach an agreement with West Coast to secure his services.

Yet the Judd almost-bunfight serves to highlight a flaw in the AFL’s salary cap system. Carlton might fit him into the salary cap, but any financial inducements that sweeten the deal will never be counted.

The salary cap, which prevents AFL clubs from spending more than a specified amount (currently $6.94 million per year, increasing to $8.2 million in 2011) for players is a very noble concept. The cap creates a more level playing field, avoiding the domination of a few powerhouse clubs, a scenario which has blighted English Premier League soccer for decades.

Trouble is, the cap seems pretty easy to circumvent. The two “favourites” to secure Judd’s services were Melbourne-based clubs Collingwood and Carlton.

While Collingwood, for example, might offer Judd a base wage of $900,000 per year (which would be included in its salary cap), its president, Eddie McGuire may have also been able to secure the well-spoken star (or his model girlfriend, Rebecca Twigley) a prominent role on Channel Nine for, say, $500,000 per year. Collingwood would have been smart enough to ensure that the $500,000 would not be included in its salary cap, with the money coming from Channel Nine on an “arm’s length” basis. However, it would not be unfair to suggest such a role, and by implication, additional payments, would have been contingent upon Judd choosing to play for the team presided over by Nine powerbroker, Eddie McGuire.

Judd’s club of choice, Carlton, could have offered the superstar an even more lucrative inducement. Some have suggested that billionaire businessman and Carlton President Richard Pratt may offer Judd a job post-football with one of his companies. Pratt could effectively offer Judd a handshake deal, assuring the superstar a $? (name your price) per year role after his retirement. As such, payments which would occur after Judd has finished playing would not included in the salary cap, especially if the deal was never committed to paper. Interestingly, when Judd visited Pratt’s Kew mansion last week to discuss a potential move to Carlton, Visy executives were also in attendance.

Carlton CEO Greg Swann noted yesterday that, in wooing Judd, the club “sold him a vision … and a bit about life after football.” Jake Niall in The Age today noted that “the Blues promoted the environmental credentials of Pratt’s packaging and recycling company, Visy”.

The salary cap is a fantastic concept and has been a major driver of the even AFL competition (neither of this year’s grand finalists made the finals last year). However, for the cap to be effective it must include all earnings, current and promised, which have any nexus to the player’s service to a particular club. Future earnings should be discounted to their current value and included in the cap.

I’m not suggesting that Carlton or Judd has acted improperly. Or that Judd chose to go to Carlton purely for financial reasons. However, the mere possibility that a wealthy backer could underwrite a player’s earnings outside of the salary cap unfortunately gives rise to a disparity in the bargaining power of clubs and undermines the important work of the salary cap. It also gives rise to the apprehension that, while player salaries are equal, some are more equal than others.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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