Just in case AFL head Andrew Demetriou and the AFL Commission didn’t have enough problems, another one has emerged, completely of their own making, which threatens to expose the fragilities of the AFL’s inconsistent framework.

The decision by Hawthorn ace, Lance “Buddy” Franklin to accept a record nine-year, $10-million offer from the Sydney Swans has caused a revolt from AFL clubs who appear to have finally realised the Commission doesn’t do a particularly good job of managing the competition.

The Buddy controversy largely stems around three issues: the cost of living allowance (COLA) which gives the Swans and Greater Western Sydney an extra 9.8% salary cap allowance, or $900,000 over and above all other clubs; the ability for clubs to use third-party payments to bump up the effective salaries for star players; and the introduction of free agency in 2011.

The cost of living issue is exacerbated with the AFL allowing some clubs to use 95% of the allowable cap (due to financial difficulties) — this means Sydney and GWS have extra to spend on players.

The major criticism of the allowance is that it is not used as intended to assist lower-paid players (who would require the additional funds to cover higher housing costs). Instead, it has been used to snare superstars like Franklin and former Adelaide Crows star player Kurt Tippett, who controversially joined Sydney last year. There’s also the issue of cost of living being very expensive in Perth as well, but teams in the western capital get no allowance. The cost of living in Adelaide and Brisbane is substantially less than Melbourne, but clubs playing in those regions have no salary cap discount imposed. Some argue that the COLA is little more than a way for the AFL to ensure the success of the clubs operating in the critical Sydney market.

Outspoken Carlton coach Mick Malthouse was certainly unimpressed with the Franklin move, saying:

“George Orwell many years ago … writing Animal Farm probably based it on the AFL, not Russia. In his wisdom he said, ‘Things are equal, but some things are … more equal than others.’ We find ourselves more and more now in a position where we have to fight against an uneven competition.”

Perhaps even more controversial than COLA is the ability for some clubs to allow players to be paid through third-party deals. This involves a friendly party, often a club sponsor, paying (usually a very high-profile) player for performing various services unrelated to football. This effectively allows a club to ensure a player is remunerated better than the salary cap allows. The most famous example was Visy (At the time owned by then-Carlton president Richard Pratt) paying star Chris Judd $250,000 a year to act as a brand ambassador for the cardboard giant. Judd was required to attend a couple of social functions annually. While the AFL eventually bowed to pressure and after six years required the Blues to include the controversial deal in their salary cap, the proliferation of such backroom arrangements is rife.

The COLA and the third-party deals have been exacerbated by the introduction of free agency by the Commission in 2011 — this effectively allows uncontracted players (who meet certain criteria) to switch clubs without having to nominate for the draft. The AFL initially resisted free agency, but bowed to pressure from the AFL Players Association to allow the move. Ostensibly, the purpose of free agency was to allow lower and mid-ranking players to ensure they are able to play for who they choose and not be forced to accept a below-market salary. The result, as with most AFL decisions, turned out very differently.

Instead of helping the lower-paid players, free agency has turned out to be a boon for the game’s elite. Brendon Goddard transferred to Essendon on an $800,000 a year contract while Franklin now looks set to enjoy the league’s highest-ever pay packet as a result of the free agency rules. By inflating the salaries of the elite, the share of the pay shared by the lower and mid-tier players is inevitably reduced –– so free agency is actually working in the exact opposite way it was intended.

By its own hand, the AFL has created a sense of dualism within a competition which until recent years, was amongst the fairest of all global sports. It’s no surprise that the ladder in 2013 came close to representing a table of wealth; the wealthiest clubs at the top, and the poorest clubs with the smallest supporter bases down the bottom.

It’s not without a sense of irony that the AFL Commission was formed in 1985 largely as a response to a potential breakaway competition consisting of the wealthiest clubs, yet almost three decades later, it appears the Commission has overseen exactly what it was created to prevent.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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