Why the AFL draft doesn’t work, writes Jake Niall

This time 12 months ago, North Melbourne was overjoyed that Jason Horne-Francis got to pick one. Today he is a Port Adelaide player, sprinting from Arden Street despite a contract.

On Monday and Tuesday night, pundits will declare that certain clubs have “done really well” and have improved their lists with informed picks.

Mitch Szybowski, Will Ashcroft and Elijah Tsatas are all set to join AFL clubs in the upcoming draft.

Mitch Szybowski, Will Ashcroft and Elijah Tsatas are all set to join AFL clubs in the upcoming draft.Credit:AFL Photos

But recent events – and the ongoing trend for players to choose their clubs regardless of age or contract – mean the draft may not prove to be a panacea, even for the clubs rumored to have devised them.

Draft, while important, no longer determines the fate of teams, in terms of winning matches and finals, as it did, or as intended when it was introduced, alongside the salary cap, in 1986. It is important, but less influential than ten years ago.

“The design is almost irrelevant to the top four clubs,” said Gold Coast chief executive and ex-Hawthorn and AFL football boss Mark Evans. He notes that the draft has been watered down, as an equalization measure, “given the increase in player movements and players wanting to play at clubs vying for the premiership”.

Senior club figures and list managers note that players are more willing to leave these days, as Horne-Francis and Henry did; that the best players choose the good teams higher up the ladder (see Tom Lynch and Jeremy Cameron), that they almost always get their wish; and the club that the player loses usually takes all the “collateral” available.

Players have always been largely able to join their favorite club. “But they’re doing it more and they’re doing it sooner,” said Wayne Campbell, the ex-Tiger great, current Suns and former GWS head of football.

In theory, the team that loses the player should get a fair price. In practice, as Campbell points out, the return “doesn’t necessarily equate to the value of the player”.

In Melbourne’s case, they had to accept Fremantle’s two first round picks – one that was pick 13 – for Luke Jackson, as that was all the Dockers had to offer. Jackson was out of contract. These days, players aren’t really looking for “a trade for a Victorian club”. They nominate a specific club.

Expanding to 18 teams, on paper no more than two teams get two top-20 picks from a low finish. Early priority picks, which accelerated Hawthorn (2008) and Collingwood’s (2010) flags, were canceled by the Melbourne tanking scandal. Free agency was introduced, a measure that clearly favors the tops.

The Victoria-based first-round draftees at Marvel Stadium on Thursday.

The Victoria-based first-round draftees at Marvel Stadium on Thursday.Credit:AFL Photos

“You have to have more leverage than simply relying on design,” says Carlton chief executive Brian Cook, who was at Geelong when the Cats – whose dynasty from 2007 to 2011 was based on drafts – sharply turned to trades and free agency.

The culture of player movement changed dramatically when free agency was introduced in 2012. Revealingly, most premiership teams have made significant use of free agency or trades (the 2016 Bulldogs being an exception). The top two players in the 2022 Grand Finals were Isaac Smith, who cost the Cats zero in draft terms, and Patrick Dangerfield, who picked them up on the cheap due to his access to free agency.

Lynch also cost the Tigers zero draft picks in 2018.

As I noted in 2014, when Tom Boyd and Ryan Griffen walked out despite contracts, free agency changed players’ perceptions of their relationship with clubs, just as the introduction of no-fault divorce in the 1970s fostered a culture of greater freedom. de facto and short-term, live-in relationships: Players, like those emancipated couples after the sexual revolution, had permission to leave.

The top two players in the 2022 Grand Finals were Isaac Smith, who cost the Cats zero in draft terms, and Patrick Dangerfield, who picked them up on the cheap due to his access to free agency.

The top two players in the 2022 Grand Finals were Isaac Smith, who cost the Cats zero in draft terms, and Patrick Dangerfield, who picked them up on the cheap due to his access to free agency.Credit:Getty Images

Faced with a choice between a late draft pick and a proven mature player like Taranto or Hopper, the contending team will want the mature player – provided they have the salary cap.

This leads to another major shift that has undermined the design’s mission to comfort the afflicted and torment the comfortable: that the better teams can pay players less than the weaker ones.

Lynch and Cameron took pay cuts to move from expansion teams to Richmond and Geelong. Lynch accepted $400,000 per season less at Richmond than he would have received at North. On expansion teams, first-round picks who did squat get more than $400,000 in their third year.

Perversely, if you have less access to top-10 picks, like at Geelong and Richmond, your salary cap is relieved of those bloated third- and fourth-year contracts. It’s a safe bet that Sam De Koning, a gun in the 2022 premiership, hasn’t played much, compared to his worth in year three.

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The Brodie Grundy trade also underlined the substitution’s reduced potency compared to player payments. Grundy was traded to Melbourne for pick 27 – hardly his real worth. But Collingwood’s real gain was losing most of a contract worth more than $900,000 over the next five years; the Pies were willing to lose Grundy and pay a fair chunk of his contract to create space.

If father-sons and academies compromise the draft, there is a greater structural imbalance where players come from, with about 55 per cent coming from Victoria. Geelong, without access to high picks for eons, has ended up with 17 local players (Geelong, Western District and Surf Coast) if you include Cameron.

Another design issue: the sheer amount of time the pure rebuild takes, as Carlton and earlier Melbourne – who had three consecutive tries before it was right – can attest.

Design remains the best and most important vehicle for clubs to pick themselves up from the bottom up. Or to regenerate an aging list. It provides the base – like Carlton’s five A graders – on which to add. “You have to have something to build with first,” says a renowned list manager.

Once upon a time, clubs traded for show and marched for dough. These days, the draft will only get you onto the fairway or out of the sandbox.

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