“I want success pretty much straight away and that’s the reason I chose Sydney” – Lance Franklin’s reasoning for heading to the Swans rather than cross town rivals Greater Western Sydney. The introduction of free agency is changing the landscape in which teams rebuild for premierships.
The introduction of free agency has given players more freedom of movement between clubs, whether for money purposes, moving home, or just simply looking for a new club to continue their career. While the introduction of free agency may have been targeted towards the players, clubs are now being given a chance for a quick rebuild after premiership success.
Prior to free agency, acquiring new players was done via trade or through the draft, which severely limited a clubs chances of maintaining such a strong team for more than four or five years.
Let’s take a look at two clubs since 2000, and their success over that time. Starting with the Brisbane team of the early 2000’s – a preliminary final berth in 2000, followed by three successive premierships in 2001, 2002 and 2003, followed by a 2004 Grand Final. The Lions certainly made the most of their time at the top, and were blessed with star powered young players such as Jonathan Brown, Luke Power and Simon Black coming in at just the right time. What was a sharp rise to the top was followed by quick fall, where they would only regain a spot in the finals in 2009. Nothing since.
The Swans on the other hand, have had a more consistent run since 2000. Since 2002, they have only missed the finals once (2009), two premierships (2005, 2012) and a Grand Final in 2006. On top of that, a preliminary final this year still sees them at the pointy end of the season yet again. Unlike the Lions, the Swans were able to stay at the pointy end of the league after their big years in 2005 and 2006. These weren’t big years however, with elimination and semi-final losses making up their finals campaigns until the premiership in 2012. It’s hard to believe these ‘lacklustre’ years for the Swans were a rebuilding phase, where star players such as Barry Hall, Leo Barry, Jared Crouch, Michael O’Loughlin, Darren Jolly, Brett Kirk and Craig Bolton were all farewelled. Of all the years since 2002 though, only four of those: 2005, 2006, 2012 and 2013 would be considered to be at the top of the game.
Based on previous trends, you would have to expect the Swans to fall down a bit next year, which of course, is entirely possible, but their free agency pick up of Lance Franklin puts them entirely back in contention for the premiership in the coming years. Add on top of this, their recruitment of Kurt Tippett last year has reloaded the Swans in the forward line, and along with their young midfield, will probably be contenders for the coming while.
So without free agency, how could it have shaped up for the Swans post 2012 success? Jude Bolton and Marty Mattner have now retired, Adam Goodes and Lewis Roberts-Thompson probably won’t play on too much longer, and the days with Ryan O’Keefe are coming to a close. All big names there, and the Swans would have to develop a team based around their young, but experienced midfield, and a very underdeveloped forward line anchored by Sam Reid. Sure the midfield will kick goals, but the forward line needs to be functioning as well. Adding Tippett and Franklin who are both well-established forward powerhouses at age 26 completely reloads the Swans for the next five years.
So where does this leave the AFL? Of the top four teams this year, as we stand now in the first week of free agency, the Swans have reloaded, Hawthorn have no real need to change, Geelong has lost some veterans in Paul Chapman, James Podsiadly and Joel Corey and have been included in talks regarding Heath Shaw, and Fremantle secured Colin Sylvia, and is being tossed up in the conversations for forwards in the free agency market. Take a look at where the big names are going as well – Dale Thomas to Carlton, Nick Dal Santo to the Kangaroos, Jesse White to Collingwood and Taylor Adams to Geelong, Essendon or Collingwood. No big names heading to any of the lowly clubs of 2013. No one to the likes of St Kilda, Melbourne or Brisbane. How can these clubs expect to be able to regain their spot in the finals, when all the big names are heading to places for immediate success?
Will it turn into the NBA, where even with a salary cap, powerhouse teams and big name franchises such as the LA Lakers and Miami Heat can continually secure the big names? To an extent yes, but nowhere near what their issue has become. In the NBA, teams can pay a luxury tax, where for every dollar spent above the salary cap limit, another dollar is taxed on the team. This amount increases for every $5 million above the salary cap, leading to cases such as the Brooklyn Nets case, where $75 million will be paid in tax for the upcoming season. What the NBA has over the AFL in this scenario is more chances for immediate success. It is much easier to throw together star power on a five man team and try to win in the first season. It’s hard to think of a sport where signing one or two players can have such an impact on a team. The signing of Lance Franklin at the Swans is the kind of star power that gets dealt every year in the NBA, but it is no guarantee of success at the Swans. So much in the AFL is focused on the long term, demonstrated perfectly by the nine year contract given to Franklin. Compare this to the NBA, where the maximum allowed length is five years, an indication of the quick success everyone desires in the NBA.
So we won’t see Gary Ablett and Scott Pendlebury changing clubs like Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony are expected to do at the end of this coming NBA season. You won’t see Jobe Watson, Nick Dal Santo, Patrick Dangerfield, Jack Riewoldt and Ryan Griffin come together at the end of their careers to try to win that elusive premiership. At most you will see one big name head to a new club every three or so years. Clubs are focused too much on the long term and are well aware that one big name won’t have an immediate and drastic impact on their premiership chances. Who they go to is a more pressing question however, and only until a big name heads to a poorly performing club will I be convinced that free agency is creating a fair and even competition.