Since the introduction of free agency last year, supporters can be forgiven for doubting the sincerity of players’ public oaths of allegiance to their club, such as the commonly repeated comment, “[insert club] means everything to me and I never want to leave.”
While free agency only empowers players who have served for eight years or more at their respective club, it is certainly changing the way players perceive loyalty to their clubs. For years, most players have strived to be a “one club player”, meaning that they only ever run out in the colours of the one team. Yet the moves of Brendan Goddard from St Kilda to Essendon and more recently Buddy Franklin from Hawthorn to Sydney, and Dale Thomas from Collingwood to Carlton highlight the reality that “one club players” are becoming less common. Free agency has allowed rival clubs to entice many of the competition’s stars with financial offers that are simply too good to refuse.
An AFL career is a short-lived job and the brutal nature of the game means one’s career can be cut down at any moment. So, it is understandable that players will do everything they possibly can to maximise their salaries, even if it means switching clubs. For example, I don’t think anyone could blame Richmond fan favourite, Matthew White, for rejecting the club’s one-year contract offer and heading interstate to Port Adelaide on a three-year deal. For White, leaving the club he had been with for the past eight years was the best thing he could do to secure his future in the game.
So with players having increased power to leave clubs without their permission, it begs us to question: is loyalty in the AFL dead? Are players only interested in playing for the club that can offer them the greatest amount of money? Or do they actually care about remaining loyal to the club that gave them the opportunity to forge a career?
When we look at other competitions across the globe like the English Premier League and the NBA, players transferring from club to club throughout their career is accepted as a mere certainty. Yet the AFL has bucked the global trend of players repeatedly switching between clubs with the majority, so far, remaining loyal to their side. Obviously this is partly due to free agency being denied to players until now. However, while free agency will increase the rate of players moving to other clubs, I believe a relatively high degree of loyalty will still exist.
While high salaries are undoubtedly important so is the will for success. The incentive of premiership success certainly drives players to remain loyal to their clubs through accepting less money so that the playing group payments can stay within the salary cap. We only have to look at the Geelong Football Club – the most successful team in the modern era – to see how player loyalty can be rewarded. Players like Joel Corey, Matthew Scarlett and Jimmy Bartel all could have left for more money elsewhere but they chose to take less so that they could experience premiership glory on multiple occasions. Does it surprise you to discover that not one of Geelong’s triple premiership players feature in the top 20 highest paid players?
Clearly loyalty is a concept that all followers of the AFL value greatly. No supporter wishes to see his or her favourite player in one year and then run out for opposition colours in the next. I firmly believe that the majority of players genuinely want to remain at their club for the entirety of their career. Nonetheless, free agency has finally come and it is here to stay. As supporters, we will feel the excitement of welcoming some of the competition’s best players to our clubs. However, we will also experience the disappointment that more and more of our favourite players will leave for other destinations.
Ultimately, we can only hope our club’s players take a leaf out of Geelong’s model to success and remain loyal to their club in its quest for the “holy grail.” I think (or at least hope) that more will than not.