The players are united, the players are united, the players are united.
This statement should be drilled into your head by now. An incredible amount of the “analysis” of the AFL players’ pay dispute involves varying interpretations of these four words.
The players are united. They are all determined to get a fair outcome. They are unanimous in their belief they deserve more. They are willing to stand together to be heard.
Oh, and they are also united. Don’t forget that one.
Whether this is a sign that the AFLPA are winning the PR war or a sign AFL journalists spend too much time on Twitter is hard to say.
However, what is clear is that a bit less time needs to be spent on emotive and simplistic commentary, and more time needs to be spent looking at where the two sides to this issue are at.
Things like what the AFLPA are actually asking for, what the AFL are offering and how big the gap between those two things are would appear to be far more important to discuss.
With this spirit in mind, let’s look at a quick run-down of what the bargaining table looks like (with some help from Jay Clark and Matt Windley of the Herald Sun).
On the AFLPA side of the table, demands include: 25, 26 then 27 per cent of all AFL and club revenues over the next three years; an improved retirement program, including a new pension scheme beginning ten years after retirement; guaranteed injury protection payments both during and after career; and rookies to be absorbed into expanded lists and earn more.
Roughly a third of the projected increase in the players’ haul would go to salaries, seeing the average player wage (including rookies) increase from $180,000 last year to $210,000 in 2012. The other two thirds would go to the improved welfare and retirement programs.
On the AFL side of the table, the response is: no fixed percentage model and a five year term instead of three; a deal larger than their previous $1.09 billion offer over five years, which itself was up from $811 million for the current deal; and yes to rookies getting more, but not necessarily to the pension scheme.
The AFL are happy however to let the players determine exactly where the money is spent, and also project that a 25-27 per cent model would cost $1.32 billion over five years.
So, fundamentally, the gap between the two sides can be priced at roughly $200 million – or $40 million per year – plus the other notable differences of opinion, whether a fixed percentage should be introduced and how long the agreement should last.
That’s what we’re really dealing with.
And now we’ve gotten that out the way, we can ask the key question: are the players justified in asking for so much?
Firstly, the players are justified in asking for more. That much can be stated without hesitation. The AFL are fresh off signing an astounding $1.253 billion broadcast deal, the game is growing in terms of membership and TV figures, crowds have stalled this year but have improved over the last five years. The game, in simple terms, is going gangbusters.
But the question of whether they are justified in asking for so much is a bit more complex.
On the surface, the changes the players want implemented seem to be sensible, perhaps even a bit revolutionary. Also, the last player deal (at $811 million) was marginally bigger than the last TV deal ($780 million). The AFLPA’s model would replicate this (an estimated $1.32 billion, if it’s converted to a five-year term, for the players to $1.253 billion from broadcasters).
The problem with the first argument is that there’s a hint of the players wanting to have their cake and eat it too in asking for costly improvements to welfare and retirement yet still expecting wages to improve. This is why it is hard to see all of the AFLPA demands being met.
There’s also an issue with basing the size of the increase solely on AFL revenues, when in fact both league and club revenues contribute to player payments.
Given the two Adelaide clubs were given $12 million in AFL handouts last week, three Melbourne-based clubs sold games interstate exclusively for financial purposes this season, another (North Melbourne) continues to have its future questioned and in Queensland the Brisbane Lions have entered a turbulent period, it’s safe to say things don’t look as rosy in club-land as they do at AFL House.
This could give the AFL added bargaining power, but the AFLPA do have an effective counter.
Over the past five years, the salaries of coaches has increased 10 per cent, club recruiters 19 per cent, fitness staff 16 per cent and medical staff 8 per cent – compared to only 5 per cent for the players.
If clubs can lift spending so much in all these other areas, it’s hard to muster up sympathy towards them when they are asked to spend more on players.
So yes, financially speaking, the players deserve what they are asking for. Accepting less would not reflect well on the AFLPA.
Like all negotiations, though, sacrifices will need to be made and it’s the two non-financial areas of disagreement (the fixed percentage model and the length of the deal) where the players might have to concede ground.
You get the feeling accepting the AFL’s terms on either of these fronts would not be as much an embarrassment for the AFLPA.
It’s messy and complicated, but it does appear as though a resolution to the dispute is possible.
Until then, though, at least we know one thing – the players are united.
Michael DiFabrizio is a journalism student at the University of Wollongong. As an AFL writer, he has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009 and has appeared in The Age and on ABC television and radio.