AFL trade period looms as quietest in more than a decade

Reductions in list sizes and the salary cap are the major factors behind why this looms as a somnolence-inducing 10-day AFL trade period.

After a host of big-name moves over recent years, most notably the dramatic 2014 and 2018 trade periods, this year’s player movement window is poised to be the quietest in more than a decade.

Adam Cerra has requested a move to Carlton.Credit:Getty Images

Of the players widely expected to be traded, it is likely only Adam Cerra (Fremantle to Carlton), Jordan Dawson (Sydney to Adelaide) and maybe Jordan Clark (Geelong to Fremantle) will move in deals involving first-round draft selections. There could yet be curve-balls and deals which have not yet emerged publicly, but the widespread expectation from clubs is the next week and a half are going to be as dull as the 2017 Boxing Day Test.

While there are always going to be busier and quieter years, the impending inertia of the 2021 trade period – which begins on Monday – can like just about everything at the moment be at least in part attributed to COVID-19.

As a result of the financial hit taken by the AFL and its clubs, the league and the AFL Players’ Association last year agreed on a deal whereby total player payments for 2021 dropped by nine per cent, and maximum list sizes were reduced from 47 to 44 ahead of the 2021 campaign.

This had significant effects last year, with a special rule introduced to allow clubs to drop up to two players from the primary list to the rookie list without them needing to go through the draft.

The effect of that played out to an extent this year, as those demoted players automatically became unrestricted free agents. In one such example, Hawthorn tried to lure Fremantle’s Lachie Schultz – who had been downgraded at the end of 2020 – as a free agent this year before the small forward re-signed.

The salary cap issue is also significant. As part of the revised pay deal, players who had a pre-existing (pre-AFL shutdown in 2020) contract for 2021 and beyond took heavier cuts in 2021 but had their contracts back-ended to receive more in 2022 and 2023 so that they will ultimately lose only 3.5 per cent of their pay.

It is the forced back-ending of contracts that has led to a salary cap crunch at a host of clubs, an issue which caused consternation last November.

Having brought in Joe Daniher last year, the Lions have a tight cap.Credit:AFL Photos

With clubs dealing with tight caps and smaller list sizes, there is much less room to manoeuvre deals, club sources told The Age over the weekend.

As reported by The Age, West Coast, St Kilda, Richmond and the Western Bulldogs negotiated their own across-the-board pay cuts with players this year in a bid to fast-track the normalisation of their respective salary caps.

One club source also said players had been keen to secure themselves to longer contracts where possible given the lingering uncertainty around the long-term impact of the pandemic on AFL and club finances.

There is another factor. Last year also had the distinction of being what was in some quarters labelled “the most compromised draft in history” with 12 players the subject of matched bids as academy or father-son selections. This also had implications in the preceding trade period, with clubs needing to trade picks to bank points or to tactically slide down to limit point absorption. This will not be as considerable a factor in 2021, which has a couple of high-profile father-son draftees (Nick Daicos and Sam Darcy) but not the same depth.

In any event, trades involving only picks can happen after the major trade period, with a second trade period only for pick swaps following the player exchange period. Clubs also have the option of trading picks during the draft itself.

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