As of late, I have been getting into disagreements with Australian men (who shall remain nameless because I think they should be embarrassed) about the value of money in sport, particularly in the AFL. They keep saying, and I agree, that it’s not all about the money. The beauty of Australian sport is that it’s primary concern is not to be a money-making machine. Officials and fans care more about the quality and integrity of the game. People are anti-free agency and the idea that players would use performance enhancers is unthinkable because Australia believes that their sports are above that. That’s great.
But here’s what I say: how can you expect to have a quality league when the league has no money?
A club that cares more about quality than quantity cares, mainly, about one thing: winning. Therefore, a league that cares more about quality than quantity should care about one thing (in theory): competitive balance. A easy definition of competitive balance (in case you’re new here) is this: the situation in which no one business of a group of competing businesses has an unfair advantage over the others. That means that every game, every year, every team has the same chance to win. There are many different tools used to maintain competitive balance, the most prominent in the AFL being the draw, salary cap, and reverse order draft. Now I’ve written about the draw and how I think it should be organized to maximize opportunities for every team. And frankly, that has nothing to do with money, so I’ll ignore it for this post. Since I’m talking about money and how it’s essential to creating and maintaining a quality league, I’ll focus on the other two things that are associated with money.
The argument: It doesn’t matter if a team has money. The salary cap makes sure that the talent is evenly distributed.
The salary cap was implemented to make sure that clubs couldn’t buy wins and on many levels, it has worked. There is little sustained evidence to show that the more clubs spend on total player payments (TPP), the more likely they are to win. At least, in the US. TPP in Australia is very hush-hush so while the league may issue a release saying there are rich players, salaries are largely kept under wraps.
From where I’m sitting, however, it’s pretty obvious that salaries aren’t the end-all-be-all in success*. Ablett, for instance, is rumored to make a mill, and his team is no where near the top. Collingwood and Geelong have a pretty even salary since they’ve got a bunch of stars, but they’re also not dominating (not really anyway). So while their argument is right… I, of course, have a rebuttal.
My counter argument: What difference does talent make if clubs don’t have the money to develop it?
There is something to be said for raw talent. Some guys, especially mature aged recruits, don’t need much in the way of development. But for the most part, players need to be built. Clubs with more money are able to do this better than clubs with smaller budgets. Think of all the things money can buy, other than players, that the AFL can’t control through a cap: equipment, facilities, coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, doctors/physios, statisticians.
A club that can afford several specialized coaches can develop skills of individual players easier and quicker than a team who can only afford a handful of mid-quality coaches. Technology is fast becoming an important aspect of sport and teams who can afford tracking equipment (in shoes, for instance), or devices that monitor heart rate and work output, will create better, stronger players faster than teams who rely on stopwatches.
Think about it: would you be a better player if you got individual attention? Would your injuries be less severe, and quicker to recover from, if you had a massage therapist, your own physio, and state-of-the-art medical equipment to get you up and running again?
While it’s true that the salary cap does distribute the talent, it’s what you do with that talent that matters.
So here’s a question for you (don’t worry, it’s true or false): Clubs with more money, and with access to better resources, will have more opportunities to develop raw talent than clubs with limited funds.
Leave your answer in the comments section and let’s fight it out!
Part II will be a case study of how this has played out int he AFL. Any guesses when team I’ll choose?
* – I don’t include performance based incentives in my opinions because, while part of TPP, are given after a player performs well. The idea here is that you can buy wins by recruiting a player who already has high salary demands.