With no date for a return to playing this year – if there is a return – the AFL has encouraged clubs to be creative and forthright with options.
Clubs broadly agreed it would take about a month from having players back at clubs before they were ready to resume playing with the time dependent on the length of the shutdown.
There is a push for interchange rules to be loosened in 2020 to allow for substitutes or higher rotations so that clubs can manage players when playing games with very short breaks. Several clubs pointed out there was an extra cost from match payments for more players by having a bigger bench.
They are looking at options including sending multiple teams interstate for a longer period to play multiple games on a short turnaround. So, for instance, St Kilda and Essendon could go to Perth and play West Coast and Fremantle as well as each other in a three-week period. The clubs and the AFL are not only open to doubleheaders being played but even triple-headers to get through games.
The AFL and clubs are concerned with player health and welfare in any return to play but are also mindful of the disparity between states on restrictions.
Clubs also raised the idea that if the season returned sooner than later and another 16 rounds were played then potentially a bigger finals series could be run with perhaps a top 10 or 12 instead of a top eight if time permitted.
List sizes and the plan to cut the soft cap on football spending next year by another $2 million after cutting it by $1 million this year were of significant concern to clubs with the future of state leagues an important determinant in many of their decisions.
There are concerns that cutting list sizes too quickly could prematurely end the careers of club greats with many on one-year contracts that expire at the end of 2020.
Champions such as Hawthorn’s Shaun Burgoyne, Geelong pair Gary Ablett and Harry Taylor, Carlton’s Kade Simpson and former Magpie now Giant Heath Shaw were all likely to be playing their last season in 2020.
However, many players entering the twilight of their career would be expecting to play for several more years despite agreeing to a one-year deal for 2020.
That list includes players such as Richmond’s Bachar Houli, Western Bulldogs’ Matt Suckling, Carlton’s Ed Curnow and Hawthorn’s Ricky Henderson, who would all have been expecting to lay claim to continuing into 2021 if their form held up.
Currently clubs can have as few as 38 primary listed players and up to six rookies, or as many as 40 primary listed players and four rookies. They can also have up to three category B rookies – players coming in from outside the game – such as Irish players and former basketballers.
Some club list managers believe it is likely the rookie list will be cut with clubs only having a single primary list under any changes for next year while the size of lists could be scaled back incrementally over several years.
Player wages are likely to also be cut next year with the AFL Players’ Association accepting the unique situation the game is in will require the league and the union to revisit the collective bargaining agreement.
There is uncertainty about rules relating to player movement and the national draft, particularly if list sizes are cut, with a huge number of players potentially becoming delisted free agents.
The AFL is not expected to make any decisions until the season’s resumption is certain as they are keen to tailor the rules to the expected length of the season to minimise the chances of rules being changed mid-season, potentially threatening the integrity of the season.
In the longer term, clubs are keen to understand what the structure of the competition would look like beyond 2020 with the future of state leagues, academies and the exchange period dictating a club’s spending priorities when a smaller soft cap is introduced.
Michael Gleeson is an award-winning senior sports writer specialising in AFL and athletics.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.