Long-term coaching deals a heavy burden for AFL clubs


So much has changed already in the AFL cost structure but it is these agreements that sit heavily on the shoulders of their clubs and will challenge head office once it overcomes the immediate hurdle of restarting the competition.

All three senior coaches immediately agreed to significant pay cuts at the end of March once their football budgets were slashed by up to 80 per cent. Most will have their wages increased come June but even the lowest-paid senior coaches will continue to sacrifice 20 per cent of their pay. The cuts agreed to by Clarkson and Longmire are reportedly closer to 30 per cent.

Sydney coach John Longmire at training this week.Credit:AAP

The elephant in the negotiating room, however, is what happens beyond 2020. Clarkson indicated on Friday that budget normality would resume within six to 12 months but head office remains determined to change the system going forward, preventing extravagant long-term deals and certainly not ones involving full payouts.

No one is suggesting that Clarkson, Longmire and Beveridge will refuse to take the pay cuts the new football department cap will demand of them, but what would happen if one of them did? Or a coach entering the final year of an agreement who believed he was unlikely to get an extension or a job elsewhere? This includes assistant coaches, particularly at clubs such as the Bulldogs, where virtually every coach is contracted.

Not only has the ability to pay become an issue for clubs but also the fact that these long-term deals now sit as wildly inflated in football club budgets, which will be cut by at least $3 million.

Even more outlandish in the context of the shrunken AFL industry is the competition’s grossly extravagant habit of signing coaches to long-term deals and then changing their minds, forcing six-and even seven-figure payouts.

Notably Fremantle secured Ross Lyon for a further five years in 2015, sacked him one year early and reached a confidential settlement estimated at close to $1 million at the end of last year.

Ross Lyon during his days at the Dockers.

Ross Lyon during his days at the Dockers.Credit:Fairfax

While Brad Scott’s settlement with North was spread over a long-term period and mitigated by his new deal with the AFL, Lyon was paid in full almost immediately leaving the Dockers with a potential costly soft-cap breach this season.

Adelaide’s settlement with Don Pyke, who resigned with two years remaining on his contract, emerged as a goodwill gesture on both sides but the Crows insist that payout has not hampered their football budget this season and was not connected to Matthew Nicks’ rejection of a senior assistant coach.

In an environment where assistant coaches and other football staff have already been permanently removed and with clubs facing $1 million costs in redundancy payouts alone, club bosses have raised the prospect of ”grandfathering” big, long-term deals. In other words asking the AFL to exclude legally binding contracts from the capped football department budgets.

Should coaches stand firm and demand their deals are honoured the AFL is expected to consider such contracts on a case-by-case basis. Under the current rules, for example, Lyon’s settlement could not be spread over 2020 and 2021 but such a request could be considered given that payout took place under an old set of rules.

Should Clarkson hypothetically insist Hawthorn honour the remaining two years on his contract in full, the coach could request his contract he heavily back-ended. That’s assuming he is correct in the football market correcting itself by then.

Or should he depart at the end of 2022, the AFL could spread his remaining two years over three or even four years of football budgets.

What is certain is that with the game in the grip of a $500 million-$600 million bank loan – still pouring tens of millions of dollars into Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney with no end in sight and with a further four clubs on the financial brink – the AFL and its new power grip over the clubs will no longer sanction long-term contracts underwritten by lengthy settlements.

For years Gillon McLachlan and his team have pushed for three-month payout periods and regular employment contracts, a push resisted by coaches’ managers and ignored by clubs zealous in their ambition to land a premiership coach.

But all that has changed. A year ago names like Clarkson, Longmire or Damien Hardwick could have commanded $1.5 million upwards from an AFL-recipient club. Not now.

The Kangaroos were not alone but theirs is a stark cautionary tale. To think they got away with inflating the clubs’ cost structures with their godfather offer to Longmire – not to mention a long list of franchise players who all rejected them but boosted their bank balances as a result. As well as terminating not only Scott’s term but also that of his contracted assistant Leigh Tudor and even CEO Carl Dilena, who had worked for six years to place the club on a solid financial footing.

North’s football department budget is low, to put it mildly, but the tight structure unravelled as all three were paid out and North moved back into debt.

Most clubs are pressuring the AFL to instigate a hard cap on football department spending as it shrinks from $9.8 million to between $6 million and $6.8 million next year. But McLachlan is more likely to succumb to pressure from the wealthier clubs who are insisting such a drastic cut without the ability to exceed the cap and pay a tax is a restraint of trade.

Wherever that lands, and despite Clarkson’s market optimism on Friday, no club in 2021 can honour the contract of a premiership coach insisting on the terms of a lengthy deal and also run a successful football operation. Unless the AFL decides to grant them an amnesty. And that’s assuming those clubs can actually afford to pay them, which remains doubtful.

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