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AFL footballers have never been more scrutinised by a public thirsty for content and debate. Throughout the season, the daily dissection on television, radio, online and in print can be ferocious.
And just as the intensity rises on field through the finals, so it does come the AFL’s 13-day free agency and trade period, which has become an industry behemoth.
The AFL trade period has been turbocharged and now commands interest in October.Credit: Stephen Kiprillis
Julian Bayard, the director of sport at the Sports Entertainment Network, including its 24-hour sports radio station and streaming stablemate, Trade Radio, said the rise of trade week was because it had become the “season of hope”.
“It’s grown so much from when Trade Radio started. We didn’t realise at the time when it launched how big it would be, or how big it’s become. The whole period, we call it the season of hope for the fans,” Bayard said.
“If you are a supporter of a team that doesn’t win the grand final, you are thinking: ‘How can we improve to win the next one?’ That’s what drives the consumption.”
Trade Radio, streamed through the AFL website, sprang to life in 2011, having been the brainchild of Craig Hutchison, the media entrepreneur and SEN chief executive. Hutchison went to the AFL with the idea, emerging at an ideal time as AFL Media was in its infancy. It immediately put a rocket under the three-week window post the grand final. Hutchison was unavailable for comment.
Trade week revs up: Sports Entertainment Network’s Craig Hutchison transformed the AFL trade period through the introduction of trade radio.
Barely 36 hours after Collingwood raised their premiership cup on the last Saturday of September, still four days before free agency opened and a week before the trade period officially began, Trade Radio was live, producing 11 hours of daily content, crossing to commentators, player agents and club bosses.
In last year’s trade period, where 34 players and 72 draft picks changed hands, including the most complex trade in history, involving four clubs, two players and 14 draft picks, Trade Radio had 20 million minutes of live audio streamed, 11 million minutes of live video streams, and 2.3 million podcast downloads, while the daily podcast was No.1 for sports podcast downloads in October, according to SEN.
Former AFL Media staff, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely as they are still involved in the industry, said a significant early push of the league’s website was into player movement and the national draft, generating huge online traffic. Trade Radio has supercharged that.
Indeed, for all outlets covering the sport, including Nine Entertainment Co, the owner of this masthead, and News Corp’s various outlets, there is also a significant spike in online traffic thanks to trade machinations, particularly when star players are involved.
Two other industry insiders, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are involved in the trade period, estimate the trade period is worth multiple millions of dollars in overall media coverage when commercial considerations, from sponsorships and advertising to radio, streaming and television air time, to stories online and in print, are tallied.
The introduction of free agency in 2012 is also seen as an important injection in upping trade interest, this coming under the watch of former AFL chief Andrew Demetriou.
“Trade period generates a lot of interest and talkback and discussion. It’s great for the game post grand final week,” Demetriou said.
“Free agency, matching offers, points and compensation have all become part of the trade period vocabulary. I’m a fan.”
Brett Murphy, the general manager of player and stakeholder relations for the AFL Players Association, said while the trade period was a time of uncertainty for some players, overall, it played a key role “in a football industry which is really tightly regulated”.
“From a commercial, fans perspective, I can appreciate why Trade Radio and the general reporting of the trade period attracts so much interest. I think, by and large, it’s good for the game. It gives fans an opportunity to see how their team can grow,” he said.
“It’s probably a period of the year when more people are listening in and consuming football than at any point in the year, even during the season, which is interesting. From a player perspective and a club perspective, it’s an absolutely pivotal, critical time for the football industry.”
Trade period’s growth has also corresponded with easier access, particularly through streaming, to US major sports over the past decade, allowing fans and, as Murphy noted, AFL players themselves, to follow the often high-stakes, soap-opera drama of player demands in the NFL, NBA, baseball and ice hockey.
Meat market: Prominent player manager Colin Young says the trade period has long left the days when it was “slow moving and archaic” behind.Credit: Nine
What has gone on for decades in the US is starting to take shape here, highlighted by Adam Treloar’s unexpected – and emotional – axing by Collingwood and shift to the Western Bulldogs, the Brodie Grundy saga, and, last week, by Clayton Oliver’s future at Melbourne, the latter delivering Trade Radio a 77 per cent uptick in ratings from Monday to when his future was the headline act on Wednesday.
Prominent Perth-based player agent Colin Young, of Corporate Sports Australia, said the trade period had evolved immensely over the past two decades, having been “slow moving and archaic”.
“Look how popular it is now. The trade period sells hope for the clubs that are going for the flag next year. Members, sponsors, supporters, the media, it’s big, and only going to get bigger,” Young said, pointing to the possible introduction of a mid-year trade period as early as next season.
“With the Melbourne media, it’s forever going. Straight after the trade period, you have got the draft. The idea, in my opinion, is that the AFL is trying to control the media for 12 months of the year – they want it to go right into December. They [the AFL] are controlling and increasing their leverage in the market, but not only with sponsors, but on back pages … people want to know what’s going on in the AFL.”
Young, who has Norm Smith medallist Bobby Hill among his clients, became a cult star after appearing on both seasons of the Stan AFL documentary, Show Me the Money, which detailed the behind-the-scenes machinations of players and agents through the year and into the trade period. He said Melburnians’ interest in the trade period was greater than any in any other state, reflected in that he was approached to still appear in “selfies” over grand final weekend.
The thirst for trade news will only intensify when a mid-season trade window is introduced. The AFLPA and AFL have agreed to this under the new collective bargaining agreement, but the finer details had yet to be discussed. Options, as Murphy suggested, include staging this over a few days, or even through the bye rounds.
Nigel Carmody, a former prominent player agent turned commentator, said there were several reasons behind the explosion of public and commercial interest in the trade period.
“The media coverage is a sideshow, really. The core element is what is going on. What has changed in that respect is the different elements that have been added into the mix,” he said.
“For one, you had free agency, which was a significant introduction, and we have now had a 10-year cycle to evaluate how that has changed the landscape. We have had two new clubs come in [Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney], which was also a factor in how clubs have managed their lists through the expansion period. Particularly in the case of GWS, just the sheer volume of talent they have had on their list, they have been a significant trading partner on an annual basis, and continue to manage the cycle of having so many highly rated players on their list and only a certain amount of money, like anybody else, to fit it in.”
Carmody said the introduction of the supplementary selection period through summer, when clubs could keep spots open on their list for train-ons, and the mid-season draft, had helped to generate greater awareness of the trade cycle.
While supporters ride the roller-coaster wave of emotion, for players it can be an anxious time of the year, with livelihoods at stake. Some know they will be able to change clubs, perhaps head back to their home state, while, for others, it’s all about keeping the dream alive – wherever that may be. Players under contract cannot be traded without their agreement.
“Mostly, people get this right, but do need to be cognisant that there are a lot of rumours and speculation, and they relate to actual people, their families and loved ones,” Murphy said. “It’s important the conversations are had – we all do it, we all speculate on what might occur with a particular trade or free agent – but it’s important that when we have those conversations, we remember they are human beings.”
There may be an official trade period, but discussions between clubs and players can be year long, and sometimes years out.
“In this industry, you are going to upset people a lot,” veteran player agent Paul Connors said.
“Sometimes you sit and do nothing, and other times the agent needs to assert themselves into the conversation.”
The total contract value of player movement across the trade period last year exceeded $65 million, according to Show Me The Money II. That the opening credits of the documentary had Young folding back the sleeves of his shirt in an abattoir reinforced the blunt assessment of fellow player agent Alex McDonald that the early October window was, at its core, a “meat market”.
Former Demon Luke Jackson enjoys a moment for the Dockers.Credit: AFL Photos
“People, members, get upset with you that you are trading out a player, but if they give it a couple of years, they may think it’s a good deal because, guess what, Rory Lobb may have gone from Fremantle to the Bulldogs, but you [Fremantle] got Luke Jackson,” Young said of two of last year’s major moves.
“You can get upset, you might be losing a couple [of players], but it’s what comes around. You have got to do your best for your clients and, hopefully, get a win-win situation, but it doesn’t always work that way.”
Regardless, it’s great for debate, and good for business.
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