Football Spending: The Race To The Bottom
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the immediate future of the game, the AFL industry faced a hidden challenge around football department spending.
The introduction of a soft cap in 2015 - around $9M - had merit. The affluent clubs couldn’t charge ahead of the others by employing more coaches and better sports scientists on big coin, and poach the most experienced key personnel.
But even back then there were concerns about the flow-on effect for staff around the industry.
Any cap on spending (which includes wages, clearly the largest piece of the pie) has the potential to create a “Race To The Bottom” – finding the highest skilled workers willing to work for the least amount of money.
Peter Ryan’s article from April of 2015 raised some of these issues. It hasn’t aged a bit. The problems raised five years ago are even more relevant now, given the likelihood of budgets shrinking when footy returns.
Recent public sentiment regarding any potential staff cuts has been mixed. Some are actively barracking for reduced football department numbers without thinking about the livelihoods at stake.
Others in the media have been sensitive to the plight of the coaching staff (which is fair enough) yet fail to acknowledge other roles that could really feel the pinch - some may lose their jobs entirely or face salary reductions on an already undervalued position.
The Arms Race
Over a long period of time, football department costs ballooned in the search for a competitive advantage, often leading to even successful clubs announcing yearly losses at season’s end. The Arms Race was real.
Teams with less disposable income had to make do with a fraction of the staff in their coaching, fitness and recruiting departments (among others). With a big focus on equalisation, it was only a matter of time before a spending cap was introduced to level the playing field a little.
Unfortunately, some of the roles affected by its implementation weren’t part of the problem in the first place.
There was never an arms race in football administration (the staff who keep the club ticking day-to-day), or in the technology and analysis space (the ones who help the coaches and the rest of the club do their job). Even medical, physio and player welfare roles weren’t much of a concern from an equalisation standpoint - they are critical to a healthy list - but the cap became a real threat to their earning capacity as well.
Innovation also became stifled thanks to immediate trade-offs: new technology and analysis vs an extra development coach. Or another welfare resource vs the next recovery tool for players.
The ABC made a similar argument in an article last year. Coaches jobs became safer because paying them out was an unnecessary cost. Other staff started stacking up their contribution against someone who might sit 20 feet away.
In turn, this breeds discontent. When the club decides to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a fancy new toy or guru consultant while you’re trying to push for a 5% pay rise, the natural human reaction is a negative one.
With Australian wages growing over this period and the cap remaining largely the same, it is easy to see how some roles and pay packets in football had become collateral damage.
The Skeleton Staff Dilemma
When you fill a football department with personnel, there are obvious starting points: a senior coach, GM of football, assistant coaches, a fitness manager, recruiting and list managers.
Fox Footy went through this exercise on a recent podcast with Leigh Montagna, Jordan Lewis and Craig Jennings.
They were asked to rank the seven most important roles in a football department, taking the “skeleton staff” concept to the extreme.
The responses were largely predictable, with a few differences in opinion here and there. But it highlighted a very real issue if some roles are completely taken for granted.
You can’t run a football department like a SuperCoach team – finding cheap personnel to fill your roster after you’ve loaded up with your premium picks.
If the big-dogs in the key roles are the generals, then the other staff are the soldiers – the ones who get the jobs done (and often perform parts of others roles for them). They are experts at what they do, yet they don’t get the public recognition. Without them, good luck running a club properly.
Cost-cutting is inevitable. But at what point does our elite-level sport become unprofessional again? When does the product suffer? When it is no longer a viable career path for so many dedicated staff?
Nathan Buckley expressed the same sentiment, yet the focus was still just on the coaching group. Coaches might be the obvious starting point, but the game still suffers if you slash many other roles. Over time, hopefully the reporting will reflect that.
Will there also be a reduction in red-tape from headquarters? The number of mandatory administrative tasks (with financial sanctions for non-compliance) can be enormous – team selection, player whereabouts, medical forms, training schedules, list lodgement, contract submissions, the list goes on. This alone requires some pretty sharp administration behind the scenes. With a streamlined footy department, there will almost certainly be far more slip-ups than before.
The ones left after all this should be highly capable, quality operators who are paid accordingly – in every single role.
More Teams = More People
There is no way to half-resource a football team. Or a netball team, or an e-sports team – but you’d think those ventures would be unlikely to survive given the current climate.
One would assume AFLW is here to stay. So there’s another set of staff on the books. Some can be part-time, sure, but you can’t just sling them $100 each Thursday night and shout them a bowl of spaghetti after training if they have a meaningful role to play.
Who knows what the second-tier Men's and Women's competitions will look like moving forward. If the decision is made for clubs to keep their VFL teams, then it’s not enough just to find a coach and a footy manager and basically leave the rest to volunteers.
There is a minimum standard that must be met. When we finally come out of this, we still need to be wary of creating an environment where "employing" a platoon of unpaid interns becomes part of a staffing strategy.
An industry-wide internship program for most football roles actually makes sense in this current climate - valuable experience for those starting out, and an extra pair of hands for clubs - but obviously it can't replace important full-time or part-time positions at the same time.
A Question Of Loyalty
The spending cap might be slashed by up to $3M next season, so naturally everyone in the industry is looking over their shoulder.
Assistant coaches are right in the crosshairs. It's a terrible situation no matter what your role. No one deserves to lose their job through no fault of their own. Thankfully this group have some ready-made support in place which may help.
In a small saving grace for some assistants, they have some very loyal, very vocal senior coaches in their corner. Crows coach Matthew Nicks spoke recently about the difficulties they face.
"There's not the money there for things to run as they have so the expectation is the game will look a little different going forward off the field.
"Footy departments were getting quite large ... we may not see quite as many coaches going forward if the soft cap changes. "But it's a tough one because we hope then that won't affect the game moving forward, the standard of the game ... which is a pretty high standard."
In addition, the coaches have their Association in place. The closest thing that football has to a union (aside from the AFLPA) might soon come in handy when they need to help re-home those who end up out of work.
But who is going into bat for the others?
Many recruiters recently made the decision to join the Coaches Association – hard to tell whether there has been any upside so far.
The analysts also tried a similar move a couple of years ago. But uniting with an Association that will understandably put the needs of coaches before the analysts was probably not the right move. Those in charge of the Coaches Association are unlikely to have any idea what the analysts really do day to day (and which ones are any good), so it was a tenuous link in the first place. Thankfully it went down like a lead balloon – on both sides of the discussion.
Ultimately it is less about finding a union for the rest of the staff and more about introducing basic mechanisms to assist those who want to forge a career in footy.
In a lot of ways, the soft cap can quickly make people too expensive to keep. Or they become too undervalued to stay.
In Ryan’s article all those years ago, he floated an idea around staff retention that has barely been mentioned since:
"Stable clubs have good employees, treat them well and retain them.
Is there the need to find a way for good employees to earn outside the cap based on their tenure?"
Unfortunately, this discussion often still centres around coaches, fitness managers and other senior positions. It has even more relevance for the other football staff who play their role and simply require a competitive salary to sustain a comfortable career.
This might be the perfect opportunity to think outside the square a little. Remove the unfortunate economic incentive for clubs to replace good people with cheaper options to save costs.
The other option is for the AFL to introduce a head count – start the post-COVID-19 era with the same staff numbers at every club. But critically, allow them some flexibility in how much each employee is paid, within reason.
It also allows for easy expansion when extra people are needed. Recent mental health challenges for players (and staff) in the industry lead to renewed calls for extra welfare staff at each club. But any additional resources would still have been counted under the spending cap.
With a head count model, the industry could add roles without the side-effect of a spending cap squeeze. Obviously the cash would still need to be controlled, but it is worth some serious thought.
Hopefully this could also encourage a bit more competition for experienced staff among the clubs – it is a lot less relevant when there’s a ceiling above their head.
There is one big potential upside in this crisis - reduced staff numbers should lead to a renewed focus on high-bandwidth workers who can work across multiple tasks and roles.
If you’ve got gaps in your ability to perform your job, these might no longer be covered up by another staff member who can step in.
What we will see, is more multi-skilled people. In our day…there was always someone compensating for the things you couldn’t do. These days you need to be able to do the lot.
Recently, clubs had moved away from experienced all-rounders in favour of more specialised roles with a real singular focus. There is a real possibility it will be turned on its head when footy returns.
Let's not forget there is still a technical-skill vacuum at club level, even these days. While it partially keeps the IT and analysis crew employed (yet still undervalued), a reduction in numbers would increase the pressure on those who don’t arrive as technically capable as they should be.
And if anyone walks in the door and says "I'm not good with computers", they should be fired on the spot.
Could we also see the end of the recently-retired players jumping straight onto an AFL coaching panel without many of the skills required to do the job efficiently? Only time will tell…
At the base level we know footy will look a lot different, at least for a little while. But clubs will still need to be adequately resourced.
Clearly those in charge aren’t stupid – the AFL have already begun work on what the next three seasons and beyond might look like. Let’s just hope they listen to the right people.
Because unless the football manager is going to get their hands dirty and pump up the footies, or the coaches start filming training themselves, or the recruiting manager books all the flights and accommodation for their department, then other roles are still vital cogs in the football club machine.
If staff cuts are inevitable, the workload has to fall somewhere, usually to those already trying to find a reasonable work/life balance and fair financial compensation. Something has to give, otherwise it becomes a terrible personal trade-off for people who want to work in the industry.
This will be the real test of those at the top when the dust has finally settled.
A love of the game will only go so far.