Priority draft pick
The priority draft pick is a type of draft selection in the Australian Football League's AFL Draft. Priority draft picks are additional draft picks, located at or near the start of the draft, which are given only to the poorest performing teams, to provide additional help for those teams to improve on-field performances in future years. Prior to 2012, a team automatically received a priority draft pick if its win-loss record met pre-defined eligibility criteria; since 2012, priority draft picks will be awarded on a discretionary basis by the AFL commission.
The priority draft pick has been the consistent subject of controversy, as several poor-performing teams have been accused of tanking during the later part of the season to ensure that they qualify for the additional draft pick.
At the conclusion of each AFL season, there are three AFL drafts: the National Draft, the Pre-Season Draft and the Rookie Draft. The National Draft is the most important of the drafts, as it is the primary recruitment method for prospective young players once they reach the age of 18.
In the draft, the selections are arranged into rounds, with each team having one selection per round. Selections in each round are arranged in reverse ladder position order.
Priority draft pick rules
Under current AFL rules, enacted from the 2012 season onwards, a club can receive a priority draft pick at the discretion of the AFL Commission. The Commission has flagged that a formula which will assist with determining whether or not a team receives a priority draft pick, and at which round in the draft that pick will be taken, is yet to be established, but that it will take into account quantitative measures, including a club’s premiership points over a period of years (with greater weight to recent seasons), its percentage over a period of years as another indication of on-field competitiveness (with greater weight to recent seasons), any finals appearances in recent seasons, any premierships in recent seasons and club injury rates in each relevant season.
Priority round history
The draft was established in 1986 in an attempt to reduce the inherent inequities of the league under zoning, where the traditionally most successful teams, Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon (and in more recent years Hawthorn) were able to perennially dominate the competition, while teams that traditionally struggled, St Kilda, Sydney and Footscray (and in more recent years Melbourne) were perennially close to or at the bottom of the ladder. The draft was intended to give the weakest teams access to the best prospective players.
First priority round amendment
By 1993, some of the weakest teams (e.g. Sydney Swans, Brisbane Bears and Richmond) were still enduring prolonged periods of poor performance, so the priority draft pick was introduced in the Draft of that year to further assist these teams. In its first incarnation:
- Teams received a priority draft pick if they finished with less than 20.5 premiership points (five wins) for the season.
- The entire priority round took place prior to the first round of the National Draft.
- Where more than one team participated in the same round of priority picks, selections were made in reverse ladder position order, as is the case for normal selection rounds.
It became clear, however, that a team with reasonable prospects could finish with five wins and receive a roster boosting priority draft pick as a result of an isolated poor season due to key players suffering injuries, internal dissent and/or other off-field trouble. This was unfair and counterproductive to the initial raison d'être of the priority pick, which was to help consistently poor teams with minimal or no prospects to rebuild.
For this reason, the AFL made further amendments to the priority pick rules in 2006.
2006 priority round amendment
From the 2006 draft, a club became eligible for a priority draft pick in the National Draft if it finished a season with fewer than 16.5 premiership points (four wins). The location of the priority draft picks within the overall National Draft now depended upon the team's performance over the previous two years:
- Where the team finished with more than 16.5 premiership points in the previous season, and fewer than 16.5 premiership points in the current season, the priority draft pick was taken between the first and second rounds of the National Draft.
- Where the team finished with fewer than 16.5 premiership points in both the previous season and the current season, the priority draft pick was taken prior to the first round of the National Draft.
Another way to describe this is that in a sequence of consecutive poor seasons, the priority draft pick in the first season would be taken after the first round, and any second or subsequent priority draft picks would be taken before the first round.
2012 priority pick reform
Despite the best efforts of the AFL, the priority draft pick became controversial in the late 2000s and early 2010s because of the potential for corruption, as it could be automatically awarded based on the performance of the club over the past two seasons with a defined cut-off point (16.5 premiership points or four wins).
In the 2012 pre-season, the AFL, with the unanimous support of the 18 clubs, removed the provision for priority picks automatically based upon finishing results, and with the AFL commission retaining the power to award priority picks on a discretionary basis.
To allow for this situation, a formula has been developed that takes into account such factors as:
- premiership points that a club has received over a period of years (with greater weight to recent seasons),
- a club's percentage (points for/points against x 100) over a period of years (another indication of on-field competitiveness, with greater weight to recent seasons),
- any finals appearances that a club has made in recent seasons,
- any premierships that a club has won in recent seasons, and
- a club's injury rates in each relevant season.
To eliminate tanking, the formula for priority picks is kept confidential by the AFL Commission. No priority picks have been awarded to any club since this rule came into effect.
There was annual speculation that poor performing teams manipulated their results after they were eliminated from finals contention, in order to ensure they remain below the eligibility criterion and receive a priority pick under the pre-2012 format; this was referred to as "tanking."
There are a wide variety of behaviours which could be considered to be tanking. These include:
- Instructing the players to deliberately lose matches
- Employing unusual tactics in matches, including using players in positions where they do not usually play
- Resting star players with minor injuries, who would likely not be rested if the team were contesting finals
- Playing younger players who do not yet have much experience at AFL level
While all of these behaviours can be interpreted as an attempt to avoid winning matches, all but the first point can also be justified as a sensible player management and development strategy for a team with no chance of playing finals, which complicates the debate about tanking. In addition, tanking has the significant issue that fans of these clubs sometimes openly support against their teams on game day; however, this could also be justified as a sign of fan dissatisfaction at the club's poor performance and/or its administration.
Also complicating the debate is the fact that different people have different opinions on what is acceptable behaviour. When speaking about West Coast's 2010 priority draft pick, coach John Worsfold openly defended his right to play young players in unfamiliar positions to assist their development; but, when speaking about Carlton's 2007 priority draft pick, assistant coach Tony Liberatore said he personally thought it was wrong to play younger players in place of senior players whose niggling injuries would not be bad enough to force their omission if the team were playing finals, and Brock McLean revealed that he requested to be traded away from the Melbourne Football Club because he disagreed with similar strategies in the lead-up to Melbourne's 2009 priority draft pick.
The legal implications of tanking on sports betting is also a significant problem, and in 2009 a betting agency temporarily suspended betting on the wooden spoon when it became concerned about the potential legal ramifications if tanking or other corruption were ever proven. The penalty for any player or official found to have been involved in tanking is a possible lifetime suspension and/or a fine of $100,000 for each offence.
By shifting the Priority Round from before to after the First Round in 2006, the AFL reduced the incentive to tank, but did not eliminate it; the incentive was reduced further with the 2012 reform. The AFL has the endorsement of the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation that the integrity of the game is sufficiently protected under the priority system.
Some members of the media, particularly from the Herald Sun, previously called for the priority draft pick to be scrapped altogether, and some journalists call for a draft lottery to be applied in the first round for the bottom five or six teams. When asked in 2011, the AFL Players Association's official position was that it would like to see the priority pick abolished due to the perception of tanking and its impact on the public's confidence in the game, rather than any suggestion of actual corruption.
Statements alluding to tanking
In 2011, sacked Melbourne coach Dean Bailey stated that he coached to "ensure the club was well placed for draft picks" in 2008 and 2009, and admitted to playing players in unusual positions, but he never claimed that the team had deliberately lost matches. Tony Liberatore made similar statements in 2008, when he claimed that he felt like "winning wasn't the be all and end all" when Carlton received a priority pick in 2007, but he also said that he'd never seen anything to suggest that players were deliberately losing matches. In both cases, the statements were seen as an admission of guilt to tanking by some, but in the absence of an explicit directive to deliberately lose, acceptable by others, and the AFL was satisfied that neither team had broken its tanking rules.
Notable matches in the tanking debate
- Round 22, 2007 – Melbourne vs Carlton
The Round 22, 2007 match between Melbourne and Carlton, nicknamed the Kreuzer Cup, was the most controversial match in the tanking debate. It was the last match of the regular season, and both Melbourne and Carlton had a record of 4–17, meaning that whichever team won the match would lose the chance at a priority draft pick, and both clubs had already avoided the ignominy of the wooden spoon, as Richmond had secured it with a final record of 3–18–1. Overall, this meant that there was no benefit for either club to win, but a significant benefit to losing.
The stakes were particularly high in Carlton's case, because the club had also received a priority pick in the 2006 season; as such, if it lost this match, it would receive the No. 1 draft pick as its priority pick. In Melbourne's case, the priority pick it could have received would be the No. 18 pick; the No. 1 pick would go to wooden spooners Richmond if Melbourne lost the match. The match became known as the Kreuzer Cup, named after Northern Knights' ruckman Matthew Kreuzer, who had been expected to be (and was eventually, by Carlton) selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2007 AFL Draft.
The match was high scoring, played with low intensity, poor skills and very little defensive pressure, and two players (Carlton's Heath Scotland and Melbourne's Travis Johnstone) gathered more than 40 disposals. In addition, the crowd of 26,156 was subdued, and there were reports of fans openly supporting against their own teams. In the end, Melbourne had a five goal lead by quarter time, and ended up winning the match 21.13 (139) to 15.18 (108). Carlton went on to recruit Kreuzer with the No. 1 pick in the draft.
- Round 18, 2009 – Melbourne vs Richmond
Melbourne entered the match with a record of 3–14. Because it had received a priority draft pick in 2008, it had the potential to receive a priority draft pick at the start of the draft if won no more than one of its final five matches.
The match was close for much of the game, but Melbourne kicked away to lead by a few goals in the final quarter. Richmond was then able to make a come-back, and an after-the-siren goal by Jordan McMahon gave Richmond a four-point win. The Herald Sun later accused coach Melbourne coach Dean Bailey of making positional changes in the final quarter which were so nonsensical that they could only have been designed to ensure Richmond would make a comeback: this included moving key defenders James Frawley and Matthew Warnock into the forward-line, resting key midfielders, and using Brad Miller as a ruckman.
In late 2012 and early 2013, Melbourne was thoroughly investigated for its conduct in this and other games which occurred in late 2009. The club was not found guilty of tanking, but guilty of bringing the game into disrepute and was fined $500,000, with Bailey (who was fired as coach in 2011) being suspended for 16 matches and football operations officer Chris Connelly being suspended for 12 months.
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