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Why the AFL Draft is flawed and what can be done to fix it

Last Saturday competition bottom-dwellers the Brisbane Lions took on Carlton at The ‘Gabba in a game which was billed as the “Jack Lukosius Cup”, with the loser seemingly “earning” the wooden spoon, and subsequently the right of selecting the talented young South Australian key forward at the first pick of the draft. It was Carlton who “won” the honour of the “Lukosius Cup”, falling to the Lions by 65 points in a loss which effectively guarantees them the bottom spot on the AFL ladder and the right to the first pick at this year’s draft.

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But why should mediocrity such as Carlton’s be rewarded? Despite winning the game, the young Brisbane Lions side have gained nothing from their victory- in a way they’re worse off with the win as they seemingly have been denied the chance of securing the bright young talent that is Lukosius at the first pick in the draft. The Lions have won just three games for the season,  so it’s not as though their big victory is helping them towards a finals berth either. A victory is worth nothing but four points- tanking or taking a loss will possibly reap more rewards than that of what is technically a meaningless win.

Carlton once again have opened the implicit flaw of the AFL Draft- that it encourages losing and rewards defeat with the prize of high draft selections.

The past few seasons have not been very good for the Carlton Football Club in terms of success- since 2015 they have finished 18th, 14th and 16th respectively, with another wooden spoon looking likely in 2018 as the club currently sits 18th with just one win. However, despite such mediocrity they have been awarded high draft picks in spite of their low ranking in the league. Success should be heralded, however a lack of success like in Carlton’s instance should not warrant such a profound reward like that which is seen in the current AFL system. An even competition is a good competition, however teams who perform badly do not necessarily deserve such huge concessions.

Such an average season should not necessarily be rewarded with the best young player in the league. Yes, having the number one draft pick can help a team rebuild, however this has not entirely helped a team like Carlton- their number one pick in the 2015 draft Jacob Weitering has yet to make his mark as a player for the future at the Blues, and Melbourne in the late 2000’s with controversial first selections like Jack Watts. Their are also other ways a team can rebuild, by trading or delisting players who cannot simply cut it at AFL level. Geelong have shown in the past few years that you don’t necessarily need first round draft picks to re-build and pick high quality players,such as Mitch Duncan and Tom Hawkins among others who were selected outside the first round and are now crucial parts of the Geelong team. In some special circumstances, such as when Gold Coast and GWS were introduced into the competition in 2011 and 2012 respectively, having high draft picks is important to help develop a competitive squad, however these are just special circumstances and in order to create a system without an inherent flaw such as the one which exists currently sacrifices must be made.

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Here are three ways in which the AFL could rectify the Draft so it does not consistently reward poor performance to the extent it does currently, giving greater incentive to teams in the lower half of the season to win games, thus inhibiting the process of tanking. ( Where a team deliberately loses matches in order to gain a higher draft selection.)

The Three Solutions

1. Draft Lottery

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Taking a leaf out of the book of American sports, something which the AFL has done frequently before. This change simply entails a random draft lottery between the bottom four teams of the competition, the worst performing sides of the competition with the most need of young talent. The positions in the draft would randomly be selected, still giving teams young talent to help create an equitable competition while also not actively rewarding the last placed team. It would also give meaning to end of season victories for struggling sides such as Brisbane. This would also be a televised event that could occur during the week break between the last home-and-away round and the first round of finals matches. The lower ranked teams could also have a higher probability than average to receive the higher draft picks in order to distribute talent evenly while also encouraging the team to improve in the coming seasons.

2. Consolation Finals Series

The most left field of all the solutions, this would basically involve a playoff series between the bottom three or four teams, with the winner earning the right to the number one pick and so forth.  The competition would be in a similar vein to the old VFL Night Series in the 1980’s which was played under-lights in September between the teams who missed out on finals. This could be worked into the last two rounds of the regular season someway or it could also occur during the week break between the last round and the finals, with a possibility of running into the first week of finals action. This would let AFL fans hungry for some action in the week’s break to at least watch some kind of game, in what would be a true “Lukosius Cup”. However, a lot of the lower ranked teams have young sides with extensive injury lists, which could make for unattractive games that the public are not interested in watching if this playoff was to occur at the end of the season  and not in the last few rounds.

3. Draft order flips

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A simple solution, this concept simply is to flip the draft order of the bottom 4, giving 15th place the first pick, 13th the second and so on. The rest of the draft order would remain the same, with the remaining 12 teams being arranged in positional order like that already seen in the current system. This would encourage teams in the mid-range of the ladder to push for victories in the later half of the season despite not having any chance to feature in September action.

4. Priority Pick

If a team misses the finals five seasons in a row, then they are guaranteed a priority pick at the next seasons draft. Priority draft picks are extra draft picks that are given only to the worst performing teams to provide additional help in turn to bolster their on-field performances in the future. Currently the AFL has no concrete rule on Priority Picks, awarding them on a discretionary basis, however a rule such as this could help teams who have struggled for success across an extended period of time, especially if the AFL turns to a lottery system for determining draft orders in the future.

The prospect of Carlton being offered a priority pick has already been proposed but has been rejected by the club.

The Verdict:

The most practical way to make the draft more equitable would be through a draft lottery system. It’s practical and simple and also could bring in television revenue for the AFL, while not having to entirely change the existing draft system. Its success in American sporting competitions such as the NBA and NHL proves it could fit well into the AFL’s system of drafting. The reverse order system could also work as it encourages teams to play out the season, however for struggling clubs in seasons when talent is spread thinly this could prove to become an issue. The priority pick system with new stringent guidelines would also tie into these proposals as well if struggling teams struggle to find on-field success over an extended time period.

While not being entirely practical logistically, the consolation series could be interesting as it could provide teams who struggled with success in the regular season to finish their season on a high note. If the AFL were to arrange the first 21 rounds of the season and then pair off the bottom four teams to seed each other for the draft in the final two rounds, (with the other 14 clubs playing on in the home-and-away season as usual) then this system could work, however if it requires additional games at the end of the regular season it’s unlikely that it would receive the AFL approval.

Only time will tell if the prodigious talent of Jack Lukosius is worth such an overhaul, however the AFL as a competition would be better off if it stops rewarding poor on field performances.

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