AFL Free Agency: A Fan’s Guide to Trade and Restrictions

There’s nothing I love more than the footy season, I always find a hint of sadness as the season draws to close in the spring. In the last few years however, the AFL’s managed to keep it exciting well after that last ball of the year has been kicked. The introduction of free agency has given clubs a new way to develop strategies for their upcoming seasons. For a fan, this means a new round of excitement and energy as clubs scramble to negotiate and try to out do each other to improve their list in what we call football’s “silly season”.

Free agency is a system that allows players to move between clubs if certain conditions are met. Conditions include how long a player has been at a club and how much the player earns in salary. The player eligible to move between clubs is called a free agent.

In this guide I’ve gone through all the details to help footy fans understand this “silly season” of free agency. I’ve explained what free agency is including its differing forms, how free agency has impacted the AFL trade period, and what it means to delist players.

I’ve also taken a brief look at some of the blockbuster free agency deals I can remember that have gone on to shape the game in recent years.

Footy field, empty in summer
I snapped this photo of an empty Arden Street oval during the summer months. I really look forward to March each year so I can get back into footy.

What Free Agency Means

Free agency refers to a player who is eligible to sign a contract with another club. This player can be referred to as a free agent.

In AFL, a free agent is someone who is not under contract and can move teams freely. The AFL has 3 types of free agents:

  • Restricted Free Agent
  • Unrestricted Free Agent
  • Delisted Free Agent

The AFL established these 3 types in 2012. Prior to this, if a player was out f contract and wanted to leave, he would have had to seek a trade or nominate for the draft.

Restricted Free Agent

A restricted free agent is a player who is eligible to be a free agent and change club, but with some restrictions imposed by their current club.

The conditions to which a player is judged as a restricted free agent are:

  • The player must be in the top 25% of earners at his current club;
  • The player has played a minimum 8 years at his current club;
  • It is the first time the player is out of contract after the 8 year mark.

The restricted free agency period typically runs between the 4th and 10th of October each year.

If a player accepts a contract from another club, the current club has a few days to match the offer. To match the offer, the current club must offer a contract of the same monetary value and length as what the player has been offered from the rivals.

If the current club matches the offer, the player cannot leave for the new club. The player has 2 options:

  1. Sign the new contract at his current club.
  2. Nominate for the draft.

Unrestricted Free Agent

An unrestricted free agent is a player who is eligible to be a free agent and change club with no restrictions imposed by their current club.

A player can be an unrestricted free agent if they meet the following conditions:

  • The player has been out of contract before as a restricted free agent and has played at least 10 years at a club
  • The player is not in the top 25% of earners at the club

The unrestricted free agency period typically runs between 4th and 10th of October, the same as the restricted free agency period.

An unrestricted free agent may find it easer to find a new home than a restricted one; the club he is currently with has no option to matche the offer. If an unrestricted free agent gets an offer from another club which he prefers, he can walk straight to that club.

Delisted Free Agent

A delisted free agent is a player who has been cut by his club. He is not subject to the same rules, such as length of stay at a club, and can walk to any club that has offered a contract.

The delisted free agency period is typically open between the 1st and 11th of November each year. There is also a delisted free agency period after the AFL draft, typically between the 28th of November and 2nd of December.

I wrote a guide recently on why players end up delisted. To see why, check it out here:

Trade Period and “Pre Agency”

The AFL trade period is when clubs trade players and draft picks for the upcoming season. It typically runs between the 7th and 26th of October.

Clubs use the trade period to establish their strategies in regards to drafting and building a list for the upcoming season, and for the years beyond.

This is one of my favourite times of the year; I love watching clubs wheel and deal. Great hints can be dropped at what the club is planning for this season and the direction the club is going to go in for the next few years.

“Pre agency” is where a club looks to move a player on to other clubs years before the player becomes a free agent. This gives the club the opportunity to maximise the player’s value.

Instead of waiting for a player to become a free agent, some clubs have taken the initiative and looked to move players on to other clubs early to maximise their value and not be at the mercy of the AFL’s compensation scheme (see below for more detail).

Compensating the Loss of Free Agents

A club is compensated when a player leaves via free agency; the club receives a draft pick based on a wage and contract length calculation of the departing player.

I’ve found this to be the most controversial aspect of the AFL’s highly secretive “formula”.

The free agency compensation formula is a points system based on a players new wage and the length of the new contract. It determines what pick in the draft the club he is leaving receives in compensation. The AFL have never released the formula, leading to speculation that the AFL simply guesses what compensation a club should receive.

I believe there should be no compensation for a player leaving a club via free agency. A player leaving means that the club no longer has to pay that players contract. The club then has more money to spend bringing new talent onto their list.

Famous Free Agents

Tom Lynch – The heart and soul of the struggling Gold Coast, Lynch was a foundation member since there inception in 2011. An All-Australian in 2016, captain in 2018-19 and the young clubs greatest goal kicker. At the end of 2019 after a year long speculation and yet another horrible year for the team, Lynch decided to move back to his home state of Victoria. He signed for Richmond a powerhouse on and off the field and starred in his first year helping the club win the 2019 premiership.

Lance Franklin – One of the modern day greats and one of the best Hawthorn players off all time “Buddy” had done it all, multiple all Australians, Premierships, MVP awards, club Bast and Fairest, league leading goal kicker awards and the last player to kick 100 goals in a season back in 2008.

At the end of 2013 after 12 months of speculation, Franklin was set to sign for the AFL owned and the newest club in the league, the Greater Western Sydney Giants. Media outlets everywhere went early with the the story declaring it one of the great AFL coups and a much needed draw card for the AFL’s new franchise. However Franklin shocked the footballing world by declaring that he was accepting a 9 year, $10 million contract from the Giants cross town rivals, the Sydney Swans. Angry AFL chiefs could do nothing and Franklin has continued to be one of the great entertainers. Is 56 goals away from achieving 1000 career goals, a feat only matched by 5 other players in VFL/AFL history.

Brendon Goddard – Goddard made history in 2012 when he become the AFL’s first Free Agent in history, when he switched from St Kilda to Essendon. The former number 1 draft pick played 10 seasons at the Saints for 205 games, including a starring role in the drawn 2010 Grand Final. At the bombers he played a further 5 seasons winning a best and fairest and captaining the club in 2016.

James Frawley – One of the most controversial Free Agency moves, not so much for the move itself but for the compensation given. Frawley an All-Australian and solid footballer decided to switch clubs at the end of 2014, leaving Melbourne for reigning premier Hawthorn.

The AFL and there secretive compensation formula came under intense scrutiny when Melbourne were handed pick 3 in the draft. I believe that the AFL wanted to help the struggling demons after almost a decade of horrible on field performances and saw Frawley’s leaving as the perfect chance to do so.

Bottom Line

The AFL’s off-season can be a confusing time of the year for everyone including players, coaches and supporters. One minute your cheering on your hero, the next they could be part of a mega trade or walking out the door as a free agent to a rival club.

Free Agency has given new light to what we call the “silly season” as speculation mounts as to where that star un-contracted player may go, or who might be traded of a year early to save a club from the AFL’s compensation formula.

In reality though the Free Agency period has, brought in for more player freedom has been a great success, giving players more options in there careers, especially for those who have been long serving players at there clubs.


To make sure I was getting the right information for this guide, I looked at official AFL publications and expert opinions on the free agent process. If you’re interested in seeing where I got my info from, check it out here:

Cass loves football. Between March and October, there is nothing he loves more than going to watch the Roos play. He always finds a hint of sadness come over him when the season draws to a close.


Cass was born with a football in his arms. From the moment he could walk he's loved playing sport, watching sport, and being a fan of any game he can play. Cass helped start Anybody's Fan to help fans enjoy their sport. He works to provide easy to read information and guides that help fans understand different strategies and terms of the game, and why coaches and players do what they do.

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