Gary Ablett and Tom Scully may be among those who earned $1 million or more in 2012
THE AFL millionaires' club swung open its tightly guarded gates in 2012, admitting a record eight players, up from two the previous season.
The previous record for millionaires in a season was two (2008 and 2011), but player salaries have skyrocketed in the wake of the competition's expansion, the current $1.25 billion broadcast rights deal and free agency.
The AFL did not disclose the names of football's million dollar men, but a number of industry sources contacted by AFL.com.au
believe the eight millionaires are likely to include Gold Coast's Gary Ablett, Greater Western Sydney's Tom Scully and St Kilda's Nick Riewoldt.
Speculation suggests GWS co-captains Callan Ward and Phil Davis could also be on that list given their lucrative long-term contracts are believed to be heavily front-ended.
Ward is reportedly on $3.5-$4 million over five years with the Giants, Davis $3 million for the same period. If they earned more than $1 million in the first year of those contracts last season, both are likely to be ejected from the 2013 millionaires' club.
This would be in keeping with the Giants' list management strategy that is centred on ensuring they have sufficient salary cap room in coming seasons to retain their plethora of young stars headed by Jeremy Cameron, Stephen Coniglio, Jonathon Patton and Toby Greene.
Other names touted as possible 2012 millionaires include Carlton's Chris Judd and Hawthorn's Lance Franklin.
Sydney Swan Adam Goodes, Fremantle's Matthew Pavlich and Aaron Sandilands, and Brisbane Lion Jonathan Brown were among the competition's top earners last season, but it's unclear whether performance-based bonuses and additional services agreements (ASA) payments tipped them over the $1 million mark.
Clubs often stagger the contracts of their top earners as part of its list management strategy, meaning annual payments to individuals can fluctuate to a large degree from year to year over the life of a contract.
Despite winning the 2012 Brownlow Medal and winning his third Essendon best and fairest, it is believed unlikely Jobe Watson topped $1 million last season.
It is understood no Collingwood or Geelong players are among the group, with both clubs having to balance their top-end salaries among a number of stars. A number of sources suggested Hawthorn faced the same balancing act.
Taking stock of million dollar babies
The AFL's figures include player payments and ASAs, but not the AFL marketing payments that are believed to have pushed the 2012 earnings of former rugby league stars Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau over $1 million. Third-party payments such as Judd's Visy deal were also excluded.
The AFL will reveal in its 2012 Annual Report significant top-end salary growth, with 51 players earning more than half a million dollars in 2012, up from 40 in 2011.
Although only one player earned between $900,000 and $1 million, one between $800,000 and $900,000 and four between $700,000 and $800,000, 37 players earned between $500,000 and $700,000.
Nearly 30 per cent of senior-listed players earned more than $300,000.
Missing all of last season scarcely hurt some players' pay packets. One player earned between $600,000 and $700,000 last season without playing a game, while another two players earned between $400,000 and $500,000 from the safety of the stands.
Injured All Australian West Coast forward Mark LeCras was the highest profile player to miss the entire 2012 season, while veteran Western Bulldog defender Dale Morris and Brisbane Lions utility Brent Staker also spent the year on the sidelines.
The average AFL salary in 2012 was $251,559, up from $237,388 in 2011.
Clubs spent a total of $173.7 million in player payments (when additional costs such as injury allowances, the veterans list and finals incentives were included) up 13 per cent from $153.7 million in 2011.
Elite player salaries are expected to rise further in 2013, with speculation around out-of-contract stars such as Franklin, Watson, Collingwood's Dale Thomas and Richmond's Trent Cotchin set to be frenzied throughout the year.