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AFL 2012 Rd 18 - St Kilda v Western Bulldogs

St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt is one of the AFLs highest paid players

WHILE the number of AFL players who earned one million dollars in 2012 was quadruple the previous year's figure, some perspective on the summary of AFL player earnings released by the AFL on Friday is necessary.

The number of 'genuine' million-dollar a year players remains low in reality, although eight earned that much money in 2012.

As clubs frame long-term contracts with annual peaks and troughs in earnings to suit their list management strategy different names may pop up from year to year as possible inclusions in the million-dollar list, but most who spend a year or two inside that club will earn on average below a million dollars a year over the life of their 'big' contract.

Of course, anywhere above $500,000 a year remains a very handy income for those at the peak of their sport.

Some players have obviously benefited from the inclusion of the expansion teams and the use of heavily front-ended contracts to attract quality players to new clubs. Their income is likely to balance out in the next few seasons as more players on each of the expansion teams lists mature. For every player that moved of course, many more remained at their club for fewer dollars than they could have commanded on the open market.

Clubs are also becoming smarter and more sophisticated in how they manage their playing list's income and talk of premiership models is not just talk. It is clear successful clubs are able to create a more horizontal pay structure with a large bracket of talented players coming through together on similar incomes.

The best examples have been Geelong and Collingwood. Hawthorn and the Sydney Swans have followed suit and rejigging of other clubs is well underway to even out their pay structure. Success comes to teams with players who take a team first approach on, and increasingly off the field.

Of course, that makes the role of the AFL Players' Association vital in asserting players' rights and making sure they are well rewarded as a group within a premiership model. They see free agency as vital for players, both extending careers and potentially making them more satisfying.

The organisation is also watching closely that a reasonable allocation of revenue goes to players under the current equalisation policy, conscious that group remains the only part of the industry with limitations placed on their earning capacity. While the growth of the game has been good for players they are not the only part of the industry to benefit.

AFL Players' Association CEO Matt Finnis was straight to the point when asked for a response to the earning summary, preferring to concentrate on the whole picture rather than those attracting headlines at the top end.

"It is certainly pleasing that the game can offer careers to almost 800 of Australia's athletes at an average remuneration of $250,000," Finnis said.

The players, as always, attract the attention but with their careers short and the possible impact football has on a future career the growth in average wages is, as Finnis indicates, the most significant aspect of the AFL summary.

While industry sources did suggest that the prospect of there being a genuine million dollar a year player at each club was moving nearer, it's worth remembering that the game is not even halfway there yet.