THE AFL coaching industry stabilised its workforce this off-season, but it is too early to declare any victory in the cohort's battle against the soft cap pressure it has experienced in the past two seasons, according to the AFL Coaches Association.
While the coaching groups across 18 clubs saw single-figure job losses at the end of 2021, that came against the backdrop of significantly smaller coaching teams that were managing demanding workloads.
It also came after a period of significant movement between clubs at the end of 2021 as coaches either looked for a fresh start or targeted increased security and tenure at new clubs.
AFLCA chief executive Alistair Nicholson said the industry's ability to limit job losses during this off-season had been pleasing after two difficult years for the game's coaches.
"Typically pre-COVID, we would probably have 20 coaches come out of the system. We're probably at around eight or nine this year with people who haven't yet been able to find another role," Nicholson told AFL.com.au.
"Those numbers are in a way pleasing, but it's coming off having the lowest number of coaches in the game for a long time.
"I think there is a realisation out the back of the last two seasons that, with the amount of players and list sizes staying the same, the need for coaches and certain types of coaches is still important."
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The football department soft cap was slashed in 2020 from $9.7m to $6.2m as COVID-19 hit, leading to significant job losses for coaches, recruiters and other football department staffers.
More than 60 coaches left the industry, but the cuts also challenged those remaining, with roles combined, workloads adjusted, and salaries reduced.
An unexpected twist to the soft cap fallout was the significant movement between clubs at the end of the 2021 season, with more than 20 coaches switching clubs.
Nicholson believed concerns over long-term job security had played a role in this makeshift exchange period.
"Given what's happened the last couple of years, that probably weighed on coaches' minds a bit more than previously, so they looked at those opportunities," Nicholson said.
"Some coaches are looking for a fresh start, and others are looking for some security, where it's an extra couple of years on a contract.
"So while it is pleasing we're not having lots of coaches leaving the profession, it's against the backdrop of the cuts and then the demands of the role."
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Among the assistants to switch clubs at the end of the 2021 season were Robert Harvey, Jarrad Schofield, Jaymie Graham, Ash Hansen, Brendon Bolton and Steven King.
A positive from the period was that several coaches impacted by the cuts during 2020 were able to re-enter the industry in new roles, including Justin Leppitsch, Brad Miller and Matthew Egan. Craig Jennings and Josh Fraser also returned to AFL clubs.
Amidst the turnover, new coaches joined the industry, including retired pair Eddie Betts and Neville Jetta, and Richmond premiership player Alex Rance, who retired at the end of 2019.
Nicholson said the coaching movement period was made more dynamic this year by the departure of senior coaches Alastair Clarkson (Hawthorn), Nathan Buckley (Collingwood) and David Teague (Carlton).
The reality of the soft cap changes had also meant clubs needed to be strategic about the types of assistants they appointed, either prioritising development, line coaches or finding room for a strategy coach, for example.
The AFLCA's hope is that the AFL can recover financially to the point where coaching groups can become a competitive advantage again, while understanding the soft cap is unlikely to return to the levels of 2019 soon.
"The view of the coaching group will be consistent to this year in wanting the soft cap to increase," Nicholson said.
"That's to allow the ability to potentially put on more coaches or help other parts of the football department so the workload on the people in it isn't as demanding as it's been for the last two years.
"Coaches are not saying it needs to go back to what it was, but they want it to be a level higher than it is currently, and that's just something that as an industry we can continue to talk through in the coming season."