Last year, ESPN spoke with two AFL clubs about what happens behind the scenes after a player gets drafted. This year, ESPN spoke with Gold Coast Suns midfielder Ben Ainsworth to share a player's perspective of what happens on and after draft night.
When No. 4 pick in the 2016 AFL Draft Ben Ainsworth says his first few days as a Gold Coast Sun were "a blur", he isn't lying.
For the everyday footy fan, sitting in front of the television, watching the live coverage on the edge of your seat as your club ponders its next move at the draft table, it's easy to forget about what happens behind the scenes - after the cameras turn away and the lights go down.
But footy is a business, and clubs want their prized recruits out on the track as soon as possible.
"The draft was on the Saturday night, and then I was on the Gold Coast on Monday. I remember [Gary Ablett Jr] being there on the first day and I was pretty starstruck," Ainsworth tells ESPN, casting his mind back to November, 2016.
Ainsworth, now 22 and in his fifth preseason with the Suns, is originally from Morwell in Victoria, and given the draft was in Sydney that year, it meant a mad scramble to get organised - something seldom captured by the cameras on draft night.
"It was a blur that night. Once your name gets called out, you go up on stage, get your jersey and take a photo, then you go down the stairs to the back and it's just media galore. There's about 15 or 16 sets of media you have to go through and then photos," he explains.
"Once it was all done that night we went back and had a few casual beers to release the tension and celebrate a lot of hard work you've put in over the past few years in TAC Cup and whatnot. It might be a bit different this year due to COVID-19, but it was a strange, surreal experience for sure.
"But the next morning, I was straight onto a flight back home. I flew from [the draft in] Sydney to Melbourne, and then drove to Morwell that Sunday morning, and then back to the airport in Melbourne to be on the Gold Coast by Sunday night for training on Monday. It's a weekend I'll never forget, that's for sure."
What that means is draftees barely have time to organise their life; thankfully, for those players who need them, clubs books flights, transfers and arrange short-term accommodation for those coming from out of town or interstate - something the Suns do for a lot of their recruits.
"The club was really good when I moved. [After that initial training session] they gave me a bit of time to get settled up here," Ainsworth says.
"I moved into a host family's house for a couple of months, but it was a little far out. We were travelling like 45 minutes to an hour to get into the club, so myself and (fellow 2016 draftee) Will Brodie moved into a little apartment and we quickly had to become adults.
"I was [living out of a suitcase] for a few weeks. The boys tend to just bring up a lot clothes and maybe the PlayStation for those first few weeks - the important things! But yeah, you're living out of a suitcase until you get what's called a 'living away from home allowance', which allows you to buy stuff like a TV, a dresser, a TV unit - it might allow you to get a PlayStation, I'm not sure," he tells ESPN.
With PlayStation in toe, but not much experience with bills, a washing machine or an oven, it's an eye-opening experience having to fend for yourself, as Ainsworth remembers. Many 17 and 18-year-olds would baulk at the idea of moving out from their parents' places so young, but AFL draftees are forced to do so early and at the drop of a hat. It means there's not much time to get up to speed of 'being an adult'.
An #AFLDraft special! The team is joined by @ChrisDoerreESPN— footytips (@footytips) December 7, 2020
and @championdata's Christian Joly to chat:
🦠 COVID curveballs
🧐 A top 20 phantom draft
📈 Risers and sliders
👀 Ranking the No. 1 picks since 2000
Stream the latest @ESPNAusNZ#AFL pod herehttps://t.co/XHlrbAAC7Y
Ainsworth says the Suns' draftees were given basic life skill training like cooking lessons to ensure the meals they're having away from the club are nutritious and beneficial for growing bodies. They worked, too - he admits there are some recipes he still remembers four years on.
"You sort of learn a little about cooking ... it's a good experience. I still make a honey mustard salad with bacon and chicken from those classes and it's my go-to," he laughs.
"I've definitely gotten a lot better since we were drafted in terms of nutrition, and these days we have a full-time chef at the club who looks after our diets, what we need before a game, and he also cooks us lunch on our main training day.
"There's a lot of education involved too - about [bank accounts, superannuation] especially. In the first two or three years, the AFL, AFL Players Association, and the club give you a lot of education in terms of how to look after your money and not falling into traps like gambling."
Nutrition isn't the only space in which the Suns have markedly improved over the past few years; Ainsworth says the place feels more like its own family with each passing season, as improvements are made across the club to ensure young players feel at home - even if they're hundreds of kilometres from where home may actually be.
"It's getting better every year. Rowelly (Matt Rowell) and Noah (Anderson) moved in with Mark Evans - the CEO of the club," he says. "They've put a real emphasis on the club being a family and all aspects of that. They're have been some key improvements even since I was drafted about making it a great place to be - you need to as an interstate club."
And while it's every parent's wish that their kids stay close to home while chasing their AFL dream, having to move interstate is inevitable for many. Ainsworth says the AFL and its clubs have each player's family's best interests at heart once they're drafted.
"I personally got a few flights in the initial draftee contract which allowed me to go home and come back a few times a year," Ainsworth remembers. "My parents, too, got allocated a few flights as well which allows them to come up here and go back too. It's fantastic that they do that.
"When they do come up, the club organises like a lunch, shows them around Metricon Stadium and the facilities. It's really welcoming when they do come up, and allowing them to access those free flights to follow their son's journey is great."
Now into his fifth year in the AFL, Ainsworth is no longer the wide-eyed 17-year-old being welcomed into the Suns family by Rodney Eade, Gary Ablett and company. He, along with Brodie and fellow 2016 draftee Jack Bowes, are now major success stories of the club's nurturing, and they're loving every moment in Queensland.
"Will (Brodie) and I bought houses last year about the same time. We're probably about 500 metres away from each other, so not far from him at all. We're all in the same area, Miami, Mermaid Beach ... but yeah, both Will and myself bought a joint, so fantastic times," he says.
"If you do get drafted interstate, you just have to embrace the experience. I think a few people are startled by the fact that they're moving away from family - it's a new life almost. But footy clubs these days are family and you come to love it."