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In professional sports, a free agent is a team player whose contract with a team has expired, and the player is able to sign a contract with another team. The term came into wide use in the USA after sports leagues stopped using a "reserve clause", which provided a repetitive option for the club to renew the contract for one more year, but did not allow the player to terminate his relationship with the team. The result was that a player was essentially property of the team. Once in free agency, a player is in a "pool" of free agents, from which teams can sign players.
In Europe some countries such as Spain had a system whereby footballers were entitled to a free transfer at the end of their contract. In most countries however this was not the case until the 1995 Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice which established this right for players in all EU member nations. The ruling has since been extended to cover other professional sports and players from Eastern Europe.
Restricted and unrestricted free agencyEdit
There are two types of free agents: restricted and unrestricted. A restricted free agent is free to sign a contract with another team; however, as the name implies, there are certain restrictions to his/her doing so. These restrictions mostly entail the new team giving compensation to the former team for the free agent's signing, usually in the form of draft picks or (less commonly) cash. In the NBA, a player's original team can match any offer he receives. An unrestricted free agent has no such restrictions on his/her free agency, and so is completely free to sign a contract with any team of his/her choosing.
In most European countries, players under a contract can only be transferred (sold) to another club if their existing club agrees. The exception is Spain, where all professional players have a "buy-out clause" written into their contract and can therefore move without their club's agreement. (In practice the player's new club will pay, but legally speaking, it is the player who deposits the necessary sum at the League offices in order to "unilaterally rescind" his existing contract).
The economics of free agency are disadvantageous for teams; it can lead to bidding wars -- and increased player salaries mean decreased team profits. Widespread restricted free agency has therefore been preferred by US sports teams after they lost the reserve clause. For example, an age limit can be used to keep young and talented players from generating bidding wars, and causing high salary inflation throughout the league.
In Europe, the wages of the top players have increased dramatically since the Bosman Ruling, although this is partly due to increased television revenues. Some club chairmen have called for a wage cap in a bid to control player wages but this would almost certainly be ruled anti-competitive and therefore illegal under EU law. As in the US the number of transfers involving a fee are on the decline as clubs can now wait for their targets to see out their contracts and move "on a free".
In some leagues, free agency has deadlines. For example, under the current NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, restricted free agents who do not sign contracts by December 1 of a given year will be ineligible to play in the NHL for the balance of that season. However, other leagues (such as the NBA) have no such restrictions.
In Europe, players can only move during transfer windows - during the close season and half-way through the league season. There are exceptions for unattached (i.e., unemployed) professional players in the lower divisions.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) are players who have completed four or more accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. They are free to sign with any club through July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later). On July 23, their exclusive rights will revert to their original club if that club made a June 1 tender to these players. Teams will have until the Tuesday after the 10th week of the season (November 14) to sign their unrestricted veteran free agents to whom a tender was made on June 1. If the player does not sign by November 14, he must continue to sit out the remainder of the season. If a June 1 tender is not made to a UFA, he continues to be free to sign with any club.
Restricted Free Agents (RFA) are players who have completed three accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. They have received qualifying offers from their old clubs and are free to negotiate with any club until April 21, at which time their rights revert to their original club. If a player accepts an offer from a new club, the old club will have the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old club elects not to match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation depending on the level of the qualifying offer made to the player.
The signing period for unrestricted free agents began March 11 and concludes on July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later). The signing period for RFAs also began March 11 but concludes on April 21.