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These are fast-moving times in the Canadian Football League, with new ownership in Toronto, an aggressive new commissioner in Randy Ambrosie, new stadiums across the land, possible expansion on the horizon and prosperity on television.

So it’s not like the CFL needs an overhaul …

But there’s always room for improvement, right?

So here are six ideas that would tangibly improve the CFL and its product.

They aren’t marketing ideas. These are football fixes, the answers derived from the question: What would improve the quality of players in the league and create a more entertaining and identifiable product? 

Known as the NFL window, many of the league’s general managers insisted that having the window was critical to recruiting the best available American players to the CFL. And since very few CFL players are able to translate their success in Canada into legitimate opportunities in the NFL, the result was a net influx of talent to the league.

Sure, B.C. Lion Cameron Wake got to leave his contract a year early for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins after the 2008 season. But the thinking is that for every Cameron Wake who left early, the NFL window has helped attract several others.

The NFL window provision was removed in 2010 as part of that year’s collective bargaining agreement, which meant that any player coming to the CFL would have to commit to playing at least two full seasons.

Soon thereafter, some teams began instituting side-deals with players, letting them out of their contracts early to pursue NFL opportunities, turning the CFL into a league with no clear policy on such an important issue.

Many American players won’t come to the CFL because of the minimum requirement to sign a two-year contract, which means taking themselves off the NFL market for as long as 24 months.                   


With the NFL’s salary cap recently announced for the 2018 season as $177.2 million with a minimum contract of $480,000 (U.S.), it’s not hard to see why many players would rather workout and sit by the phone than commit to a league for two years to a contract that’s going to pay them little more than a living wage.

It’s an issue for many potential CFL players, including Johnny Manziel, whose interest in coming to Canada is tempered by the requirement he take himself off the NFL market for two seasons.


 

Most American players who come to the CFL believe they are going to end up back in the NFL but never do.

Think of all the great CFL players of recent years, like Milt Stegall, Geroy Simon, Jon Cornish and most recently Derel Walker. All did or have done great things in the CFL that never translated into opportunities in the NFL.

The annual spring influx of thousands of college football players and the stiff competition for jobs within NFL teams makes jumping from the CFL a difficult task. 

Those that have done it, such as Wake, Jeff Garcia and Dontrelle Inman, are the exceptions.

The CFL needs to re-institute the NFL window for the good of the league and fairness to the players.

 

The cases of Toronto’s Victor Butler and James Wilder and the stalled negotiations between Hamilton and Manziel this off-season have been brilliant illustrations of why the NFL window is necessary. Wilder insisted he was being wanted by NFL teams and demanded to be released from his contract, threatening to sit out the season. A few weeks later he signed a new deal, but not before an ugly public spat with his employer. While the NFL window was removed as part of the collective bargaining process, the league has the ability to unilaterally put it back in. 

And while we’re bringing back the NFL window, the CFL needs to explore the idea of there being a transfer fee payable for releasing a player early from his deal in Canada. It’s a simple business transaction, which NFL teams could easily afford and would provide reasonable compensation to CFL teams for releasing players early. 

For as long as there has been a Canadian Football League there have been negotiation lists, commonly referred to as neg lists.

These are lists of 45 names per team made up of college football players, NFL players and ex-NFL players who may be looking for another shot. Players are added on a first-come, first-serve basis, and adding a player means you’ve got to drop one.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats put Manziel’s name on their negotiation list six years ago, which is why the former Heisman Trophy winner has one option in Canada and it’s at Tim Hortons Field.

The Toronto Argonauts have the rights to reigning Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. The Montreal Alouettes are waiting on the day Colin Kaepernick decides to come north. Hamilton has already nabbed the rights to Alabama freshman Tua Tagovailoa, the hero of January’s national championship game.

For CFL teams, negotiation lists give teams near cost certainty on rookie players who have no bargaining leverage, beyond refusing to come to the league.

Up until recently, teams kept these lists completely secret. The league took a step towards transparency this off-season by requiring each team to release 10 names from its list to the public, twice a year.

Every CFL team owning the rights to 45 American players translates into there being 360 players who are inaccessible to every team in the league. So instead of each team being able to pursue the best players available, there are 360 players who are off limits.

In terms of how this affects the quarterback position alone, consider that there are currently 70 quarterbacks protected among the CFL’s nine negotiation lists. But more than 60 of those are inaccessible to any team with a need at the position.

Having 405 players rights controlled via negotiation lists means teams can’t pursue the best available players when they have needs.

Eliminating negotiation lists would turn the CFL into a free agent league, where each and every team could bid on the services of any available player.

Without an effective salary cap, that would result in salary inflation. But the cap is the cap and every team is bound by it. Eliminating negotiation lists would ensure the best players available are in the CFL because they can be pursued by any team in the league.

Just imagine the buzz that would be created if instead of the Tiger-Cats in a contract stalemate with Manziel, there was legitimate competition among several teams for his services in the CFL. 

 

The majority of general managers in the CFL love negotiation lists because they feel they provide a competitive advantage for teams that do good scouting. They also don’t want to surrender the powerful bargaining position it gives them with all incoming players.

In a world of millionaire superstar athletes, the CFL pay scale is as modest as the players themselves.

The fact the league minimum salary is $53,000 shocks as many fans as it does potential players.

This issue grabbed attention this winter when Wilder, the league’s outstanding rookie, said he planned to sit out the 2018 season rather than play for what he claimed was a salary of $56,000. Not long after that, commissioner Randy Ambrosie set off a firestorm when he suggested current CFL players consider off-season jobs, as he had done during his playing career from 1985-93.

With a minimum salary of $53,000, many potentially good American players aren’t willing to come to the CFL. Such a low minimum wage also creates an image challenge for the league. 

Raising the minimum salary by $22,000 would make the league more attractive to players and improve its image to both players and fans.

As roughly half the players on an average CFL roster earn $75,000 or less, one general manager estimated the cost per team of raising the minimum salary would be roughly $280,000, or 5.4 per cent beyond the 2018 salary cap of $5.2 million, a figure that is collectively bargained with the players.

Of course increasing the minimum tends to raise the bar for every player, but in a cap system there’s only so much money that can be spent. So this about closing the gap between the lowest and highest-paid CFL players and paying a wage that is more attractive, and more fair, to incoming players.

 

Minimum salaries are negotiated as part of the collective bargaining process. But the players, as in any sport, tend to prioritize the interests of those already in the game. So when the CFLPA sits down for what should be a challenging negotiation on a new collective bargaining agreement with the league next spring, minimum salary may not be top priority. 

From the teams’ perspective, such a large jump in the minimum salary would create short-term salary structure chaos. And, leaving all other salaries unchanged, the move would cost each of them $280,000.

Institute restricted free agency for players exiting their first contracts with right to match. Move unrestricted free agency to four years of service.


Every professional sport has a formula for players to reach unrestricted free agency. It’s always defined by some combination of years in the game and/or age, so that after a player has fulfilled his obligation in years to the team that drafted or signed him he is free to sell his services to the highest bidder.

In the CFL, a player can become an unrestricted free agent in as little as two seasons.

Having players eligible for free agency in as little as two seasons leads to high roster turnover across the league. But where having such early unrestricted free agency really hurts the league is when it comes to teams’ efforts to draft and develop Canadian talent.

Most young Canadian players require a lot of development during their first two seasons, so teams can end up investing in players who are then able to leave for the open market just as they are ready to take on more significant roles. This diminishes the importance of the CFL draft and is an obstacle to team-building.

Take the example of running back Keenan LaFrance who was drafted by the Ottawa Redblacks in 2015 and had just 43 carries over his first two seasons. He then walked via unrestricted free agency to Saskatchewan, where he arrived ready to take on a bigger role and was rewarded with a bigger payday. 

Instituting restricted free agency for players with less than four years CFL experience means they can earn market value contracts while teams retain the right to retain those players by matching the best offer. This means there is no economic loss for the players while teams get a measure of control over players beyond their first contracts.

This is especially critical for Canadian players selected in the CFL Draft, meaning teams would no longer have to invest in developing young players only to see them leave via unrestricted free agency after two or three seasons.


 

Players associations don’t like to surrender anything that restricts the ability of players to move freely via free agency. 

Allow Canadian quarterbacks who are playing in a game to count among the required seven Canadian starters. But do not allow them to count towards the required 20 Canadians per team. (Sounds complicated, in fact it is very simple).


CFL fans, the league and its teams all say they would love to see a Canadian quarterback thrive the way Russ Jackson did for the Ottawa Rough Riders of the 1960s. But it’s been that long since a Canadian was a star quarterback in the league.

Saskatchewan’s Brandon Bridge became the first Canadian quarterback to start and win a game in 30 years last September.

The league’s current roster formula doesn’t help.

A CFL roster is made up of 20 Canadians, 19 Internationals and three quarterbacks, who have no designation. Teams have to have seven Canadians in starting roles at any point in a game.

But Bridge, because he’s a quarterback, doesn’t count among the seven Canadians every team is required to be playing, or the 20 Canadian players required for the roster. If he was a receiver or a defensive back he would, but as a quarterback he doesn’t.

Bridge has taken it upon himself to change this rule, so that one day when he leans over centre to take a snap in a game, he will count as a Canadian.

Not counting a Canadian quarterback when he is in the game means there is no incentive for teams to play Canadian quarterbacks.

In fact, there currently exists some incentive to move Canadian quarterbacks to another position where they can count toward the ratio. Teams have been leery of allowing a Canadian quarterback to count as a Canadian for fear teams would sign backups purely to fulfill a roster quota, with no chance of ever playing.

 

Counting a Canadian quarterback who is participating in a game as a Canadian is common sense. It rewards teams for doing something that’s positive for the identity of the league.

Bridge is a Canadian. When he is on the field playing quarterback he should count as a Canadian among the seven required to be playing at any one time.

So if a Canadian quarterback counts as one of the seven Canadians required to be playing at any point in the game, why wouldn’t he count as one of the 20 Canadians required on every roster? 

Because doing so would tempt teams to sign Canadian quarterbacks as backups, merely to fill a roster quota. 

Our solution protects against that by only rewarding teams for playing Canadian quarterbacks, not for simply having them on the roster.

 

 In surveys of the CFL’s general managers, a strong majority believe that a Canadian quarterback playing in a game should count as a Canadian.

Bridge has taken on an activist role, having engaged Ambrosie in his cause and the commissioner seems sympathetic and open to change.

The players association has never championed the cause of the Canadian quarterback because counting him as one of 20 Canadians on the roster would actually mean fewer Canadian jobs overall. (Because teams would only be required to carry 19 Canadians besides the Canadian quarterback, instead of 20.) But our solution would result in the loss of any jobs for Canadian players.

Mandate that each team have no fewer than three Canadian starters on each side of the ball.


CFL teams are required to have seven Canadian players in the game at any time, commonly referred as seven starters. They almost always choose to play the majority of their Canadians on the offensive side of the ball, with offensive line having the strongest concentration of Canadian players. 

The result is a greater concentration of American talent on the defensive side of the ball and a bullish market for Canadian offensive linemen.

The concentration of Canadians at offensive line drives up with price of players at this position, creating an imbalance of supply and demand compared to other positions on the field. With teams committed to playing Canadians along the offensive line, teams become vulnerable to injuries to starters and backups that aren’t ready to take on starting roles. The result can be more injuries to quarterbacks.

Fans crave offence but allowing teams to load up their Americans on the defensive side of the ball theoretically leads to less scoring.

Mandating no less than three Canadian starters on either side of the ball means no team could play more than four Canadian offensive linemen and most would start fewer than that. (For example, a team with a starting Canadian running back and receiver could dress only two Canadian offensive linemen.)

This would open up other roles for Canadian players, reduce the demand for starting Canadian offensive linemen and create more quality backups and depth for the position, meaning better protection for quarterbacks.



Anything that changes the distribution of salary among the players is likely to be sticky issue for the players association, which is why the status quo usually prevails.

The CFLPA is strongly influenced by the leadership of present and former Canadian offensive linemen, which is the group that would be most adversely affected by our proposed changes. 

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