Collective bargaining in professional sports involves all sorts of elements between players and leagues. But in the end, as is often said, it’s all about the money.
This has mostly been a losing proposition for Canadian Football League players in recent years, as salaries have stagnated in line with revenues.
The CFL is coming off two tough seasons economically, the lost 2020 season and a 2021 season in which most teams struggled with lower viewership and revenue.
So it’s not hard to imagine that the owners aren’t in the mood to raise the salary cap well past the current level of $5.3 million per team, even though the players themselves have been through some tough economic years.
But this time, a different dynamic is at play when it comes to compensation. The CFL has competition for American players, both from the burgeoning United States Football League, which has just completed its third week of a 10-game regular season, and the Dwayne Johnson-led XFL, which is preparing to resume play next year record February.
There’s an instinct to dismiss these leagues as paper tigers given the number of alternative professional leagues that have come and gone over the last 35 years – a list that included the original USFL, the original XFL, the United Football League, the Alliance of American includes soccer and XFL2, not to mention various incarnations of arena soccer.
The CFL’s approach was to just ignore them and instead focus on their own business while the competition dies on the vine. And that’s what has happened in every single instance, each time restoring the CFL’s pipeline to the world’s best non-National Football League players.
The fact that none of these leagues has lasted long enough to have a measurable impact on the CFL means we really don’t know what impact a sustainable alternative league in the US would have on the Canadian product. But in any case it would not be good.
Because of this, there is significant concern in the CFL that player recruitment will be an issue for at least the next 12 to 24 months and possibly beyond.
The reasons are obvious.
First, a salary comparison between what rookies are offered in the CFL and the USFL and XFL.
The USFL pays its players $4,500 a week plus bonuses for wins, with players also receiving subsidized housing for the season.
While the XFL’s salary scale has not been disclosed, ESPN reported that XFL officials told agents last week that the league will offer higher salaries and better benefits than the USFL.
The XFL apparently plans to have 70-man rosters with active gameday rosters of 45 players, giving opportunities for 560 players –– about 200 more than the USFL currently.
Additionally, the XFL will have an NFL affiliation through a training facility in Canton, Ohio that will prepare players for both leagues. On Thursday, the XFL announced a series of “Showcases” for June and July to aggressively get into the player recruitment game.
These things alone will turn many players away from Canada.
The timing and brevity of spring league schedules also invites players to play a 10-week regular season, with the option of entering an NFL camp in the summer, in lieu of the 18-game, 21-week regular season .
Spread out over an entire season, CFL players earning the league minimum earn just $3,095 per week in Canadian dollars, plus subsidized housing and playoff incentives that every member of Gray Cup champions Winnipeg received last season Blue Bombers was worth $23,000.
Alternative leagues such as the USFL and the XFL are based on the uniform pay model, where players do not have the ability to negotiate their own wages.
So that’s one area where the CFL has an advantage and why they won’t lose any of their star players to these new leagues. But the problem is incoming talent. Selling these players what they could earn by their third or fourth year in Canada will not be easy.
The CFL increased its minimum salary from $54,000 to $65,000 in 2019, although the salary cap increased only minimally. There’s not a lot of room to push this any higher without raising the cap significantly.
The reality is that the CFL cannot currently make their entry-level pay scale competitive with the USFL or XFL without dramatically disrupting their cost structure.
All of this comes at a time when the league has been self-examining the quality and entertainment value of its game.
Losing good players, namely those who will represent the next wave of CFL stars, will not help this problem.
The CFL has long been on the lookout for additional revenue and promises to share it with its players along the way. The players will certainly hear that again in this tariff round.
But there is an urgent need to pay better wages to players out of more than fairness. It’s also about the product.