Decreased Salary Disparity A Big Win For CFL

For decades, CFL teams managed player salaries in a two-tier system. The first tier included just one player – the starting quarterback. The second tier included every remaining player on the roster. The star pivot got paid while the rest of the team was forced to fight for the scraps that remained.

This system began to change when Josh Bourke re-signed with the Montreal Alouettes in February of 2014 and became the CFL’s first non-quarterback to earn a base salary of more than $200,000 per season. Bourke was able to command such an exorbitant salary because of his high level of performance at the offensive line’s most important position combined with his national status. National left tackles are extremely rare in the CFL (BC’s Hunter Steward and Toronto’s Matt Sewell and Wayne Smith have seen spot duty at left tackle over the past few seasons but never truly earned the spot), with Bourke representing the league’s lone regular national starter at the left tackle position over the past half-decade.

So while Bourke’s payday was not unexpected – the Windsor native is worth every penny of $205,000 per season – the windfall of similar signings around the CFL has been.

Weston Dressler was offered a salary of $250,000 to sign with the RedBlacks this past August before rejoining the ’Riders on a deal that paid him just north of $200,000. Ben Heenan would have commanded a cool $240,000-260,000 had he stayed north of the border rather joining the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Toronto’s Chad Owens makes well over $200,000 on his new deal, as does Argo teammate Tyler Holmes. Saskatchewan’s Chris Getzlaf and Brendon LaBatte each make roughly $220,000, while BC’s Solomon Elimimian and Montreal’s S.J. Green recently signed deals that pay them $235,000 and $250,000, respectively.

Now, this information is all to be taken with a grain of salt. The CFL’s archaic refusal to publicize contractual information makes player salaries difficult to pinpoint. Dollar figures fluctuate depending on the number of bonuses found in player contracts and it’s also no secret that some elite players around the league are paid extra cash under the table as a means of salary cap circumvention. As these circumstances render it impossible to calculate exactly how much players are making (for example, some CFL pundits have reported that players such as Jon Cornish and Andy Fantuz made salaries north of $200,000 before Bourke signed his latest deal), the aforementioned figures will have to do.

Regardless of the exact figures, however, what’s clear is that the way in which CFL teams are choosing to manage player salaries is rapidly changing. Gone are the days of the Birmingham Barracudas paying Matt Dunigan $550,000 per season to throw to $44,000 receivers. Though there will always be CFL quarterbacks making elite-level money – there’s no arguing that a QB of Ricky Ray’s caliber is worth $450,000 – many teams are showing an increased willingness to spread the wealth.

Take the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for example. Drew Willy is paid a salary of roughly $250,000. Willy’s two top targets, Nick Moore and Clarence Denmark, each make in the neighborhood of $180,000. Willy’s left tackle, former Stampeder Stanley Bryant, recently inked a contract worth $160,000 per season. Though Willy is still the team’s highest earner, we can see the club has struck a stronger balance in the way in which it manages its salaries.

Montreal is currently in a similar situation. Starter Jonathan Crompton will enter the 2015 season in the second year of a three-year deal he signed to serve what was originally intended to be a back-up role with the Alouettes. While I’m not privy to Crompton’s salary, I’d be confident in guessing it’s no more than $90,000. This figure – by far the smallest among CFL starting quarterbacks – provides the Alouette brain trust a huge amount of salary cap flexibility. It’s what’s allowed Montreal to lock up Bourke and Green to the contracts outlined above while also paying out new mega-deals to stalwart linebackers Bear Woods and Chip Cox (the deals are rumored to be worth more than a combined $400,000 per season).

The primary reason for this shift in CFL spending habits is the way in which the league went about framing its salary cap under the new collective bargaining agreement. In increasing the cap from 4.4 million to 5 million while only raising the minimum player salary from $44,000 to $50,000, the CFL all but guaranteed that most of the new money allotted toward player salaries would go to the league’s elite. While this is a detriment to young American-born players signing their first CFL contracts (even as a football fan, watching young men sacrifice their health for such meager salaries is hard to watch), it’s an issue the Canadian Football League Players’ Association had every opportunity to address in CBA negotiations. As they failed in so many regards during the negotiating period, they failed in this one, too.

The exploitation of young American players aside, the main beneficiaries of the shift in CFL salary management are players at non-quarterback positions. Young players who are able to prove themselves on $50,000-$80,000 rookie deals – nationals and internationals alike – will be eligible for sizeable raises in their second contracts like previous generations of CFL players never were before. Where even a dominant national right tackle topped out his earning potential at $100,000 per season just a few decades ago, such players can now command salaries of a quarter of a million dollars. The bidding for excellent international pass catchers now starts at $170,000. For nationals, this figure jumps to $200,000.

Aside from the players who stand to maximize their earning potential, the other beneficiaries of the new CFL management model are the fans. More player earning potential means more players willing to sign CFL contracts. A wider pool of players means more competition. More competition means more talent. More talent means a more entertaining product. And, to bring this thinking full-circle, a more entertaining product could very well lead to further economic windfall for the CFL, something that would see player salaries increase even more in the next round of CBA negotiations in 2018-2019.

And while teams like Winnipeg and Montreal will have to pony up more cash to keep young quarterbacks like Willy and Crompton past their current deals (Willy is a pending free agent after the 2015 season), it seems the asking price for top-tier CFL QBs ($400,000-$500,000) has gone relatively unchanged over the past decade. None of the new money made available under the new CBA’s increased salary cap is going toward starting quarterback salaries, a pleasant surprise that has benefited many of the CFL’s underpaid, undervalued stars at non-quarterback positions.

All in all, the CFL’s movement away from the extremely quarterback-centered salary management model of the past is a very positive thing for players and fans alike. Though I still believe there’s work to be done (I’d like to see the CFL minimum salary raised to at least $65,000 to further reduce the disparity of player salaries, particularly for American-born rookies), it’s great the see the disparity in player salaries decreasing so rapidly, allowing more players to make high-level salaries north of the border. And while there will always be highly-paid quarterbacks (it is the most important position in football, after all), it’s nice to see so many deserving players get the types of salaries they’ve rightfully earned.

John Hodge, Blue Bomber Talk

Twitter: @BlueBomberTalk

Email: [email protected]

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.