Behind the scenes during CFL free agency

The CFL free agent market officially opens with an email.

It is sent by a member of the league’s football operations staff at precisely noon on Feb. 9 and provides all nine teams with the list of available free agents as well as contact information for players and their agents. And with that, the rush to get high profile players to sign on the dotted line begins.

Ryan Janzen is the league’s director of football operations and part of a four-man unit is responsible for checking, filing and officially registering player contracts. The department ensures the teams follow the letter of the law – otherwise known as the CFL’s collective bargaining agreement – as teams furiously execute their action plans to sign newly available talent.

“Papers aren’t flying around like a busy office scene from a movie,” Janzen says with a laugh. “But it’s one of the busiest days of the year for us.”

Each team has its own football operations staff responsible for getting the essential paperwork completed once an agreement on a deal is reached. In Hamilton, that job falls to Shawn Burke, the Ticats’ director of football operations. He types up the contract, emails it in PDF form to the player, who must then sign it and return it via fax or email.

“You want to get the contract back as quickly as possible because signings are being reported on Twitter,” Burke says. “But from a club standpoint no official announcement will ever be made until it’s registered with the league. That’s why you’ll often see it reported and announced later by the teams.”

When a contract comes in to the league office, it’s reviewed and – usually – given a stamp of approval. If there’s an issue, teams are notified immediately.

“There are certain bonus structures that teams can’t use within our collective bargaining agreement and by-laws,” Janzen says. “Teams are pretty good at checking with us first to see if a certain bonus is alright, but sometimes they’ll forget or haven’t even realized they couldn’t structure a bonus in a certain way.”

Once a contract has been approved, it’s officially entered into the league’s online database – a site that allows teams to view contract details for each player. That’s a crucial tool in negotiation processes.

“There will be rumours swirling around that player ‘X’ has signed with a certain team and football operations will get calls from teams asking how much a player signed for,” Janzen says. “Once the contract is entered in the database we direct teams there.”

From a team perspective understanding what the market price happens to be for certain players is essential.

“Some guys in the league are doing it to see what they missed out on if they were involved in the bidding,” Burke says. “It could set a table compared to the next guy they might be looking to sign.“

Canadian defensive lineman Ted Laurent was one of the biggest free agents to sign early on in the free agency period. He elected to return to the Ticats after fielding offers from several other CFL teams. Laurent’s contract – said to be worth around $220,000 in 2016 – set the bar for other premier Canadian players.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” Janzen says. “Teams want to know if they’re in the running for the big guns because that will determine how much money they have for their next targeted group of free agents.”

A total of 70 contracts were registered in the opening four days of free agency, making it the busiest free agency period possibly ever seen.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.