Upon seeing the huge, ridiculous and official list of potential free agents — 223 players! — it’s obvious the Canadian Football League needs to re-implement the mandatory option-year clauses in its players’ contracts.
The current free-agency rules are in danger of seriously damaging the league’s ability to engage its fans.
Each of the nine teams has between 21 to 31 players who can become free agents if they don’t re-sign with their current squad before Feb. 14. The Grey Cup-winning Ottawa Redblacks have the most potential free agents, with 31, which means that each franchise could lose roughly one-third of the players they had on their active roster and injury lists.
And it’s not just the minions. Many of the CFL’s top players are potential free agents, including Calgary Stampeders defensive end Charleston Hughes, B.C. Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian, Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant and Redblacks receivers Ernest Jackson and Greg Ellingson.
Granted, many of the players will re-up with their current squads, but losing stars to rival franchises or to the National Football League damages the connection between teams and their fans who develop affection for the best players. Witness the number of Durant jerseys seen during Rider games at Mosaic Stadium and the acknowledgement Hughes receives following every sack at McMahon Stadium.
Before 2010, CFL contracts contained mandatory option-year clauses. Anyone signing one-year-plus-an-option was bound to his team for a second year, at the club’s option, with the option year containing a specified salary bump of five, 10, 20 per cent…
Players entering the option years of their contracts were allowed out of their pacts if an NFL team came calling during the allotted time frame, known as the “NFL window.” (CFL free agents could also sign with NFL teams after their contract expired.)
NFL salaries are much larger than CFL salaries, so the option-year clause allowed players to pursue bigger dreams by signing with an NFL team. If they didn’t make an NFL roster, the players were contractually bound to rejoin their CFL team for the remainder of the specific contract.
A revamped collective bargaining between the CFL and the CFL Players’ Association tossed out the option-year contract for all veteran players; rookies were still required to have an option year on their first contracts.
CFL teams believed it might slow the exodus of players to the NFL, while CFL players believed free agency would increase their salaries.
Because the CFL operates under a Salary Management System, overall salaries are supposed to be capped for each franchise. The 2016 cap was $5.1 million, with a $50,000 increase each of the next two seasons. So players can’t get huge raises. And the number of players joining NFL teams is growing: 16 left before the 2016 season, 12 before the 2015 season. Most don’t make the NFL, so they return to Canada.
With 223 players poised to hit the open market, the exodus and turnover can truly hurt the fans’ abilities to identify with their favourite teams and players. The option-year clause used to seem far too restrictive and it gave the CFL teams too much control over their players. Having witnessed the other option, it’s time to bring back the option-year clause.