Raising the league’s minimum salary key to CFL’s upcoming CBA negotiations

The CFL’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) runs through the 2018 season, expiring in May of 2019. New commissioner Randy Ambrosie will be in charge of negotiating the league’s next CBA, an agreement that should carry the league well into the 2020s.

The last round of CBA negotiations concluded in June of 2014, a deal that included a bump in the salary cap from $4.4-million to $5-million. The cap has gone up $50,000 in each subsequent year, peaking at $5.2-millon next season.

While it’s great to see CFL players earning higher wages, the group of players in most need of a raise were largely neglected during the last round of negotiations. The league’s minimum salary was raised from $45,000 to just $50,000 in 2014 with a further increase of $1,000 in each subsequent year, reaching $54,000 next season. Factoring in the recent slump in the Canadian dollar — and most players earning the league’s minimum salary are American — the league’s lowest-paid players aren’t really earning more now than they were five years ago.

The minimum salary for a two-year CFL veteran in 1974 was $11,000, the equivalent of approximately $54,500 in today’s funds — slightly more than the league’s current minimum salary of $53,000.

The CFL has evolved greatly over the past forty-some years, adding to players’ workloads. In the ’70s, CFL practices mostly took place during off-hours, allowing players to maintain full-time careers outside of football (in fact, the promise of a well-paying full-time job outside of football was a key factor in recruiting American players to the CFL for much of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s).

Players were also not held to nearly the same level of conditioning as they are today. CFL players of the ’70s may have gotten by without training at all, provided they worked a physically-taxing day job in a factory or warehouse. That is simply not the case in today’s CFL where players maintain rigorous year-round training and diet regiments to play the game they love.

The Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA) can talk all it wants about raising the salary cap to improve player salaries. Without also raising the salary floor, an increase of the cap would only benefit the league’s highest-earning players.

The going rate for a starting-calibre CFL quarterback is $400,000, with some players — Hamilton’s Zach Collaros and Edmonton’s Mike Reilly, for instance — surpassing the $500,000 mark. Elite Canadians also tend to make north of $200,000, including Hamilton’s Ted Laurent and Toronto’s Chris Van Zeyl.

To the CFL’s credit, its income disparity is already substantially smaller than the NFL’s. The minimum salary in the NFL is $450,000, the lowest of the four major American sports leagues. Yet twelve NFL players — all quarterbacks, of course — will earn more than $20-million in 2017. This means that while the highest-earning CFL players are making just over ten-times the league’s minimum salary, the highest-earning NFL player (Indianapolis Colt pivot Andrew Luck) earns a whopping 55-times the NFL’s minimum salary.

The difference between the league’s earning rates is that increasing the NFL’s minimum salary by 50 percent ($450,000 to $675,000) would not result in a substantial change of lifestyle. A salary of $450,000 already puts one in the 99th percentile of all income earners in the United States. In Canada, an increase in salary from $53,000 to $75,000 moves one from the 54th income percentile to the 69th percentile, a much more substantial increase in lifestyle.

The increase would also make the CFL a much more palatable option for American players looking to extend their careers after NFL opportunities have dried up. American players are often taxed twice on their CFL earnings — once in Canada and once in the U.S. — while getting nailed on the exchange rate. $53,000 Canadian dollars is currently worth just $40,000 in American funds, further diminishing player earnings.

So, what would it take to increase the league’s minimum salary by almost $25,000?

As it turns out, not that much.

Approximately half of the CFL’s players make at or little more than the current league minimum of $53,000. For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that exactly half of each of the league’s active rosters would require a $22,000 raise to reach a new minimum salary of $75,000.

The total cost? $506,000. Half a million bucks per team.

Considering the latest CBA raised the salary cap by $600,000, a drastic raise to the league’s minimum salary appears well within the realm of possibility.

Raising the league’s minimum salary would benefit not just the players, but also the league’s teams and fans. The greatest obstacle for CFL teams in the process of recruiting new players (again, particularly American players) is its low minimum salary.

Milt Stegall spoke to this issue on the latest episode of the Blue Bomber Talk Podcast.

“They definitely need to give the incoming rookies more money,” said Stegall. “It makes the league more attractive when you see more money being paid to the younger guys.”

Stegall was quick to point out that the CFL’s minimum salary is no better than that of an entry-level job most players are qualified for coming out of college.

“I’ve heard guys say, ‘hey, well there’s no use for me going up there [to the CFL] because I can make that [salary] getting a job or a career here [in the United States] instead of putting my body on the line.'”

Stegall also agrees that a raise in the cap will do virtually nothing for most CFL players unless the league’s minimum salary is dramatically increased.

“If they increase the cap, it’s just going to be the guys who are already making the money who’re going to get more money,” said Stegall. “They definitely need to start at the bottom and work their way up.”

A drastic increase to the league’s minimum salary would have a ripple effect for higher-earning players. Players currently earning $80,000, for example, would undoubtedly feel entitled to raises, not wanting to make close to league minimum.

Even so, a substantial increase to the league’s minimum salary is the most fair and essential step to the league’s next CBA. As it stands, any increase to the league’s salary cap — substantial or not — would do little to impact the majority of the CFL’s players. Quarterbacks and Canadians, many of whom are already within our country’s top percentile of earners, would see their salaries increase at the expense of the league’s lowest-paid players.

Simply put, the CFL’s top-paid players don’t need raises. The league’s lowest-paid players desperately do.

Here’s hoping its next CBA helps bring equity to the CFL.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.