With negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between the CFL and its players looming on the horizon, there is one simple yet elusive piece of information that will help set the stage for what are expected to be contentious discussions: just how much money are we talking about?
And TSN’s Dave Naylor may have just given us a clue.
Most people missed the biggest story of Grey Cup week in Ottawa 14 months ago. Which is when commissioner Ambrosie said he wanted to “double” overall league revenues. So how do you get from $210 million to $420 million? Not with the traditional CFL business model. #CFL
— David William Naylor (@TSNDaveNaylor) January 14, 2019
What’s interesting to me isn’t the further justification for commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s so-called CFL 2.0 but the revenue number itself: I’ve never seen or heard $210 million reported anywhere. And if it’s accurate – and given Naylor’s relationship with the league, there’s no reason to doubt it – it provides an interesting starting point for CBA negotiations.
Financial information for CFL teams can be hard to come by. While Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg are community owned and produce public financial statements every year, the other six teams are privately held and aren’t required to release diddly squat. I covered the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for close to ten years and couldn’t get a straight answer on how much the team was making or losing at any point during that period.
In the context of negotiations, I would argue that individual team numbers don’t matter as much as the grand total which could give the CFLPA a starting point when it comes to the topic of raising the salary cap.
In North American pro sports, player compensation is often tied to league revenue. While formulas of what is and isn’t included can be convoluted, NHL players receive approximately 50 per cent of revenues, NBA players get between 49 and 51 per cent, NFL players between 46.5 and 48 per cent. The MLB is also around 50 per cent.
Doing some cocktail napkin math, the CFL salary cap was $5.2 million in 2018; multiply that by nine teams, the total is $46.8 million. That’s 22.3 per cent of the Naylor-reported $210 million in CFL revenues.
Now, revenues in those other sports are far more substantial than the CFL. It’s a lot easier to be generous with a much bigger pie when everyone is already full.. In the CFL, the margins are much, much leaner.
Still, 22.3 per cent of league revenues is… a lot different than 50 per cent. The CFLPA asked for 35 per cent of league revenues in the last set of negotiations and fell well short of that. Should they set the bar that high again, 35 per cent of $210 million is $73.5 million – which would represent a salary cap of $8.1 million per team. That’s assuming the numbers are accurate and my gin and tonic hasn’t smudged the napkin.
I wasn’t the only one who plucked the $210 million number from Naylor’s Tweet – a couple of CFL ball hawks zeroed in on it as well.
— Matt Black (@MattBlack39) January 14, 2019
So the revenue is 210 million ?????
— Jermaine Robinson (@Jrob32_) January 14, 2019
One big disadvantage for the CFLPA: unlike the unions in other major sports, they don’t have revenue sharing as part of their collective bargaining – they gave it away for guaranteed salary cap increases as part of the CBA signed in 2010. The union tried to get it back in 2014 and the league was having none of it.
Without a revenue-sharing agreement, the CFLPA has to rely on one-time gains in collective bargaining instead of getting a bump based on a revenue jump: if the league manages to grow the game substantially over the course of the deal, it’s unlikely players will get corresponding increases in compensation.
But working off Naylor’s number, the CFLPA and its members are likely to believe they deserve more than the 22.3 per cent they are currently getting. And that sets the stage for a long, cold winter that could linger into spring.
Former Montreal Alouettes assistant general manager Joey Abrams makes this point:
Players don't get paid enough. Fact. However, those numbers aren't accurate. You need to add the salary not attributed to the cap. 6 game IR for example. Teams like Sask and Edm have no issue paying salaries and running a successful business. Other teams…not quite as much.
— Joey Abrams (@Joey_Abrams) January 18, 2019
Again, the issue is transparency. Even the CFL teams that make their financial information public don’t break down player costs specifically, choosing instead to lump it in to “football operations” which includes all kinds of other things such as coaches’ salaries, travel, scouting etc etc. So the Riders, for example, spent $14,898,437 on football operations in 2017 while the Bombers spent $11,753,251.
And even if we added in all the injured players – and in the NFL, injured players count against the cap – does the number jump significantly? Unlikely.