Death of the AAF isn’t necessarily all good news for the CFL

Though it is somewhat unCanadian, there was a segment of the CFL community that took a degree of pleasure in the demise of the Alliance of American Football. While that’s understandable on some level – the AAF was a threat to the CFL – dancing on a proverbial grave is never a particularly good look.

Given its short history, the AAF had little long-term impact on the Canadian league, which has proven – once again – that its most impressive attribute may be sheer longevity. But one group that will be adversely affected by the league’s demise? CFL players.

In addition to losing another place to play pro football and get paid for it – not an insignificant factor in a work environment without guaranteed contracts – the CFL Players’ Association also lost a key piece of leverage in the current labour negotiations with the league. 

The spectre of the AAF was already having an impact. The CFL re-introduced the NFL option window last summer because the AAF offered a direct route to the higher-paying league. The CFL’s reported willingness to raise the minimum salary to $70,000 was also a direct result of the AAF’s contract structure that included a $70,000 USD first year salary.

With the AAF no longer in business, the CFLPA will now have to hope the threat of the XFL is enough to keep the league committed to those previous positions. 

Leverage has been hard to come by for the CFLPA in recent times. The CBA expires the day before training camp is slated to open and once players are in camp, a work stoppage becomes even less likely. A collective decision by the big-name free agents not to sign new deals before a new CBA was in place would have been an interesting strategy – imagine training camps opening without Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly, Trevor Harris or Zach Collaros – but it didn’t come to pass.

Meanwhile, the CFL has been exerting pressure on players by withholding off-season bonuses. They also used provincial labour laws to limit the possibility of a work stoppage during the last set of talks – in other words the league is pretty good at the dark arts of labour negotiations.

Which isn’t to say the union doesn’t have a good chance to secure a fair deal for its members. The prospect of Halifax expansion and the reported intrigue in the Montreal franchise by multiple parties indicates there’s interest in the league from deep-pocketed types. The Western teams are generally profitable, as are Hamilton and Ottawa, while Toronto has the backing of a sports Goliath in MLSE: it’s hard to argue things aren’t going well.

Yes, the AAF was a potential talent drain for the CFL and those players will now have to seriously consider Canada if they want to continue their pro careers. But the AAF also pushed the CFL to be a better league, something that was ultimately to everyone’s benefit. 

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