Edmonton error: press release gaffe exposes potential CFL salary cap collusion

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Did Edmonton accidentally confirm that the CFL is colluding to lower player salaries? One could argue they did.

The Edmonton Football Team announced that quarterback Trevor Harris had restructured his contract as part of a slew of transactions. I applaud Edmonton for their transparency — CFL players restructure their contracts all the time but the reworked deals are rarely acknowledged by franchises.

It appears, however, that the team may have accidentally been a little too transparent.

The introductory sentence of the Harris press release read as follows:

The EE Football Team announce that they have worked with quarterback Trevor Harris to restructure his contract in order meet new salary cap requirements, keeping him in Green and Gold through 2022.

I contacted the team 90 minutes after the press release was issued seeking clarification on their statement of “new salary cap requirements.” The wording of the sentence caught my attention because there have been no changes made to the salary cap since the current collective bargaining agreement was ratified in May 2019.

Justin Dunk reported last month that the league was working towards directing teams to limit player salaries to the cap floor for 2021. Player spending in the CFL is capped at $5.35-million, but teams are able to spend as little as $4.75-million.

Reducing spending to the league minimum would allow each team to save $600,000 in 2021, a combined total of $5.4 million. Dunk’s report caused the league to receive criticism with one reporter calling it “blatant collusion.”

The CFL and the CFL Players’ Association have not discussed altering the collective bargaining agreement since the cancellation of the 2020 season. There are no “new salary cap requirements” in the CFL, so I eagerly awaited Edmonton’s response.

Two hours later, the team issued a second press release that was preceded by the following statement:

The press release sent earlier today included a factual error, please see the amended release below with corrected information.

OK. Interesting. What was the error?

I scanned the release several times, comparing it to the original sent almost four hours prior. I concluded that the only thing that had been altered was the introductory sentence. It now read as follows:

The EE Football Team announce that they have worked with quarterback Trevor Harris to restructure his contract keeping him in Green and Gold through 2022.

The only difference between the two press releases was the elimination of the words “in order meet new salary cap requirements.” Every other word remained identical.

One CFL general manager has publicly discussed reducing spending on player salaries.

“I don’t think I’ll get into the details of exactly what I have to spend, but I don’t think it’s hard to figure out that it can be no lower than the floor and no higher than the max. But I have been directed to spend less than what we have in the past,” said Saskatchewan Roughriders’ general manager Jeremy O’Day.

“We will have less money to spend on player salaries moving forward, and I don’t think it’s a terrible ask from our organization to ask us to do that with the impact that the pandemic has had on our organization.”

It’s perfectly understandable that a team wants to spend less on player salaries in 2021 following a global pandemic. There’s a salary floor for a reason and the CFL’s member clubs are well within their rights to independently reduce spending.

The natural consequence of spending less on player salaries is the increased likelihood of losing games. If other teams spend to the cap while you only spend to the floor, your opponents have an advantage.

This happens all the time in leagues like the NHL, NBA and MLB where there’s a wide disparity between the highest and lowest team payrolls.

According to PuckPedia, the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are currently $12.4-million over the cap while the New Jersey Devils are $11.1-million under the cap. Those numbers will change before the regular season starts, of course, but it’s reasonable to assume that Tampa Bay’s payroll will remain significantly higher than New Jersey’s.

Though they’ve since called it a “factual error,” Edmonton’s initial reference to “new salary cap requirements” supports the belief that the CFL is directing teams to reduce player spending.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.