CFL football ops cap has ‘noticeable’ impact on retaining, developing ‘best coaches’: Craig Dickenson

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The CFL’s new financial reality has had everyone feeling the pinch, but few cutbacks have drawn the ire of fanbases quite like the league’s football operations cap.

It’s the number one answer that many turn to when searching for the root of the league’s current offensive decline and, rarely one to ruffle feathers, even Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson has to admit it has made his life more difficult.

“It’s been noticeable because I now have to have to try to, along with J.O. [Jeremy O’Day], put a staff together, so we see it every day,” he said, when asked about the cap Thursday.

First proposed in December of 2018, the CFL laid out the details for non-player costs cap ahead of the 2019 season and stated it would be reviewed after the 2020 campaign. When COVID-19 struck, there was no turning back.

Originally, the cap was set at just under $2.59 million, but a cut was unilaterally imposed at the start of the 2021 season to bring it closer to $2 million. The CFL hoped to save franchises $4.5 million with the move.

General managers, coaches, scouts, equipment people and video personnel count under the cap. Teams are limited to coaching staffs of 11 and 14 other football operations individuals, totalling 25.

For the purposes of the cap, expenses include wages, salaries, benefits such as health plans, housing allowances and playoff bonuses which exceed the player share. Exclusions include business expenses, complimentary tickets and meals while working.

“I think it does affect the ability to retain quality people and develop them,” Dickenson readily acknowledged. “On top of that, it’s hard to get a guy to take an entry level job for $35,000. For $50,000, you can get some guys that’ll think about it though. It’s a challenge and something I think we’re going to have to deal with for a little while.”

The non-player football operations cap was driven by commissioner Randy Ambrosie and league’s executive council, consisting of the nine team presidents, with the board of governors approval.

Capping the football operations budget was designed to improve the financial bottom line for clubs, a way for teams to control costs and level the playing field. Many fear that the second axing to that budget has harmed the product on the field and while Dickenson doesn’t entirely disagree, he believes limitations in other areas have had a bigger impact on offensive struggles than coaching.

“Where I think you see the quarterbacks struggle is the lack of off-season time they get with each other now. I think that’s a big part of it and that goes back to the football ops cap too. There’s some restrictions on what you can do in terms of mini-camps and rookie camps and what have you, and I think that all plays into it, I really do,” he explained.

“It takes time, it takes relationships to develop for offences to click and it just doesn’t happen overnight.”

Dickenson hopes the offseason schedule returns to normal next off-season and that the operations cap is increased, but he isn’t going to be pressing the issue any time soon. With the CFL very much still in pandemic recovery mode, the Riders will just have to suck it up and deal.

“We’re trying to try to get this CFL thing going again, so I kind of understand both sides of it. It is difficult to get the best coaches for what we can pay them now, but we’ve got to make sure that we have a profitable league as well,” Dickenson conceded.

“It’s a tough one. Hopefully, the league has some success and the Grey Cup’s a success and they start seeing some rosier pictures — maybe the TV deal sweetens up a little bit and maybe we get a little better attendance going forward — then maybe we can address that in the future, but it does affect the ability to put together a quality staff.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.