‘Absolute lunacy’: CFL reportedly capping 2022 signing bonus spending at $400k without CFLPA consultation

Photo courtesy: Arash Madani

For the second straight offseason, the Canadian Football League has unilaterally dictated how teams can spend their salary cap without consultation from the CFLPA.

That’s according to a report from Sportsnet’s Arash Madani, who was asked by SportsCage host Derek Taylor on Thursday what the league was doing differently in the lead-up to free agency.

“Doing something different is sugarcoating it. They have limited the amount of money that teams can spend on signing bonuses this year,” Madani explained. “They have capped it at $400,000 in signing bonuses for this signing season, which is absolute lunacy.”

Last off-season, the league reportedly instructed teams to spend only to the salary cap floor, leading to a massive scaleback in player salaries across the board for the shortened 2021 CFL season. The informal gentleman’s agreement led to calls of collusion from observers, though few teams ultimately fully adhered to the policy. This time around, the instructions appear to be more explicit, targeting only the type of money given out rather than the amount.

Signing bonuses are an important mechanism in CFL contracts, not only providing a financial guarantee for players but also increasing their take home pay. American players are taxed on bonuses at a much lower rate than their salary and teams have long negotiated high value contracts in such a way as to decrease their cap hit by providing more of the cash in the form of a bonus.

That may no longer be a possibility to the same extent and as Madani explained using the hypothetical example of quarterback Dane Evans’ contract, everybody loses.

“At a time where you’re thinking to yourself what’s a way that we can really try and make things work with our players — if we actually cared about our players — if we wanted to actually have a situation where we can think bigger picture and say ‘okay Dane, we’ll give you $250-300,000 up front, then we’ll make your base salary a hundred.’ That’s a win for Dane, it’s more money in his jeans and everybody wins there,” he said.

“Suddenly if you’re the Ticats, now you can’t give $300,000 up front to Dane Evans, even though he’s going to be your franchise quarterback, because that leaves only a hundred thousand for everybody else.”

That leaves teams who need to sign or extend quarterbacks in a disadvantageous position. While individual clubs have long put their own internal caps on bonus spending to stay within budget, those could be adjusted to meet the requirements of a given year. The firm cap league-wide lacks any of that flexibility.

More importantly, it has shrunk the pool of available guaranteed money without approval from the players’ union. Prominent voices across the league have been optimistic about the relationship between the CFL and the CFLPA heading into a new round of collective bargaining, but with the current CBA set to expire in May, this sleight could change the dynamics.

“The lure in trying to get big free agents is signing bonuses and the league has just done this on its own without consultation with its Players’ Association at a time where a CBA showdown is imminent,” Madani noted. “Once players get wind of this, I wonder what they think on something that the league has tried to keep quiet for a little while.”

It won’t be the first time that league has run afoul of the players under commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s tenure, but this one can’t be pinned fully on the commish, much to Madani’s chagrin.

“You know me, I’m still trying to pin the Kennedy assassination on Randy and I’m not having any luck with that one, but this is not coming from the commissioner’s chair,” he joked.

“Rather it’s the management council, for all intents and purposes it’s the team presidents across the league, who have made this decision. As one executive told me, ‘the folks who think they’re the owners and the GMs.’ This is coming from them, although Ambrosie would certainly be involved and aware of what’s happening here.”