CFL fans disagree on many things — the best team to cheer for, Kevin Glenn’s hall of fame candidacy, even the relative value of raisins in butter tarts — but nothing unites the fandom quite like an unadulterated hatred of one-year contracts.
Since they first became legal in the 2014 collective bargaining agreement, one-year contracts have reshaped how CFL teams handle free agency. What was once a relatively boring process with a limited number of players available has become a mad scramble, with more than half of most team’s rosters eligible to hit the open market all at once.
The result has been unprecedented player movement every year since 2016 and far less roster continuity. That has led to fans struggling to connect with their favourite teams, reluctant to invest in players who might move on after the season.
While both the league office and CFLPA have indicated a willingness to address these issues, there are some rarely talked about advantages. Even as he prepared for another monumental free agency task, Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters acknowledged that the next team gunning for his club’s Grey Cup crown could use free agency as a springboard.
“It’s a painful process, it’s not fun going through this every single year and trying to piece your team together. It’s beneficial for the teams that didn’t have very good years and need to flip their roster,” Walters admitted. “The benefit for those teams is you can put a whole new team together in a year and go from being not very competitive to being very competitive.”
None have done a better job at retaining talent in the new free agency era than Walters, who has once again kept the core of a back-to-back Grey Cup championship team together at below market value. Yet he can’t keep everyone, with key starters like Andrew Harris, Kenny Lawler, Michael Couture and Steven Richardson still unsigned heading in to the league’s legal tampering period.
Those players will now be fair game for team’s with more free cap space to woo, allowing for a potential shift in the balance of power next season.
“That’s a good setup for the league that it enables the teams that had a bad year to improve very quickly, but it is tough for the teams that have had some success to try to keep everybody together,” Walter acknowledged.
“In the spirit of parity, it might be a good thing, but it’s tough when you’ve had some success.”
Plenty of teams have attempted to spend their way to the top in recent years with limited positive results, but that won’t stop struggling franchises like B.C., Ottawa and Edmonton from trying again this year. Fans will keep complaining right up until it works for them.