Hold the USFL envy: why an American CFL draft isn’t a smart idea

Graphic courtesy: USFL

The upstart USFL has completed its inaugural player draft, a massive 35-round monstrosity designed to erect the latest attempt at a spring professional football league out of the ether.

Predictably, it sparked plenty of conversations in CFL circles. There were some who brought forth concerns of a talent drain. Others spent the night gloating that many of the selections with CFL ties were players without much of a future north of the border, including former Lions and Alouettes’ quarterback Shea Patterson who went first overall. But perhaps the loudest group of people were those asking why the CFL doesn’t do its own draft of American players.

Supporters of an American CFL draft have quite a simple stance. The CFL offseason is long and boring, with little news to be had. The league’s current form of American talent acquisition — a closely guarded negotiation list of 45 players that each team maintains — does little to change this because rookie American signings are announced to no fanfare in throw-away press releases.

The CFL already has a Canadian draft and a Global draft, so why not host a third for American talent to highlight prospects that otherwise arrive in anonymity?

It’s a fine idea in a perfect world, one that even I could get behind. After all, who wouldn’t want more dates to mark on the CFL calendar? But in any practical reality, a CFL American draft would be a pointless endeavour that makes little sense and could actually harm the league.

To explain why, let’s look at how a hypothetical American draft might work.

For a draft to function, there has to be a draft pool and there are three ways I could see that working. The first and simplest to implement is essentially how the neg list works now. Any American player without CFL experience is permanently eligible — draft them at your leisure.

There are a couple of fundamental problems with this system. For one, creating a draft pool where everyone is eligible all the time makes things incredibly cumbersome. Teams wouldn’t be operating from a common list of prospects, so the competitive element of drafting would be eliminated in many cases.

There would be no guarantee of the prospects coming to the CFL — an issue we’ll touch more on later — and the weight of thousands of potential picks would make the tools used to generate hype for a draft, from mock drafts to top prospect lists, basically impossible to produce.

This was a problem we’ve just seen in living colour with the USFL draft. Even that league wasn’t crazy enough to have an unlimited draft pool, but they refused to release their official list of prospects and left fans and media in the dark.

As a result, only a few niche creators or Fox insiders dared to create pre-draft content. That killed general interest in the event and there is a reason that a league owned by a major television network didn’t televise their own draft, sticking it exclusively on social media without so much as a livestream.

There would be another major issue with this system as well, tied to one of its benefits. Players decide to come to the CFL at different times of the year, so creating a convoluted hybrid system in which players are simultaneously draft prospects for next year and undrafted free agents makes some sense. But those two pathways can’t be equivalent without working to the disadvantage of draft picks (ie. making them sign the same minimum value contracts as others without the freedom to choose where).

That means draft picks will have to receive some benefit, whether that be higher value slotted deals or a signing bonus. But if you are a coveted NFL camp cut who might normally join a CFL team midseason off the neg list, why would you ever sign as a free agent if you could simply demand that a team draft you for money in a few months?

The only solution to that hurdle becomes more contentious negotiations with rookie Americans and with no team holding exclusive rights anymore, you open the league up to potential bidding wars. That’s actively bad for the CFL financially, which is why they currently have a system to avoid them.

If they were to take place, it once again makes the supposedly hype-generating draft a meaningless side-show that is less desirable to prospects than street free agency.

The second option for a draft would be to directly copy the USFL and go for a centralized draft list. This means that players would sign contracts with the league to enter the CFL and then become eligible for the draft. This is the only system in which you can guarantee all the players drafted will enter the league, as they have already made a commitment.

But here there are problems with this style, too. Firstly, leagues like the USFL and XFL do these drafts because they are centralized entities and their franchises aren’t owned externally. That is not how the CFL works. To create a draft of this nature, you would need to massively expand the CFL’s football ops department, which currently maintains the Canadian and Global draft lists.

In so doing, you are likely axing parts of every team’s already small scouting departments, costing CFL lifers hard-earned jobs when they no longer make financial sense.

That would be tumultuous, but not impossible to pull off. Where the bigger issue lies is once again in midseason free agency. If a draft is to be meaningful, it has to be the entry point for the league. That means all the first-year players signed in a year have to be either draft picks or those in the pool who went unselected.

In the CFL, that is an issue because Americans choose to come north at different moments in the year and unless you intend to host multiple American drafts in season — a logistical nightmare — you’ll be telling them to wait.

Players cut from the NFL who were unable to sign a CFL contract in time to enter the preseason draft would have to be funnelled into the following year’s pool, but with multiple U.S. spring leagues offering contracts in the months in between, why would they wait?

In the coming years, midseason signings of NFL camp cuts who want a chance to play immediately will be the CFL’s most fruitful recruiting period to edge out USFL or XFL competition. This system bars that door entirely.

The final option would be an American college draft, selecting players in their NFL draft year. This is the only format I could get behind, with an easily defined draft pool and functional undrafted free agency. You could even have some form of neg list for players a certain number of years past their eligibility to prevent bidding wars. Yet here we come to the real crux of the issue.

An American CFL draft would never be a major hype generator and the college draft is exactly why. Those drafted would be mostly late-round NFL picks and lower, the types of prospects that don’t exactly dominate the U.S. news cycle.

There would also be no guarantee of any of the draft picks coming north. Even the ones that did would likely be a two-year wait. You could also expect many draft picks to be cut in their first training camp, which hardly makes for a scintillating formula.

At best, given the uncertainty and wait time regarding prospects, you are looking at something like the NHL draft but with a fraction of the star power. Despite this being a hockey-mad nation, that selection process has never taken off in popularity like the NFL draft for exactly those reasons. Casual fans don’t care about players that might help their team two or three years down the road.

Advocates of an American draft argue that no system could be less exciting than the current one but with the challenges inherent in creating an American draft, the miniscule benefits it would bring could easily be replicated by simply making all neg list transactions public — a change I would absolutely support.

People say that the CFL fails to capture offseason relevance and the league could absolutely do a better job marketing, but here is the dirty little secret: the CFL offseason calendar is almost exactly the same as the NFL’s. The biggest difference is the NFL has an incessant media hype machine creating content, while the CFL’s media partners check out.

Obviously, the CFL will never dominate the news cycle in the same way as the NFL, but currently there has been no effort by TSN to pump it up. Whether or not mass free agency has been good for the league, it is a day full to the brim with relevant news and they have not capitalized by creating a live show on an otherwise empty afternoon. That would garner far more interest than an American draft, but apparently it isn’t worth the added cost.

Daily neg list signings, which currently ensure there is news about the league every day, are inconsistently reported and rarely given any on-air attention unless they are a former first-round NFL draft pick. Meanwhile, the coverage of the existing Canadian draft has left a lot to be desired, with incorrect graphics and panelists who, with the exception of the original draft guru Duane Forde, have a tenuous understanding of the prospects.

We are supposed to believe that because an American draft would have a value attached to prospects and centre mid-tier quarterbacks instead of high-calibre offensive linemen that it would be a marketable media product and create cross-border hype. The USFL draft wasn’t that and the CFL would be no different.

In the end, all the evidence says that, at best, it would be another under-covered CFL offseason event with more reasons to tune out than to tune in. At worst, a poorly constructed CFL American draft would be harmful for talent acquisition.

We should absolutely be having conversations about how to better engage fans with the neg list and showcase rookie signings, but this is simply not one of them.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.