Opinion: It’s time for CFL salaries to be made public

Photo courtesy: Deposit Photos

Fans of most sports love free agency.

Aspiring armchair general managers can quickly check online to see the salary cap status of their favourite team, how long contracts go, and what the team’s financial future could look like.

Those numbers allow for the most ardent fans to keep the discussion going year-round, proposing potential trades and generally keeping their sport front of mind.

For those who follow the CFL, this isn’t possible. It’s far past time for the league to rectify that by publishing player contract details.

The Tiger-Cats loaded up with talent once free agency opened after having already signed Bo Levi Mitchell in the offseason. Hamilton added Ja’Gared Davis, Jameer Thurman, Fraser Sopik, James Butler, Duke Williams, Kwaku Boateng, Joel Figueroa, and Javien Elliott. That doesn’t even include the re-signings of Matthew Shiltz, Sean Thomas-Erlington, and Tim White.

This isn’t to say that some high-priced talent hasn’t moved on this offseason or that something malicious is afoot. However, the point is that fans of the league have no idea where the Ticats — or any of the other eight teams in the league for that matter — are situated financially.

Have players been taking less to play in Hamilton with a view toward a championship? Did ownership say: “Cap penalties be damned. Just end this drought.” And show a willingness to exceed the soft cap provided by the Salary Management System currently in place.

Those are great questions that fans would love to be able to discuss and yet no supporters can answer them. That is until this time next season when the cap auditing process is completed — though that only tells us if franchises were ultimately compliant with the system.

In Calgary, head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson told reporters that the Stampeders are expecting to spend “to the cap, if not a little over” this season.

“It’s my first shot at it,” Dickenson said. “I don’t know how it worked in the past, but what I’ve done is modelled my budget after what (former general manager and current team president John Hufnagel) had done.”

Some may question his assertion, given that Calgary has lost several talented players and thus far only added defensive end Julian Howsare and linebacker Micah Awe. Dickenson believes there is a reason for that disparity when looking around the league.

“Some teams, maybe, are spending quite a bit more than the cap, and then they try and manage it,” he said. “We have a comfort level here that I’ve seen Huf work with for years and we are going to stay with that.”

Ways teams can “manage” the cap include utilizing the six-game injured list — as players on the list are not counted towards the cap — or attempting to renegotiate deals with players in training camp, threatening to cut them at a time when most teams have already made financial commitments for the year or releasing them before roster bonuses are due.

Call me a conspiracist, but watching Andrew Harris return from a near season-long injury last year after only playing half a season the year before and pocketing a pair of Grey Cup rings with two different franchises seems off. One of the highest-priced talents in the league making his full contract value while the team was on the cap hook for less than half two years in a row sure does present itself as a competitive advantage.

I may be completely out of line with that suggestion. The point here is there is no way to know the financial ramifications of any move because the league hides this information.

3DownNation often reports salary information as it’s obtained by insider Justin Dunk or colleagues John Hodge and J.C. Abbott. While Abbott attempted to put together a salary cap picture for every team last year. This has led to unnecessary friction with some players unhappy with financial information being public.

The Canadian Football League Players’ Association plays a role in this as well, as they have traditionally fought for making players’ information private. However, by joining all other major sports leagues and making salaries public, they could do away with the perception that CFL players subside on scraps, instead of being relatively well-compensated within the Canadian marketplace.

The 2023 minimum base salary for CFL players is $70,000. That does not include some additional forms of compensation that many athletes receive, including singing bonuses, playtime or statistical incentives, housing payments, per diems, and playoff bonus money.

The average person aged 25-34 in this country makes $46,900 annually, according to Statistics Canada. In fact, there is not a single age group of people who exceed the CFL’s minimum salary as an average with the 45-54 group coming closest at $66,700 for a year’s work.

In the United States, average salaries range from $35,568 to $60,944 over the course of an adult’s typical working career.

I’m not about to say that being a professional football player hasn’t become a full-time, year-round job with training and caring for your body, but this perception of the lunch-bucket-carrying player who desperately seeks employment between Grey Cup and training camp is no longer accurate either.

South of the border, there is no such narrative around the upstart XFL being a league where players are barely getting paid because those numbers are public. Salaries there are set for most players at $5,000 USD per game for a 10-game season, plus a $1,000 win bonus that could move that number to $60,000 USD for a perfect season — just over $80,000 Canadian. Being on a winless team would net a player $67,395 CDN, less than the CFL minimum base salary.

All CFL players make comparable money and most earn more before taxes but ask the average fan and they are likely to tell you that the XFL will steal players based purely on the financials.

A Canadian institution in his own right, Ed the Sock even recently tweeted the perception that the CFL is “lesser than.”

Shortly after this tweet was posted, some players jumped into the top one percent of all wage earners in Canada, calculated as anyone making more than $258,034 CDN in 2022. Many others are now in the top five percent threshold which sits at $132,493 CDN.

This cone of silence the league and CFLPA have agreed upon damages the league from a perception as well as an engagement standpoint.

It’s time to make the change — show me the money.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Go Stamps Go Show Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.