The CFL's 2014 season is in danger.
Negotiations between the league and the CFL Players' Association on a new collective bargaining agreement seem to have reached an impasse. The current agreement expires on May 29, so a deadline to reach a new CBA is looming.
CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon finally let his frustrations be known on May 21 when he sent out "An Open Letter to Canadian Football League Fans" via CFL.ca:
Out of respect for our players and the negotiation process, we have had little to say in public. But now that the talks have reached a critical juncture, I want to provide you, the most important people in the CFL, with an update.
Today, we have directly communicated to CFL players the full details of our offer to them. ...
Unfortunately, the union’s bargaining team has rejected this offer, and instead put forward an unrealistic proposal which, if adopted, would threaten the very existence of the CFL.
The details of the offer from the CFL were noted in another letter directed to the players and also posted to CFL.ca:
• Increase the salary cap by 9% this season from $4,400,000 to $4,800,000 per team (and further increasing by $50,000 each year over the following five years to $5,050,000)
• Effectively increase the average player salary up to 12% this season from $82,904 to $92,917 (and further increasing over the following five years)
• Increase the minimum player salary by 11% this season from $45,000 to $50,000 (and further increasing to $55,000 over the following five years)
• A further increase to the salary cap of $100,000 per team if the CFL receives more television revenue from TSN under a renegotiated broadcast agreement for each remaining year on the CBA
• Maintain the $450,000 annual payment to the CFLPA for Player marketing and other rights
This has been a long and difficult process for all involved. And when it comes right down to it, we just want to play. So, we have also offered to pay a ratification bonus of $3,000 to veteran Players and $1,000 to rookie Players (on a team roster as at June 22, 2014) if this agreement is ratified on or before June 2, 2014.
Player Safety & Welfare
• Immediately add two players to each team’s Active Roster
• Immediately restrict the number of contact practices during the regular season
• Maintain 2013 CFL policy to restrict the number of contact practices during training camp
• Maintain all current Player pension, medical plan and life insurance benefits
• Maintain all CFL annual payments for Player counselling and rehabilitation support under the CFL-CFLPA Drug Policy
To this point in the negotiation process, the commissioner's office has consistently chosen to keep the details of the talks quiet, but with the clock ticking, it seems they have decided to try to sway public opinion in their favor.
I don't think it's going to work.
CFLPA President Scott Flory responded via Facebook:
I want to start by saying how disappointed I am in the CFL’s decision to walk away from these very crucial negotiations. The unfortunate ones caught in the middle are you, the fans. We, the players, only want a fair deal that reflects the concept of Players sharing in the potential growth of what we have all built. ...
As professionals, we want to be fairly compensated for the fast pace, physical, entertaining game that is on the field. We are in not interested in destroying the game that has given us all so much. We put our bodies, hearts and souls on the line and seek nothing more than to be fairly paid for what we do.
We understand the limitations, but we also understand what is fair. It is unfortunate that the business side of the game has tarnished what we are building. We want to build a partnership where both sides benefit.
News of these latest developments in the CBA negotiation have been a hot topic on Twitter, with a number of people weighing in. Said Scott Mitchell, of the Calgary Sun:
The tone has been the same through three months of "negotiations." This isn't surprising at all, which is unfortunate. #CFL— Scott Mitchell (@SUNMitchell) May 21, 2014
Added Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish:
I'd invite those thinking we make "enough" to actually play in a CFL game but you'd have to take a pay cut :(— Jon Cornish (@jonnycornish) May 21, 2014
Cornish isn't entirely wrong either. According to StatCan, the average household income in Canada in 2011 was $79,600. That's $29,600 more than the minimum wage being proposed by the CFL for the 2014 season and only $13,317 less than the proposed average CFL salary.
In big Canadian cities, with big Canadian costs of living, this is a long way from giving players financial security during or past their playing days.
Granted, this isn't the NFL and the players shouldn't be expecting to earn NFL-sized wages, but these are highly trained professional athletes playing a very physically demanding sport. The fact that many of them are earning such a modest income probably comes as a surprise to many fans. Having the CFL's commissioner whining publicly about having to pay them a living wage will probably not engender much sympathy among fans.
When the NBA and NHL went through their recent battles—and work stoppages—fans I know got progressively more irritated listening to millionaires argue with billionaires over how to slice up the revenue pie. But the CFL is a different animal. The revenue stream is much smaller, and the payouts are much smaller across the board as a result.
Still, if Cohon's plan is to demonstrate to the fans that the CFL aren't the bad guys in this negotiation and that the players are just trying to milk the teams for a bunch of undeserved money, I don't think he's going to get the response he's hoping for.
In this regard, I think Cohon is making a mistake. If he's trying to get the fans on his side in order to put pressure on the CFLPA, this is the wrong tactic, and it is liable to backfire. The commissioner's office and the CFL may wind up on the wrong side of the fans they are trying to win over, instead putting the pressure on the league to make a deal the players are happy with.
Follow me on Twitter @calgaryjimbo.