Blue Bomber Report Record: 7–11–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tough talk heats up CFL labour showdown

Players warn strike could happen if league continues to stonewall on revenue sharing

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It's fitting that the CFL Players Association will hold its annual meeting in Las Vegas this weekend.

If you believe all the bold talk coming out of the CFLPA right now, they're about to roll the dice on a high-stakes gamble the likes of which we haven't seen in Canadian football in 40 years.

To hear the players tell it, times have never been better in the CFL than they are right now: a record new league broadcasting rights deal with TSN; brand-new stadiums opened or opening all over the league; and a shiny new franchise set to begin play this summer in Ottawa.

And it's precisely because times are so good that the players say it's time they finally got rewarded for their efforts in making it so, especially after decades of making concessions to a financially troubled league where players, more than once over the years, had to race each other to the bank lest their paycheque be the one that bounced.

"The players in this league have always been the last ones in the food chain, even though we're the ones putting fans in the stands," said one veteran CFL player this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Well, the CFLPA has a ton of leverage right now. And there's really a feeling among the players right now that it's finally our turn to get paid."

The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the CFLPA expires at the end of May, just as training camps are set to open in advance of the highly anticipated 2014 CFL season.

But for reasons no one quite understands -- the players blame the delay on the league -- the two parties didn't even exchange their first proposals on a new agreement until earlier this month.

And that's as far as the process has gotten. After seeing each other's first proposals, the two parties promptly cancelled three days of talks scheduled for earlier this month, with the players saying there was no point in even meeting if the league wasn't willing to consider what one of several players interviewed described as their "line in the sand" -- a return to the same kind of revenue sharing the CFLPA used to enjoy, when there was a lot less revenue to share.

"The league told us this month that there'd be absolultely no discussion of profit-sharing going forward," the player said.

"And if they're not going to negotiate, then there was no point in meeting."

There are more talks scheduled for April and another player said the CFLPA will almost certainly be at the table to try to nudge the process forward. But if there's no progress, the same player said CFL fans shouldn't underestimate the resolve of players.

"I could see a strike happening -- I really could -- just based on how negotiations have gone so far," the player said.

Now, we'd love to tell you the league's version of events so far, but the league isn't talking and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon has even reportedly threatened teams with major fines if they speak publicly about the ongoing negotiations.

"We're not granting interviews on this topic at this time," CFL communications representative Jamie Dykstra wrote in reponse to a request to interview Cohon.

Neither are the Blue Bombers.

"Unfortunately not," responded club spokesman Darren Cameron. "I have to refer you to the league office on this. Sorry."

The Bombers, of course, have perhaps more to lose in a work stoppage than anyone. That's because the club is on the hook to make its mortgage payment on Investors Group Field this year -- about $4.5 million -- regardless of whether there's any football played there or not.

And that new mortgage payment the Bombers are on the hook for is also illustrative of how the league isn't quite so flush with cash as the players contend. Consider: While the players are making much of a record new $40-million-per-year TV deal the league signed with TSN, it's worth noting that the Bombers' cut of that TV money works out to a little less than $4 million per season.

Yes, a lot of that is new money Winnipeg never had before under an old TV deal that was worth about one-third the new one. But then the Bombers also never before had a $4.5-million mortgage payment either.

The only one talking on the record this week was CFLPA president Mike Morreale -- and even then, not about specifics.

Morreale said he's spent the past year preparing for these talks and meeting with his counterparts in other players unions, including the head of the NHLPA, Donald Fehr.

Morreale says he was particularly interested to learn from Fehr how the NHLPA kept the hockey players so united during last season's lengthy lockout -- something Morreale knows he'll have to replicate if he takes the CFLPA out on what would be only it's second strike and first in 40 years.

But Morreale's still hopeful it doesn't come to that.

"The most important thing is that we continue to meet," he said.

"Signing a collective agreement prior to the start of the season would just be to the benefit of everyone."

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 C3

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