Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFLPA has tough road to negotiate

Evidence suggests CFL, currently at an impasse in talks to hammer out a new labour deal, may already be overpaying its players

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The CFLPA argues a new, lucrative, television deal should mean revenue-sharing for the players.

PAUL CHIASSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

The CFLPA argues a new, lucrative, television deal should mean revenue-sharing for the players.

It is the stark reality of the society in which we live that a man's worth in the workplace is judged by the laws of supply and demand.

There are not many people who can perform heart surgery -- and we really, really need those few who can -- so we pay heart surgeons big bucks. Conversely, anyone in possession of a computer and a TV can be a sports writer -- to marginal social benefit -- so we pay those people accordingly.

Thanks Poindexter, you're saying, but what's with the sociology lecture this morning?

My point is this: When you boil down the ongoing labour dispute between the CFL and the CFL Players Association, it seems to come down to a fundamental disagreement over what the value of a pro football player should be in the marketplace.

The CFL players argue their skills are in short supply -- have you tried blocking a 300-pound lineman lately? -- and the demand for them is increasing. Just look, they say, at the packed CFL stadiums and the lucrative new TV deal the CFL signed with TSN.

Conversely, the CFL argues football players are plentiful. North American colleges pump out thousands of football players every year and the demand for their services is very low -- there are only a handful of professional football leagues in the entire world and only two of them, the NFL and CFL, pay an actual living wage.

Put those two diametrically opposed viewpoints on opposite sides of the bargaining table and you have an intractable labour dispute. It's why, with just 10 days to go before the current CBA expires, there will be a palpable sense of urgency in the air when the CFL and CFLPA meet in Toronto this morning for the latest in what has been a mostly fruitless string of bargaining sessions.

In case you've missed it, the CFLPA is demanding the CFL return to a revenue-sharing model as a condition of any new collective bargaining agreement, while the league is refusing to yield more than some modest increases to the current $4.4 million salary cap.

The two sides were miles apart in their opening positions --the CFLPA wanted 56 per cent of league revenues, while the league responded with a salary cap that would slowly rise to $5 million in Year 8 of a new deal. Since then, there's been some modest softening of positions and some new proposals, but basically the two sides are still miles apart coming into today.

So what is a team of CFL players actually worth? And are they worth more this season simply because the CFL signed a new TV deal with TSN worth nearly the triple the old deal?

Perhaps the best way to answer those questions might be to leave aside, for a moment, what the players are worth to the CFL and consider instead simply what those players are worth on the open market?

The answer -- and it's a sobering one to the CFL players and their union -- is not a whole heck of a lot. While there are millions to be made playing pro football on this continent, those millions are reserved almost exclusively for the handful of players good enough to play in the NFL.

While you can argue there are probably a few overlooked CFL players who deserve to get a chance to play in the NFL -- and every year one or two successfully make that jump -- the cold, hard reality is the overwhelming number of CFL players simply aren't good enough to play in the NFL, otherwise they would be.

So the NFL and its millions is immaterial to determining the value of a CFLer in the current marketplace. Instead, the more relevant comparison would be with other leagues on this continent in which CFL players could actually compete en masse for jobs.

And what emerges when you do that comparison is the CFL is not only already paying players more than any other league other than the NFL, you could actually make the case the CFL is overpaying them, even under the existing CBA.

Consider: The next highest-paying league after the CFL is the Arena Football League, where the players got a "big raise" in their most recent contract, jumping to $830 per game in 2013 from $400 per game in 2012. That number will rise to $925 per game when the current AFL contract with its players expires in 2017. (Starting quarterbacks in the AFL get a bonus of $250 per game, rising to $350 per game in 2017.)

To put all of that in context, the worst-paid player in the CFL earns a minimum of $46,000 per season, or $2,555 per game over the course of an 18-game regular season. And starting quarterbacks in the CFL earn, on average, at least five times that amount.

So, even the worst-paid CFL players earn triple what the next highest-paid pro football players in North America earn. And that's after Arena players got a big raise recently.

It just gets worse from a player's perspective after that, with little known other North American football leagues like the IFL, CIFL, CPIFL and PDFL all nothing more than semi-pro loops with players earning -- when their cheques don't bounce -- $100-$400 per game.

European leagues are even a bigger joke, with many players playing for nothing more than room and board.

That's the current marketplace for pro football players: If you're not good enough to play in the NFL, there is nowhere other than the CFL where you can earn a living wage playing pro football. Nowhere. It's not even close.

All of which would seem to suggest that in the current round of negotiations, the CFLPA has the unenviable task of not only negotiating against the CFL, but also trying to convince the CFL to negotiate against itself.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2014 D1

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