June 22, 2018

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Opinion

Last season for teams with means to stack deck

Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Chris Jones, and other members of his coaching staff send signals in to the game from the sidelines. Jones thinks he will have to lay off at least four members from his current coaching staff of 15 prior to next season to comply with a new CFL operations cap.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Chris Jones, and other members of his coaching staff send signals in to the game from the sidelines. Jones thinks he will have to lay off at least four members from his current coaching staff of 15 prior to next season to comply with a new CFL operations cap.

Call it the Regina Rule.

When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos kick off the 2018 regular season Thursday evening at Investors Group Field, it will mark the beginning of the end for a competitive imbalance that has always existed in the CFL but which no one has been willing to do anything about, until now.

The 2018 CFL season will be the final one in which the league’s nine teams will be allowed to spend as much as they want off the field to put together the best team on it.

Beginning in 2019, CFL teams will have to abide by a new salary cap off the field just as they already do on it. The new salary cap for football operations will be $2.7 million in 2019, just over half the $5.2 million CFL teams are allowed to spend on players.

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Call it the Regina Rule.

When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos kick off the 2018 regular season Thursday evening at Investors Group Field, it will mark the beginning of the end for a competitive imbalance that has always existed in the CFL but which no one has been willing to do anything about, until now.

The 2018 CFL season will be the final one in which the league’s nine teams will be allowed to spend as much as they want off the field to put together the best team on it.

Beginning in 2019, CFL teams will have to abide by a new salary cap off the field just as they already do on it. The new salary cap for football operations will be $2.7 million in 2019, just over half the $5.2 million CFL teams are allowed to spend on players.

That’s a huge — and long overdue — change to the way the CFL does things and it speaks volumes about the existing disparity in how the league’s nine teams do business off the field that teams like the Saskatchewan Roughriders are already talking about significant layoffs and salary reductions to get under next year’s operations cap while teams like the Bombers are simply shrugging their shoulders.

"Not a thing," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea responded on Wednesday when I asked him what, if anything, his team would have to do to get under the new operations cap.

Compare that answer to the one Roughriders head coach Chris Jones gave to reporters in Regina last week when he was asked the same question.

"Everybody is going to have to take a pay cut," Jones told reporters, adding that list included himself.

That will be in addition to job losses in Regina, said Jones, who currently employs 15 coaches and will have to layoff at least four prior to next season to comply with the new operations cap.

In addition to capping the salaries of football operations staff, the new policy also sets maximum numbers on how many coaches CFL teams can employ (11) and other operations staff (17), a list that includes positions such as general manager, scouts, equipment staff and trainers.

An analysis by the CFL blog, 3downnation, found a total of 13 assistant coaches across the CFL would have to be laid off if the new cap was in place today.

The Bombers, with 10 coaches on the payroll, are already under the cap in terms of the number of coaches. Winnipeg is tied with Calgary, B.C. and Ottawa for the smallest coaching staffs in the league.

Both the Riders and the Toronto Argonauts have the most bloated coaching staffs at 15, followed by the Montreal Alouettes with 14, the Edmonton Eskimos with 13 and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with 11.

Put it all together and this will be the last season in the CFL in which teams with means — I’m looking at you, Regina — or owners with deep pockets — I’m looking at you Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton — can simply outspend their opponents off the field to try and gain a competitive advantage on it.

In a league that has always had a wide gulf between the have’s and have-not’s, that’s a change that was badly needed and it should go a long way to controlling what had become a self-defeating spending war among CFL teams in recent years.

League commissioner Randy Ambrosie said earlier this month team expenses have been growing five per cent a year in the CFL, while team revenues have been rising just 1.3 per cent annually over the same period.

That’s simply unsustainable in a league in which many of the teams are already shoe-string operations and a successful season in many CFL cities is still judged not on whether the team turns a profit but rather on whether losses were kept to a manageable level.

The Bombers have long been one of the league’s most, well, let’s call it "thrifty" teams, with a miserly streak that goes back to the days former GM Cal Murphy considered dogs chasing tennis balls to be a top-quality halftime show.

Things hit rock bottom for the Bombers in the Joe Mack era, when the club’s scouting department consisted of Mack, a U.S.-based assistant and some scribbled napkins.

Indeed, if you’re looking for reasons why the Bombers' Grey Cup drought enters its 28th season Thursday night, you can put a lot of the blame for the franchise’s inability to put together a championship team on the field on its steadfast refusal to invest off of it.

Now, a lot of that has changed in recent years under the leadership of Bombers president Wade Miller and GM Kyle Walters, both of whom have thrown big resources at rebuilding the club’s scouting department and spending what it takes to make sure the Bombers are at least as competitive off the field as they are on it.

But it speaks volumes about far the Bombers still have to go to close the spending gap with our cash-rich rivals to the immediate west that in a month the Riders are already talking about laying off coaches and issuing mass pay cuts, O’Shea seemed surprised Thursday I was even asking him about it.

"We haven’t even spoken about it. Really," said O’Shea.

The Riders, of course, have long been the league’s anomaly, awash in green in a province they have painted the same colour. They are the big fish — the only fish, really — in a very small pond and for a long time now have had, quite literally, more money than they could spend.

And they are not the only ones. With MLSE — the same company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and FC Toronto — officially taking over ownership of the Argos this winter, there are also now owners with very deep pockets in place in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Hamilton who were also capable of simply spending their way to competitiveness if something wasn’t done about it.

The Bombers will win or lose on the field this season, of course. And a pre-season injury to starting QB Matt Nichols, which will keep him out of the lineup at least the first four weeks and force the Bombers to send a raw rookie in Chris Streveler up against the Eskimos in the season opener Thursday night, shows how fickle even the best — and most well-financed — plans are when the actual players take the field.

But that’s the thing — football should be won and lost on the field, not in the boardroom by the guys with the deepest pockets.

It’s long past time the playing field was levelled for every team in the CFL.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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Updated on Thursday, June 14, 2018 at 8:26 AM CDT: Adds byline

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