One-year contracts have been a disaster for the CFL

Upon seeing the huge, ridiculous and official list of potential free agents — 223 players! — it’s obvious the Canadian Football League needs to re-implement the mandatory option-year clauses in its players’ contracts.

The current free-agency rules are in danger of seriously damaging the league’s ability to engage its fans.

Each of the nine teams has between 21 to 31 players who can become free agents if they don’t re-sign with their current squad before Feb. 14. The Grey Cup-winning Ottawa Redblacks have the most potential free agents, with 31, which means that each franchise could lose roughly one-third of the players they had on their active roster and injury lists.

And it’s not just the minions. Many of the CFL’s top players are potential free agents, including Calgary Stampeders defensive end Charleston Hughes, B.C. Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian, Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant and Redblacks receivers Ernest Jackson and Greg Ellingson.

Granted, many of the players will re-up with their current squads, but losing stars to rival franchises or to the National Football League damages the connection between teams and their fans who develop affection for the best players. Witness the number of Durant jerseys seen during Rider games at Mosaic Stadium and the acknowledgement Hughes receives following every sack at McMahon Stadium.

Before 2010, CFL contracts contained mandatory option-year clauses. Anyone signing one-year-plus-an-option was bound to his team for a second year, at the club’s option, with the option year containing a specified salary bump of five, 10, 20 per cent…

Players entering the option years of their contracts were allowed out of their pacts if an NFL team came calling during the allotted time frame, known as the “NFL window.” (CFL free agents could also sign with NFL teams after their contract expired.)

NFL salaries are much larger than CFL salaries, so the option-year clause allowed players to pursue bigger dreams by signing with an NFL team. If they didn’t make an NFL roster, the players were contractually bound to rejoin their CFL team for the remainder of the specific contract.

A revamped collective bargaining between the CFL and the CFL Players’ Association tossed out the option-year contract for all veteran players; rookies were still required to have an option year on their first contracts.

CFL teams believed it might slow the exodus of players to the NFL, while CFL players believed free agency would increase their salaries.

Because the CFL operates under a Salary Management System, overall salaries are supposed to be capped for each franchise. The 2016 cap was $5.1 million, with a $50,000 increase each of the next two seasons. So players can’t get huge raises. And the number of players joining NFL teams is growing: 16 left before the 2016 season, 12 before the 2015 season. Most don’t make the NFL, so they return to Canada.

With 223 players poised to hit the open market, the exodus and turnover can truly hurt the fans’ abilities to identify with their favourite teams and players. The option-year clause used to seem far too restrictive and it gave the CFL teams too much control over their players. Having witnessed the other option, it’s time to bring back the option-year clause.

Darrell Davis

Darrell Davis

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.
Darrell Davis
Darrell Davis
About Darrell Davis (124 Articles)
Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.

25 Comments on One-year contracts have been a disaster for the CFL

  1. Adrian DeCorby // December 8, 2016 at 11:15 am //

    44 man rosters, plus 10 man practise rosters. For 9 teams that’s 486 CFL players. Obviously there are more counting injuries and expanded rosters, but 223 FA’s is 40-45% of the league.

    Even 2 year deals seem too short, think back to the legendary CFL players and you remember them as players for one team or maybe 2…. now is this system, there is no way for fans to be engaged and fall in love with “their players”… they are basically just junior or minor league players now, gone in 2-3 years. Got to bring back longer contracts. But clearly teams not offering Guaranteed contracts is the problem. If the team doesn’t have to pay out your contract they can all sign for 5-10 years but still be cut out of training camp. maybe take a play out of other sports and start by guaranteeing player contracts like they do for coaches or other Pro sports

  2. Sorry, but you’re so wrong.

    Football careers are short, salaries are not guaranteed, players have limited mobility as it is (there are only 41 employers that provide gainful employment), and (between the NCAA and CIS) there’s 6000 new replacements every year.

    The players have precious little leverage and should have every opportunity to maximize their earnings potential. If a team wants to keep a player, they can find a way … don’t blame the players.

    • jimmy breslin // December 8, 2016 at 11:37 am //

      Fully agree with Quint and this analysis, the teams hold all the cards if you want your fans to feel a sense of partnership, a bond, arrange to keep your players longer. CFL salaries are already a complete joke even with the talent moving all over the place, sign them to 5 year deals and develop them so fans can identify with their team. Nobody buys a ticket to go watch management negotiate deals. It’s the players stupid….

      • Terry Baxter // December 8, 2016 at 1:14 pm //

        A player would be crazy to sign a five year deal. The system as it stands now with one yeR contracts, players could conceivable get a nice raise every year by either resigning with current team or moving on. The days of long term contracts are gone. Most you will see are three year deals. This sucks for the fans but is good for the players. The player who will stay with one team throughout his career will be very rare.

  3. I agree with @quint.

    Restoring the option year doesn’t reduce the # of players wanting to try their NFL chances, and in fact, it allows some players (like Euclid Cummings or Jeff Fuller) to play partial seasons and contribute without relinquishing next year’s shot. Darrell should wait until he sees how many of the 223 actually make it to Feb 15 as free agents before he starts ringing the alarm bells.

  4. I hate one-year contracts for all the reasons mentioned in this article. But I do get why it’s beneficial for the players. I don’t know where the happy medium is on this issue.

  5. I agree with Quint. The fact that a team can cut a player at any time and void his contract, should allow for players to not be bound to a long term contract. All the benefits went to the team with the previous contracts. That certainly isn’t right.

  6. Davis is complaining about the fans inability to identify with their favorite players? He should have looked at his own Riders who set a RECORD for most players on the active roster in a single season. They also cut fan favorites BEFORE their contract expired. Where is the team loyalty to players there? There is none.

    It’s not just the Riders. Players in all leagues are treated like a piece of meat. If the CFLPA thinks these short contracts are beneficial to them, I rather support them then GM’s who cut established players in favor of rookies who would play for $1 less but usually at the minimum.

    • Terry Baxter // December 8, 2016 at 1:38 pm //

      I agree with what you are saying. GMs for a very long time held the whip hand wrt players. However, I think it has gone too far the other way now. Fans lose I think. A league is much better when players are in a city long term and becomes part of community etc. as well, I think teams would do better with merchandise sales if a fan thought players were staying for the long haul. But alas…players should make as much as they can while they can.

      • jimmy breslin // December 8, 2016 at 2:54 pm //

        Probably didn’t make my point clear enough, when I say long term contract – 5 years – I mean the team would be as committed to the player as he might be to them. Guarantee the contract for at least 50% of the term, if not longer, you need not raise the salary that much but at least let the player understand he can set roots in the community knowing he would not be cut or traded five days after camp breaks. Security vs big 1 year deal which can be tossed aside in any event at any given moment.

  7. It’s too early to conclude that it’s a disaster. It’s only a potential disaster if the majority of that group decides to bail to another team. But there are only so many options to these free agents.

    I think it encourages team to create an environment where guys don’t even WANT to leave. A couple of the guys have re-signed so far and I believe most are for two years. so the one-year contract doesn’t seem to be a huge deal, at least not yet.

    • Terry Baxter // December 10, 2016 at 11:27 am //

      Oh see, CC Rider, oh see what the league has done.
      With these one year deals….
      Many favorite players are gone.

  8. Ok we all know CFL players are under paid that’s a give in. We also know that football careers are short, Eric Norwood 4 yrs and a great player. We also have to admit that there isn’t as much money in the CFL as most other pro leagues. That said I still think the on field talent should see more money.

    Now lets look at the other side, the average fan which I think most of this article was directed at. Most fans don’t want to see there favorite players on the move year after year let alone going to a rival. So one year contracts aren’t good for the teams fan base which in turn isn’t good for the team, the league or the player. if fan support drops off so does revenue. Sure we can all agree on that. The biggest problem I see in the league is the Canadian content rule. Yes I think we need to have it to keep the CFL different and truly Canadian but I think it needs to be tweaked. I believe there use to be a rule that if as a player you stayed with one team for five plus years you became essentially a non import. You lost that status if you chose to use free agency and move to another team. Now I could just have imagined this but I’m too lazy to look it up in my archive of CFL books.If not I think this would be a great way to give player the incentive to stay with one team and the team incentive to pay those players better salaries.

    • I do think @Shon’s onto something. I think a player who spends five years with one team should be eligible for National status. I would add the following caveat: if they obtain permanent residency or citizenship. The International player who makes Canada his home should get this benefit but I think if it’s applied on a wider basis it will undermine the growth of domestic home grown talent.

      • I hate that idea. We’re already at the point that a guy might have never spent a day in the country but qualifies because his mom is Canadian (see Bladek story from earlier this week). Now let’s “convert” Americans to non-import because they’ve been around a while.

        Are we going to reach a point when nearly all the “non-imports” are
        American-born? Here’s a better idea; invest in the amateur levels and improve REAL Canadian talent instead of finding ways of making Americans Canadian. Otherwise, just stop pretending and make it easy on yourself; eliminate the ratio altogether.

        • I agree. Both of the running backs on the CFL Allstar team are Canuck. Don’t think that has ever happened before. Keep developing Canadian talent and Canadian stars that won’t jump to the NFL

      • You mean like Burris where something like fifteen plus years of employment in the CFL as well as being in Canada permanently since 2005 is less effective when applying for citizenship than being a recommended “skilled” laborer that gets citizenship in five years?

  9. Solara2000 // December 8, 2016 at 6:21 pm //

    “Who’s on first” (the famous Abbot and Costello skit) comes to mind. I don’t know if the option year solution would give some stability and fan-attachment to CFL rosters but it sure can’t make things any worse. Heck, fans have more familiarization with their Major Jr Hockey Franchises. So let’s see “Who” is at QB, “Because” is @Wide Receiver………”.

  10. Lindsay Wilcox // December 8, 2016 at 6:53 pm //

    The barn door was left open and the horse ran away. Closing the barn door now will leave a lot of unhappy horses, and will not bring back those who ran away, or make those who stayed cheaper to feed. And an attempt might make the horses who stayed go on a sit-down strike.

  11. They could make it one year plus an option within the CFL, but allow players the right to postpone their option year for the NFL (and still owe the option year to the same CFL club if they return)

  12. That’s how it used to be prior to 2010.

  13. skinpiglet // December 9, 2016 at 12:15 pm //

    Darrell, what percentage of the 223 potential free agents had one year deals in 2016? Your article is somewhat misleading because you named a number of potential free agents that are coming off multi-year contracts (eg. Ellingson, E Jackson, Durant, Hughes) rather than the one year deals you’re arguing against.

  14. Ticat Mike // December 11, 2016 at 6:41 pm //

    Constant player turnover is a problem for the league and the fan base. I’d like to see 2 year minimum contracts a more 3 year type contracts. Would also be good to designate any American residing in Canada year round playing in the leauge for say a minimum 3 years as a Canadian like they did in the old days. Gotta be able to retain good talent here and fan identity with its players. My two cents.

    • Terry Baxter // December 12, 2016 at 10:46 am //

      I agree Mike. But I fear those days have long gone. In order to keep more money in their pockets, teams gave up any control over players over the long term. Greed and stupidity. Again the CFL shoots itself in the foot

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