Rey Williams has returned to Regina as a free agent, showing it's a destination.There's an interesting contrast in the CFL: the league's smallest city has its most financially powerful team. The success of the Saskatchewan Roughriders has long been cited as a crucial factor in CFL TV ratings (as flawed as those may be), and the team has been at the top of the league (or occasionally right near it) the top in television numbers, social media numbers and merchandise sales for years. The Riders' popularity with fans across the country was undoubtedly a factor in the CFL's massive new broadcast deal (now believed to be worth upwards of $40 million annually), too; they're far from the only reason for the league's success, but they're a big part of it. However, while the team's had solid fan support for decades, that hasn't always translated into attracting top players in free agency; for some time, Regina has been viewed as a harder sell than bigger cities for top free agents. As Murray McCormick writes in The Regina Leader-Post, that may be starting to change: the team's brought in big names like Geroy Simon, Ricky Foley, Rey Williams and Dwight Anderson so far this offseason, and Williams told McCormick Saskatchewan seems like an attractive destination for players these days:
“I know from being (in Saskatchewan previously) that it was a really great experience,’’ Williams said. “It’s a small league and people do talk. The fan support is amazing, it’s always sold out and there is no other city like it in the CFL during football season. If you’re a football guy and you’re big on football, then you want to play there. They take care of you when you’re playing football and even when you’re done. A lot of guys fall in love with the place and then they stay there for life. It’s an amazing place to play and to end your career.’’
A lot of those comments are based on the football-crazy atmosphere, though, and that's been there for most of the last few decades. What's changed recently? Well, the key difference may be the money the Riders have put into upgrading their facilities:
The Riders have improved their game in other ways, which helps draw players. The Mosaic Stadium locker room has been renovated and the Riders built a players’ lounge and updated workout space in the old Superstore.
”One of the knocks when I first got to Saskatchewan was the facilities,’’ Williams said. “They weren’t that good when you compared them to a place like Edmonton or B.C. or even Calgary. Now (the Riders) have pretty nice facilities and they had to do that to keep up with the rest of the league.’’
That's a smart decision on the part of the team. In a league where the salary cap's so low, it's difficult to translate an off-field financial advantage into an on-field one, as you can't often offer much more money than other teams. (The Riders have exceeded the cap before, but the penalties for substantial cap violations are stiff enough to deter teams from routinely doing so). However, you can translate that extra money into facility upgrades and hiring sought-after coaches (another factor Williams cites), which can make your team more compelling for free agents even if you can't necessarily offer them more money than other squads. Creating a good environment players will speak positively of is crucial, and the Riders seem to have been able to do that in recent years.
What's going to be really interesting to see is how the Riders' financial advantages play out once the new TV contract kicks in next year. The CFL's CBA expires following the 2013 season, and you can bet the players' union will be lobbying for a substantial increase in the salary cap in the next CBA given how much teams are hauling in these days. A dramatically-boosted cap would probably be much better news for the Riders than it would for most other teams; at the moment, most teams spend close to the cap, but if it rises significantly, there may start to be notable differences in what the wealthy teams and the poorer teams spend on salaries. If that comes to pass, Saskatchewan could really use their financial edge to gain an on-field edge. From a league-wide standpoint, though, a cap that every team can spend to is much more beneficial from a parity standpoint (but it will be harder to sell to players).
We'll see which outcome comes to pass, but the Riders should be okay either way. If a sky-high cap comes in, they're sitting pretty, but if it doesn't, they've made substantial investments in facilities and coaches that can help them compete even without outspending everyone on contracts. There's always more that can be done, though, and what could be really interesting is say, if the cap stays low and Saskatchewan decides to start hiring four or five more big-name coaches than any other team. For the moment, the Riders seem to have used their off-field advantages to overcome the recruitment disadvantages of playing in a small market and level the playing field. Now, the question is if they can tilt that playing field towards them.