June 2010 saw the CFL and its players' association sign a new four-year collective bargaining agreement only days before the start of the season. That deal brought in several highly-publicized changes, including the revamping of the distribution of revenue between players and teams, the boosting of minimum salaries and pension-plan contributions, the creation of a drug-testing policy and the allowance of voluntary off-season workout camps for veterans. However, one of the more under-the-radar changes has had one of the largest impacts on the league, and it hasn't all been positive. Two years in, here's a look at what the elimination of the NFL option year has meant for the CFL.
Simply put, the option year was a frequent clause in contracts that gave players an early out if the NFL came calling. It's understandable why CFL executives wanted to get rid of it; at the time of the 2010 negotiations, the league had seen several prominent players depart for the NFL after just one CFL season, including 2009 Most Outstanding Rookie Martell Mallett and 2008 B.C. Lions' star Stefan Logan. Knocking out the option year meant that CFL teams would have players for at least two years, and in many quarters, that was seen as a desirable goal. The move's had some unintended consequences, though, and it's drawn substantial criticism from everyone from Wally Buono to Arash Madani.
Why has the removal of the option year come under fire? Well, a side effect of eliminating the option year is all of a sudden, CFL contracts are much more restrictive than they used to be. Players who sign with a CFL team are stuck there for at least two years. While that's desirable for the teams, it's not as desirable for the players; keep in mind that the NFL minimum salary of $390,000 is more than just about every CFL player makes. The NFL's also a bigger stage and closer to home for American players, so it's not surprising that just about every football player's goal is to make it to that level. The CFL's proven to be a solid pipeline to the NFL, especially in recent years (six of the eight CFL players who signed with the NFL before the 2011 season were still with NFL teams at the end of that year), but the elimination of the option year (which has been used recently by everyone from Andy Fantuz to Jerome Messam) is likely to make the northern league a less attractive pathway for American players looking to get a big four-down football contract.
Of course, this only matters if there are serious alternatives, and the CFL has been lucky on that front thus far. The United Football League's ongoing issues have kept many players from going that route, and while the Arena Football League is still around, it hasn't been as strong since its top-tier league cancelled its 2009 season. Both have still managed to draw some talent away from the CFL, though, and the new United States Football League may be even a larger threat; its solid-looking structure, spring schedule and ties to the NFL could make it a desirable league for many players. The CFL will still draw plenty of talented Americans, of course, but removing the option year has reduced the league's appeal as an easy path to the NFL, and that may hurt it when competing with U.S.-based circuits for top players.
The elimination of the option year also may be hurting the CFL's ability to sign Canadians; it was cited as a key sticking point in the contentious Henoc Muamba contract negotiations last season, and it's likely the lack of an option year has been a factor in the wave of CIS players returning to school instead of signing with CFL teams. If players like Frédéric Plesius signed with the CFL team that drafted them, they'd be stuck north of the border for two seasons, whereas if they returned to school, they have the option to test the NFL waters again after the season. Whether specific guys like Plesius have legitimate NFL shots is very much up for debate, but the increasing numbers of Canadian and CIS-trained players finding landing spots south of the border certainly promotes the idea that the NFL is a quickly-attainable dream. That encourages players to stay away from deals that will lock them in.
What worked well about the option year is that it was a classic high-level bonus, a reward everyone wanted but few were actually able to obtain. For all the prominent option-year defections, many more players hit their option year, received little to no NFL interest and were obligated to stay with their current CFL teams; thus, including option years in contracts generally worked out very well for teams, as they were able to land talent they might not have otherwise and only actually lost a small fraction of that talent. With the removal of the option year, players will stay with their CFL teams throughout their contracts, but that may motivate less top players to sign with the CFL in the first place. This will be an issue worth watching over the next few years, and it's something that might be worth reconsidering when the current CBA expires following the 2013 season.