Welcome to another week of 12 Audibles, our regular look at storylines from around the CFL. This time around, we start with a look at the odd rule that means teams can still sign and immediately play anyone off the street, but if they sign players released after last week's trade deadline (like Montreal receivers Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford), can't play them until next year.
1. The trade deadline release rule. Two CFL teams made similar and odd decisions recently to release talented receivers, with the Toronto Argonauts cutting Vidal Hazelton, Tori Gurley and Kevin Elliott (their top three receivers in 2015) on October 3 and the Montreal Alouettes releasing Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford (their top receiver this year and a young, talented deep threat respectively) on Monday (October 17). However, the released players are now in very different situations. All aren't going to be paid for the remainder of the season by the teams that cut them because they're less than four-year veterans (although Stafford has been in the league for four seasons, he's only played enough to count as a three-year veteran), but the Argos' trio have the opportunity to join other CFL teams and play immediately (and already have, with Hazelton, Gurley and Elliott signing with Edmonton, Winnipeg and Hamilton respectively). Carter and Stafford have the ability to sign with other CFL teams, but they can't play until next season thanks to being released after last Wednesday (Oct. 12)'s trade deadline. So, there's little incentive for anyone to add them now (except to lock out other teams).
If the trade deadline meant a total roster freeze, this would be more defensible, but it isn't a roster freeze at all. Teams can still sign and play anyone they want after the trade deadline as long as that player wasn't on an opponent's roster after the deadline. Plenty of teams announced signings this week of players without CFL backgrounds, and a few added those with CFL backgrounds like Hazelton. There's a long history of teams making late additions of veterans after the deadlines, sometimes even right before the playoffs. Some of the best examples include Bashir Levingston in 2007 (signed by Montreal Nov. 4), Jason Armstead in 2010 (signed by Edmonton Oct. 21), Larry Taylor in 2010 (signed by Montreal Oct. 25), and Nic Grigsby last year(signed by Edmonton Oct. 28).
Grigsby was involved in another interesting one. In 2014, he was cut by Winnipeg on the morning of deadline day (Oct. 15) and signed with Hamilton a week later, playing in three regular-season games and both playoff games. If he'd been cut hours later, he wouldn't have been able to do that. That illustrates how arbitrary this is, and how it gives far too much power to the team that releases players. Teams have also frequently added players after the deadline who weren't previously on CFL rosters, such as the Argos with Cory Greenwood in 2014 (Oct. 28) and the Alouettes this year with Chad Bushley (Oct. 15). It seems silly that both veterans and rookies are rewarded for not being good enough to stick with a CFL roster past the deadline, while those who are good enough to keep their place until late in the season are punished for it. But what about...
2. The CFL's response? I reached out to the league for clarification of the exact rule here and a potential defence of it. Here's what they sent (condensed into one paragraph):
The wording below from the CFL Bylaws have been in place for decades: Regarding the deadline, please review SECTION 8 – ELIGIBILITY OF PLAYERS, Paragraph 15 of the CFL By-Laws, which state: (a) A member Club may obtain a player from the roster of another Club after such deadline but that player shall not be eligible to play until the following year unless: (i) acquired by transfer, trade or purchase prior to the deadline and the Commissioner has been so notified prior to said deadline, or (b) A player who is a free agent as of the deadline shall be eligible to play for any member Club after that date. (c) A player deleted from a Club roster after the deadline, except as otherwise provided in this paragraph shall not be eligible to play for another member Club until the following year. This only applies to players who were active as of the deadline, and then released after the deadline. New players who were Free Agents as of the deadline (Chad Bushley in Montreal), can sign and play with any Club after the deadline. When players are released after the trade deadline, the only team they can play for again in the same season is the team that released them.
So, it is a firm two-tier system, where players who were on rosters after the deadline have no ability to play and anyone else does, and the defence appears to be just that it's been in place for decades. Mark Fulton suggested on Twitter that it's to prevent collusion between teams (essentially transferring a player after the deadline), but that doesn't really seem to be much of a legitimate fear. Teams that release a player have no further hold on them, and any team can make them an offer.
Yes, Team A could theoretically cut a player and tell him "sign a one-year deal with Team B and we'll re-sign you in the offseason," but the player isn't required to do that; any team could make him a better offer, both then or in the offseason. Moreover, this would require some sort of future concessions from Team B, and those couldn't be written out (or that would be illegal), so Team A would have to trust that Team B would in turn help them out later (not easy at the best of times, and that gets tougher if there are offseason management changes). Kickbacks, third-party ownership and interference with other teams' players are all prohibited by league rules, too, so there appear to be other rules that do more than enough to prevent this sort of non-trade trade.
Of course, this rule doesn't kick into effect a ton, as there aren't too many prominent players released late in the year who then become desirable targets for other clubs. Some of the issue here is on Montreal for waiting to release these guys until after the deadline, rather than trading or cutting them by the deadline. This has happened at least once before, though, in 2011 when Winnipeg cut Terrence Jeffers-Harris just before a East Final matchup with Hamilton and the Tiger-Cats promptly signed him; he wasn't allowed to play until the next year, but was able to give them some tips on the Bombers. (That didn't help, though, as Winnipeg won 19-3 and advanced to the Grey Cup.)
Generally, teams aren't dumb enough to cut players with clear value, whether that's before or after the deadline, but the cases of Jeffers-Harris, Carter and Stafford show they sometimes are. It seems highly unfair that the players in question are then punished for the team's decision by having their ability to work restricted. That's particularly unfair when it comes to those whose contracts aren't yet guaranteed; they're not paid by their old team, and they can't easily get paid by a new team (unless someone wants to sign them for next year, but even that's restricting their opportunities; the market's usually much better in the offseason when every team's reevaluating its roster). This rule may have been around for decades, but there doesn't appear to be a justifiable reason for it. It's antiquated, and it should be axed. One guy who agrees is...
3. Kenny Stafford. Stafford spoke to Herb Zurkowksy of The Montreal Gazette and called his release "a blessing in disguise" given the issues with the Alouettes, but he also thinks the league's rule is silly.
That kind of makes no sense. This rule is prohibiting us. It gets you wondering: How long was Montreal thinking about this?” Stafford told the Montreal Gazette in an exclusive interview Tuesday, before returning to the city on a flight from Calgary along with Carter. “Were they just trying to use me and Duron for the playoffs? And once we almost got officially eliminated, they’re going to cut ties? If we won the game in Calgary, are me and Duron still on the team? That’s what I’m thinking.
“They knew the trade deadline was last Wednesday. If you really didn’t want us that bad — and we traded Kevin Glenn (to Winnipeg in September) for a fourth-round draft pick — I know about (eight) other teams that would give up a fourth-round pick for me and Duron, if you don’t want us.”
Stafford raises a good point there; the timing of this really seems counterintuitive for the Alouettes, as they likely would have been able to get at least something in trade for him and Carter before the deadline, and they also would have received more salary-cap relief that way. Perhaps they were still clinging to their hopes of making the playoffs, which are getting less and less likely (to get in now, they'd have to win their final three games and have the Tiger-Cats lose their final three), but that isn't particularly great logic either. This feels somewhat vindictive from Montreal, and that's part of why this rule doesn't make sense; why should a team that decides they don't want a player any more be able to limit that player's future employment? In other news that doesn't make much sense, there's...
4. Grey Cup ticketing. The Toronto Argonauts angered a lot of CFL fans who had already bought Grey Cup tickets with this week's release of new ticket pricing for many of the remaining seats, offering some tickets at $89 and thousands more at $150. Those are relatively reasonable prices for this game, unlike the prices the Argonauts were trying to charge for these seats earlier, which was a big part of why the tickets were slow to sell. It also makes sense for the team to do this; it's better to have the stadium filled than to try and stick to their pricing guns and play the CFL's biggest game before thousands of empty seats. However, the decision to only directly compensate those who already bought tickets in the sections being repriced (about 1,000 people) has provoked a lot of backlash, and understandably so. Here are some of the tweets showing that:
— sf (@faseruk) October 18, 2016
@TorontoArgos what will happen to SSH who already paid the outrageous prices, for grey cup tickets now that there was a price drop?
— Chris (@twolinespass) October 18, 2016
Who do I talk to about a refund for the Difference in cost for Grey Cup tickets? @TorontoArgos don't punish the real fans who bought already
— Kyle Kuzek (@kjkuzek) October 18, 2016
— Lorne Goldenberg (@LorneGoldenberg) October 19, 2016
Those complaints are reasonable. Some of those who shelled out $600 or more at the previous prices presumably wouldn't have done so if they'd had the option of buying these new blocks of tickets for $89 or $150, and looking at the seat map, it's hard to argue that the $699 and $599 tickets are all that much better than the cheaper ones:
So, they've wound up with a lot of fans who supported the event by buying early at high prices, and then were punished for it by being given no compensation when these new, cheap tickets were put on the market. They are doing some things to help; Gary Lawless notes that the team has some solutions for those whose ticket prices didn't change, including offering cheap or free upgrades to the newly-on-sale seats. Some fans who initially complained about this have expressed satisfaction with their outcome, and that's good to see. There doesn't appear to be any resolution for those who bought high-priced tickets and want to switch to lower-price ones right now, but given that the team's solution appears to be "call us and work it out invididually," maybe that will be worked out too. If it's not, though, there will still be fans hurt by this.
The decision to reduce ticket prices right now isn't a bad one altogether; as mentioned above, it's needed to get more people into the seats, as these tickets weren't going to sell at their old prices. That's a better option than having a Grey Cup played in front of a half-empty stadium. However, the Argos could have handled this better on several fronts. First, there's...
5. Clarity in releases. The Argos could have made it clear that they would try to help fans whose tickets weren't affected by the pricing shift. Their statement only says "Just over 1,000 existing ticket holder accounts will be affected by this re-pricing, and each of them will be contacted directly to discuss their various options. Price reductions have been made only to sections where sales have been soft. For the other sections where tickets have been in high demand, prices will not be changed." It's not just 1,000 people affected by this; it's anyone who bought a ticket, as those who didn't buy yet now have options that initial buyers (who if anything should be rewarded, not punished) did not. That's what provoked a lot of the anger, and while some have been able to get the outcomes they wanted after calling, they should have been informed that was an option (and by the team, not just by media members like Lawless). This release also could have been sent much sooner, not after days and weeks of leaks that a change was coming (including this CP story Tuesday, featuring comments from Argos' president Michael Copeland, a day before the team's release with the full details went up) left people wondering what that change would be. The other big issue is...
6. How the Argos handled their pricing in the first place. That CP story includes Copeland defending the initial prices and saying slow sales (only about half of the tickets were sold) were thanks to "a very unique time in Toronto" with competiton from other events:
"When we originally set these ticket prices, we based it on our experience in operating Grey Cups, our understanding of the Toronto market and what similar events in the market were priced at," Copeland said. "But we realize Toronto is in a very unique time right now, you can argue this is the busiest time for major sporting events, perhaps ever, in the city.
"What we learned over the course of the year was our ticket pricing was very good in certain parts of the stadium, notably the higher and lower ends. It's really the middle where we felt we needed to make an adjustment . . . so people who want to come to the game can afford to come."
Copeland doesn't believe the Argos made mistakes with their original pricing scheme.
"At the time, the ticket prices were only marginally higher (six per cent) than last year in Winnipeg," Copeland said. "The Toronto market is generally a higher-priced ticket for sporting events and we looked at the 2012 Grey Cup game (won by Toronto at the Rogers Centre) that had over 53,000 people there and we're in a lower-capacity stadium.
"So the prices as we set them, in looking at other events in the city, we felt were competitive and reasonable. What we learned was the market dynamics had changed."
That's one stance, but those prices certainly didn't seem "competitive and reasonable" to many outside observers, and much of the other logic there doesn't make too much sense. First off, it doesn't necessarily make sense for a Grey Cup in Toronto to charge more than one in Winnipeg; yes, most events in Toronto are more expensive, but there's also much more competition in the marketplace (as Copeland notes). Winnipeg doesn't have a MLB team or an NBA team to compete with, so those games being expensive is irrelevant.
The increased competition should actually lead to lower prices; Winnipeg's only other big sports option during the period around last year's Grey Cup was the Jets, so there's much less competition and a much more captive audience willing to pay anything to go to the Grey Cup. It's the same with Regina in 2013, where the Grey Cup was the main event in town. Moreover, those teams have larger fanbases willing to snap up tickets at whatever price they're sold at; Toronto clearly didn't have that. Given the vast amount of sporting options in the Toronto area and the limited numbers of Argonauts diehards willing to pay a premium, Grey Cup tickets need to be sold at a competitive price to get people in. They weren't until now. Part of that comes from...
7. How this Grey Cup differs from 2012. The Argonauts also appear to have taken their cue from the wrong event. Yes, the 2012 Grey Cup sold very well, but it was the historic 100th Grey Cup, with even more out-of-town fans than usual making plans well in advance to attend. Toronto also had a good team that year and wound up winning the Grey Cup, prompting plenty of locals to buy in; this year, they're 5-11, likely to be eliminated from the playoffs this week, spent a fortune trading for a quarterback who's been terrible so far, and just jettisoned three of their top receivers for vague, nebulous "character" reasons. Good luck getting locals excited about that.
As Copeland notes, the 2012 Grey Cup came in a much bigger stadium, but that doesn't mean that tickets in a smaller stadium should necessarily be priced much higher. As noted last year when it came out that the Grey Cup would be held at BMO Field, not the Rogers Centre, the small stadium poses challenges and threatened ticket price hikes. Just because you want to hike up prices to make a similar amount of money doesn't mean people will pay that price, though. Presuming that how much people are willing to pay will rise just because you restricted the supply doesn't always work.
The rising amount of Toronto sports competition is a notable factor, too, but this was forseeable. In 2012, the city's other teams were struggling. The Raptors were rebuilding in the wake of Chris Bosh's 2010 free agency departure, and 2012-13 wound up being their fifth-straight year out of the playoffs, where they recorded a 34-48 mark. They weren't a strong draw. The Blue Jays hadn't made the playoffs since 1993, and went 73-89 in 2012; there was no competition from meaningful September baseball or postseason MLB games. The Maple Leafs hadn't made the playoffs since 2003-04, and while they'd eventually qualify in 2012-13, there wasn't a ton of hype around them heading into the season. Toronto FC had never made the postseason back then, and struggled to a last-in-the-division 5-21-8 mark in 2012.
By contrast, the Jays have now made two straight postseasons (and made runs to the ALCS both times), the Raptors have made three and made it to the conference final last year, Toronto FC made their first postseason last year, and even the Leafs now have some excitement thanks to rookie phenom Auston Matthews. That's before you get to those special events Copeland mentioned, including the outdoor Leafs game at BMO Field and the World Junior Championships. All of those factors were well-known heading into this year, and they should have convinced the Argonauts to lower their prices to be competitive. They didn't. That's led to some interesting...
8. Reactions from around the league. Some notable ones include Cam Cole's:
Putting the CFL’s big show Toronto is necessary, from time to time, but never without risk. It has to catch Hogtown in just right mood. The Argos haven’t given the fans much to appreciate, and the Grey Cup — only about half sold out with the regular season nearly over — is paying the price.
And Kirk Penton's:
This ticket price reduction should serve as a stern lesson for the CFL that it is not the NFL. The Grey Cup isn't the Super Bowl, and ticket prices should never be set as high as they were this year. If you want it to be the Canadian party that it's always been, make it affordable for as many Canadians to get to it as possible.
The more corporate you make the game, the less exciting the event becomes. And besides, if the CFL is appealing to a younger audience like it says it is, that age group can't afford to shell out big money for tickets anyway.
Both make good points. It's notable that much of the charm of the Grey Cup comes from its accessibility, and a sense that it's for the average fan, not just the wealthiest. Of course, teams should try to make money off it too, and there's nothing wrong with charging a lot for the best, most premium seats and experiences. And if the Argos want to make more money, why not offer more of those? Create more packages that let you hang out with their team's players, coaches and executives, or some that also give you entry to team and league parties, or VIP tours of BMO Field, or things along those lines. It doesn't all have to be just about ticket sales. You can create premium experiences and charge top dollar for them, but the Grey Cup in particular should be something that fans can get into without mortgaging their soul. Keeping it that way will benefit the league more in the long term than squeezing every penny out of each ticket would. On a brighter note, let's look at...
9. The CIS rebrand. Canadian Interuniversity Sports shifted to a new "U Sports" brand Thursday, and while that name does bring up some odd associations (Miami Hurricanes, anyone?), it has some significant merits. Most importantly, it works in French and English, which has already led to a better website URL (usports.ca versus cis-sic.ca) and should carry plenty of benefits for marketing. The video they've put together is also impressive, and shows there's some marketing saavy (which is very much needed at the Canadian university level) involved in this rebrand:
Yes, this is a CFL column, so what's university sports doing in here? Well, CIS (or U Sports now) is the primary supplier of players for the CFL, especially Canadians. This year's CFL draft saw 53 CIS players selected out of 70 total picks. Canadian university football is a great product, and it deserves some more recognition; a branding change alone won't do that and will generate some pushback (just look at how much flak the CFL's branding change got last year), but if this is part of a wider overall plan to get the league some attention, that's a good thing. It's good to see CFL teams getting involved in boosting the university game, too, as with the Stampeders' announcement that they and ATB Financial are partnering to donate $1 million over 10 years to the University of Calgary Dinos. And hey, for fans attending the Grey Cup, or fans who wanted to but are turned off by the ticket prices, the U Sports championship, the Vanier Cup, will be held the day before, just down the road in Hamilton. You can get into that one much cheaper...
Getting back to the CFL and the on-the-field action, how about...
10. Hamilton-Ottawa? This game (Friday, 7 p.m. Eastern) is crucial for the playoff picture. If 7-7-1 Ottawa wins, they clinch first place in the East Division and the accompanying bye. If 6-9 Hamilton wins, they clinch a playoff berth and a home playoff date (as they're guaranteed to finish at least second), and their hopes of finishing first remain alive. It sets up as a tough road date for the Ticats, as they'll be without star quarterback Zach Collaros (concussion) and star returner/receiver Brandon Banks (positive drug test), but Ottawa only beat them by one point last week, so this could be very much in question. Interestingly, too, it's led to...
11. An overlap. As the CFL only plays four games a week, it's incredibly rare to see two at the same time. That's what's happening Friday, though, as the Toronto Argonauts-Calgary Stampeders game has been moved up to 9 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. local) from its original 10 p.m. Eastern, so it will start before the Ticats-Redblacks game finishes. As per TSN's schedule, all four regional networks (TSN 1, 3, 4 and 5) will carry the Hamilton-Ottawa game from the start, with only the west regional one (TSN 1) breaking away for Argonauts-Stampeders.
That seems about right, as Ticats-Redblacks is much more important; Calgary has already clinched first place in the West, and while the Argos are still theoretically in playoff contention (and would be more in contention if they win and Hamilton loses), they're all but eliminated; they're out with either a loss to the Stampeders (which seems highly likely, given the way these two teams have been playing; Penton noted Tuesday that Calgary was favoured by 16.5 points, one of the largest lines we've seen in the CFL) or a Ticats win. Thus, most people should be able to watch the important game, and those who don't like what's being shown in their region can switch over if they have all the regional feeds. This is also only an hour of overlap, so it's not all that bad.
Still, it's highly unusual to see two games overlap by design (there are occasionally overruns, but games almost always are given at least three hours, as it benefits TSN and the CFL the most to be able to air all games nationally in their entirety). According to Dave Campbell (the Eskimos' colour analyst on 630 CHED), the Stampeders asked the league to move this time up. It's not particularly clear why, but the guess is they felt they could get a better in-person audience by doing so; an 8 p.m. start locally can be a little late, even on a Friday (which is why most Friday night late games are played in B.C., where they can still start at 7 p.m. local). That's presumably good for the Stamps and their bottom line, but it's not great for the CFL or TSN to have games overlap this way, and it speaks to one of the many scheduling challenges the league faces each year; time zones, local starts and broadcast windows all have to be considered along with everything else. A more positive move from the Stamps is...
12. Covering their crossed-pistols patches in memory of Mylan Hicks. Calgary's "Outlaw" third jerseys are one of the best out there, often worn for their last couple of home games, and the crossed pistols on the shoulders have usually been seen as a cool touch. In the wake of the fatal shooting of Stampeders' DB Mylan Hicks last month, though, wearing guns on the uniform shoulders would seem off, so the news that Calgary will still wear those uniforms but will cover the pistols with black patches in honour of Hicks seems like the right move. They may adopt a further change this offseason, too.
Hicks' death has had a big impact on the club, and they've already done a lot to honour him, but this is a further important move. There are going to be differing views out there on if guns should be on a jersey in any case, and those will probably be expressed by both sides this offseason, but covering up the guns for now doesn't seem all that controversial; they'd have a highly-unwanted connotation to some in the wake of Hicks' death. This is a smart call from the Stamps, and quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell's comments explain why it matters:
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Mitchell said. “It was a suggestion by some people in our organization.
“Within our locker-room, it’s not bringing attention to something that it shouldn’t be.
“So there’s no complaints from us.”
It may or may not make sense for the Stampeders to uncover the patch next season, but for now, this seems like a solid stopgap solution.
Thanks for reading 12 Audibles! Stay tuned to 55-Yard Line for CFL coverage all week long, and come back here next week for the next installment of this column. You can also contact me with feedback on Twitter or via e-mail. Enjoy the games this week!