CFL-CFLPA ‘impasse’ appears to be mostly about players’ inclusion in league revenues

The CFL and the CFL Players' Association appear to be deadlocked on the latest round of CBA negotiations, with the sides calling off a planned second day of meetings earlier this month and reportedly cancelling meetings set for March 20 and 21. By itself, that would be concerning, but not necessarily a massive problem; after all, the last CBA wound up being signed just before the season started in June 2010. What's more troubling is what the sides are divided on. According to Sportsnet's Arash Madani, the key argument is whether or not players should get a percentage of league revenues or a flat amount of money regardless of what the league brings in, and there's no common ground to be found:

“We get the feeling the league and owners believe we’re weak. They’re sorely mistaken,” said a CFL player close to the negotiations. “This is the time guys will take a stand. We’ve never been in this position before with new stadiums, a new team and a new, rich TV deal. Until they’re willing to negotiate a model of revenue sharing, we’re not backing down.”

Revenue sharing in the CFL was eliminated in the last CBA, which the players union says it agreed to “for the betterment of the league, because of where we were economically.”

This time around, “we’re in a very different place,” said a union rep. ...

A source close to the negotiations said the league has proposed an eight-year collective bargaining agreement – which would exceed the length of the new television deal (five years, plus a network option for the sixth) – a primary revenue source in CFL business.

“That eight-year proposal is ridiculous,” said a team union rep. “The rest of their proposal – All the (league) did was follow the same model as before, with some minor salary cap increases of $100,000 a year.”

That's a fundamental philosophical divide, and it's difficult to see how it can be resolved, especially with the sides not talking. If this was merely about debating what a flat cap number should be or what percentage of revenues players should get, negotiations would be relatively simple and probably wind up somewhere between the sides' starting positions, but a divide like this may be much more difficult to overcome. Compare the 2004-05 and 2012-13 NHL lockouts, for example; the former was about whether there should be a salary cap at all (and wound up cancelling a whole season), while the latter was an argument over what the cap should be set at and how much of league revenues should go to players (and was resolved in time to play a shortened season). Without being at the negotiation table, it's impossible to tell exactly how things will play out, but if both the CFL and the CFLPA are entrenched in their respective positions, it seems unlikely we'll see a deal any time soon.

What are the merits of each side's positions? Well, it makes sense that the CFL wants to be conservative here. Player salaries are a notable expense, so keeping them as low as possible is logical from an ownership standpoint, and even with the new TV windfall, there are plenty of other costs to consider (including stadium construction and renovation). However, the CFLPA's demand to earn a fixed percentage of what the league makes also is logical. Without that, if revenues continue to rise and the salary cap remained relatively the same, the owners would reap all the benefits of the CFL's success.

From this corner, the most logical way for the CFL to solve this is to give in to the players and tie the salary cap number to the league's revenues, but to do so in exchange for concessions elsewhere. Salaries as a percentage of league revenues doesn't have to ruin leagues; the NHL (50-50 split of hockey-related revenues), NBA (51.15 per cent of basketball-related revenues to players) and NFL (55 percent of national media revenue, 45 percent of all NFL Ventures revenue, and 40 percent of local club revenue to players) all operate on that principle, and getting a guaranteed share of the pie can provide an incentive for players to do everything they can to enlarge the overall pie.

That would be a substantial philosophical shift for the CFL away from the framework of the 2010 deal, but the league's in a financially-stable place where it can do that, and it could trade it for a philosophical shift from the players' side (for example, getting them to agree to a six- or even eight-year deal rather than a four-year one, or getting them to agree to spread work hours over a week rather than have a daily limit). Moreover, having the players receive a percentage of revenue rather than a fixed number might actually help the league in lean years; an ever-increasing fixed cap presumes revenue is always going to rise, but that may not be the case. Agreeing to tie the cap to league revenues could help break this impasse, and it could help stabilize the league down the road.

Part of the problem is that both sides have relatively strong positions, though. The CFL and its players need each other; there are no comparable alternative leagues for players to go to (there are U.S.-based ones like the AFL, but they tend to pay less), but there also isn't much of a supply of replacement players, especially Canadians. Also, while the players' case to be included in the new revenues is strong, the league can point to past struggles as evidence it needs to be cautious with this new money. In any case, these talks aren't going anywhere until one or both sides make philosophical concessions. That may well happen yet, but the drastically different philosophical standpoints will make these negotiations extremely challenging, and that philosophical divide should worry CFL fans much more than just the news that there isn't a deal yet.