All CFL teams were under the salary cap in 2011: does that mean the system’s working?

CFL history was made Thursday as the league announced that none of its teams had exceeded the salary cap in 2011, the first time that had happened since the current tightly-monitored cap system was brought in for the 2007 season. That's not necessarily as bad as it sounds: generally, it's only been one team exceeding the cap each year, and usually only by a small amount. The escalating penalties have generally proved a suitable deterrent: if a team violates the cap by less than $100,000, they're fined $1 for each dollar spent over the cap, while if they're $100,000-$300,000 over the cap, they're fined $2 for each dollar over the cap, and if they're $300,000 or more over, they're fined $3 for each dollar over the cap and lose their first two draft selections as well. Most of the violations have been by less than $100,000, like Saskatchewan's $26,677 violation in 2010, so it's not like the system hasn't been working before. However, having every team under the cap is quite positive from both a league standpoint and a public-relations standpoint, and it adds to the sense that the CFL's cap system might be the best one out there.

What makes the CFL's cap system so effective is that it actually accomplishes the goal of all salary caps, leveling the financial playing field. The cap is low enough ($4.3 million in 2011) that all teams can presumably afford to spend close to it, and the floor (not announced for 2011, but it was $3.9 million in 2010) is high enough that the variance of payroll from top to bottom is extremely small. We don't know exactly how much teams spent, but if the floor didn't change substantially from 2010, the largest possible gap in payroll would be $400,000, with the top team's payroll just 110 percent of the bottom team's. Here's how that compares to other leagues in 2011:

Given the vastly different magnitudes of salaries across leagues, the percentage gap is the best way to analyze the data. Interestingly enough, the NFL's next behind the CFL in this data, with its top team's payroll just 133.19 per cent of its bottom team's; the NFL hit 220.54 per cent in the uncapped year of 2010. The NHL's next with a 136.50 per cent gap. Every other league has its top team's payroll as at least double its bottom teams, and the top teams in MLS and MLB spent over five times more than the bottom teams in 2011. On-field salary isn't everything, and there still are ways for wealthy teams to use their resources outside the cap (as I mentioned with Winnipeg's 2011 windfall, you can invest in scouting, coaching, facilities, etc), but keeping the financial playing field relatively even generally increases parity, and that's great for leagues. The CFL's been strong on that front for years, and every team thoroughly complying with the salary cap should help even more.