Is the CFLPA finally in a position of power?

This year's CFL collective bargaining agreement negotiations have been highly unusual, with first the league and then the players' association taking their case to the public, and both sides usingawfullystrong language in the process. While some past CBA negotiations have been controversial, the drama has usually played out behind closed doors, and there hasn't generally been a great risk of missed games. Both sides couldn't come to an agreement on a CBA before the 2005 season, but they agreed to play that season under the old agreement; similarly, the last CBA in 2010 was finalized just before the regular season began, but while there was talk of a potential lockout earlier that year, it never came to pass. That's part of why there was so much optimism a deal would be made this time around; the precedent had always been for the sides to work things out before games were missed. Things are different this time around, though, and a big reason why is that the CFLPA appears to be holding much more powerful cards than normal.

That's not to say that the CFLPA has done a bad job in previous negotiations. In fact, the deal they struck in 2006 was quite impressive for players (it included a revenue-sharing provision, which is the key thing they want back this year), and the one they signed in 2010 had plenty of strong elements, including minimum salary boosts and improved pensions. (CFLDB has PDFs of the 2002, 2006 and 2010 CBAs for those interested.) They've also done well on plenty of non-financial issues, including keeping off-season work limited. However, the CFL itself has been in a rather precarious position for much of its history, and there hasn't been a lot of money to go around, so the players have sometimes been resigned to taking what they can get on the financial front while ensuring the league's continued survival.

That's no longer the case, especially with the new TV deal set to give each team at least $2.7 million dollars more per year. All of a sudden, the league's looking healthy, and there's much more money at play. (It also helps that just how much money there is out there has been widely reported, from the TV deal to teams like Winnipeg and Edmonton making big money despite poor seasons to impressive merchandise sales. It's hard for the league to cry poor in the face of those reports.) As a result, the players are looking for a more substantial share of the pie.

One element that particularly bolsters the players' case is that the league itself is admitting that the status quo isn't fair and players deserve more money. While the CFL and the CFLPA are still miles apart (especially on the issue of revenue sharing), the league's latest proposal Wednesday is a massive jump over where things were in 2013, boosting the salary cap 9 per cent to $4.8 million per team in the first year. That doesn't mean that's necessarily an offer the players should take; after all, that's an increase of just $400,000 per team compared to the $2.7 million increase in TV revenue per team, or less than 15 per cent of the extra money each team's making just from TV. It does mean that the league recognizes the status quo is very favourable to itself, though. The CFL has already conceded that its players deserve to be paid more, something that hasn't always been the case historically. (That's why the issue at play here is a strike rather than a lockout; regardless of how this is resolved, players are going to get more than the status quo, not less.) The argument now is how much more they're paid, and how that number is determined.

The players might also be in a better position than the league for a labour stoppage, at least over the short term. Yes, if they strike and don't go to camp, preseason games or regular-season games, they'll miss some paycheques. That's not insignificant, especially in a league where the minimum salary isn't high (it was $45,000 last year), and it may put some players under financial pressures. The CFL might be under even more financial pressure, though; Sportsnet's Arash Madani pointed out Wednesday the league has lost some sponsors and could be facing cash flow issues if the season doesn't start on time, and it won't reap any of the TV money until a work stoppage is resolved.

Beyond that, the league has a lot of incentive to get a deal done from a perception standpoint. The CFL certainly wants to get its new TSN deal off on the right foot (TSN certainly won't be happy in the case of a work stoppage, as that takes a lot of their best programming), and it wants to launch its returning Ottawa franchise in style. Ottawa and Hamilton both have new stadiums set to open this year, and a prolonged labour dispute could take away from the excitement there. Things are looking good for this league on a lot of fronts, but a long labour fight could severely hurt it. That would hurt the players, too, obviously, especially once the missed cheques start to pile up. However, getting the regular season off as planned is probably more important for the league than the players. That's another edge for the CFLPA in this fight. The CFL has plenty of bargaining power and things in its favour, too, of course, but for once, the players might have the upper hand.