ESPN/Sporting Intelligence survey has some fascinating data on CFL salaries

Andrew Bucholtz
Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Terrell Sinkfield (L) runs the ball past Ottawa Redblacks' Brandyn Thompson (C) and Damaso Munoz during the second half of their CFL football game in Hamilton, in this October 17, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Mark Blinch/Files (CANADA - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The CFL's normally been big on keeping its teams' total salaries secret, but they've emerged in a surprising source; a global survey of sports teams' payrolls done by SportingIntelligence.com editor Nick Harris for ESPN The Magazine. We don't typically see CFL teams' salaries; we know where the cap ceiling and floor are, but we only learn of teams that violated the cap (which was only Hamilton last year), and even the teams that do make their financials public (only Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg) have line items for "Football Operations" (which includes player salaries, but also coaches, general managers, equipment, travel costs and much more) rather than strictly salaries. Somehow, though, the ESPN survey has managed to pull together 2014 data for the CFL's teams, and there are some interesting results in it. First, consider this graphic that ESPN tweeted about the entire CFL's 2014 payroll and how it compares to that of Major League Soccer and the LA Dodgers: 

At first glance, that figure of $41.5 million seems somewhat off. Keep in mind that these are in U.S. dollars, though. It's unclear exactly when the conversion was made, but if we use Thursday's rate of $1 USD = $1.22 CAD, we get a total CFL payroll of $50.63 millon Canadian. Now, that would seem to imply more cap violations than we saw, as the cap was $5 million CAD last year and there are only nine CFL teams (accounting for just $45 million). It's notable that the cap doesn't cover preseason and postseason compensation, travel allowances, salaries paid to players on the nine-game injury list, pension plan contributions and other such things, though, and this survey appears to include at least some of those. What's really interesting is when it gets into the individual CFL teams, though. All the information globally can be found in ESPN's piece, but here's the important information for just the CFL's teams. (There's an interesting question of how ESPN got this info: did teams just turn it over? That seems unlikely given how reluctant they are to talk about finances. Presuming this is accurate, though, here it is:) 

The CFL's team salaries in 2014, according to an ESPN/SportingIntelligence survey. 

 

 

Why did the Stampeders spend more than the cap-violating Tiger-Cats? That's probably thanks to the postseason bonuses, which don't count against the cap. For winning the Grey Cup alone, the Stampeders' players on their 46-man roster would receive a bonus of $16,000 Canadian each, a total of $736,000 CAD or $603,279 USD; the Tiger-Cats would only receive half of that total for appearing in the Grey Cup, so about $300,000 USD. (The teams' other bonuses for making it that far would be equal.) Thus, Hamilton spent more on cappable salaries, while Calgary's top place in this payroll list came in non-cap bonuses. (Keep in mind that this affects the year-to-year shift in average salaries as well; Calgary's rose at least in part thanks to making it further in the playoffs, while Saskatchewan's fell at least partly because they didn't make it as far in 2014 as they did when they won the 2013 Grey Cup.)

It's the information on the teams at the bottom that's particularly notable, though. Toronto and Ottawa didn't make the playoffs, so they have no postseason bonuses to factor in, but it's curious to see division finalists (which gives a total bonus of $7,000 per player, $322,000 CAD or $263,964 USD) Montreal and Edmonton so far down the list. It seems likely these teams were spending far less than the cap max ($5 million CAD, about $4.1 million USD at Thursday's exchange rate) on salaries. How little could they have been spending, though?

Last year's cap floor was $4.4 million ($3.6 million USD), so teams had to spend at least that much (and at max, $5 million/$4.1 million USD) on salaries that fall under the cap. What about non-cap payouts other than postseason bonuses, though, such as preseason bonuses, injured roster salaries, travel allowances and more? We can't get specifics on them, but we can get a range. Consider Winnipeg, which spent $4.6 million USD despite not making the playoffs. At most, $4.1 million USD of that was capped (because the Bombers didn't violate the cap); at least, $3.6 million USD was capped. Thus, their non-cap payouts were between $500,000 and $1 million USD. If we assume non-cap payouts were in the same range for fellow non-playoff teams Toronto and Ottawa, then their maximum capped salary payouts would have been $3.9 million USD ($4.76 million CAD) .and $3.6 million USD ($4.39 million CAD) respectively. That suggests that Ottawa was right near the cap floor last season and Toronto wasn't far ahead. That might explain some of those teams' struggles. (It's remarkable that impressive teams Montreal and Edmonton also paid so little in salaries, though.)

What does this mean for the bigger picture of how much of the CFL's revenues are going to players? Well, it does show that there's a significant pool of money heading to players beyond the capped salaries. However, it also shows that a lot of teams are spending nowhere near the cap ceiling. This is one problem with a league where the salary information is kept so secret; in other leagues, such as the NHL, NBA and NFL, fans know exactly what teams' caps looks like, and they can call out their teams for spending less than they're able to. This information doesn't give us a solid list of who's spending less than the cap, as the amounts of non-cap payouts here are unknown, but it does show how the CFL's teams spend relative to each other, and it suggests that at the least, Ottawa, Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto all spent significantly under the cap last season. Fans in those cities may have questions for their ownership after seeing that, and for that, we can thank ESPN.