Tentative CFL-CFLPA deal keeps cap low, but players could make some other gains

Less than 24 hours before a potential strike was set to kick in, the CFL and CFLPA reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement late Saturday night. That's remarkable, as the two sides only resumed discussions Friday evening, and it likely illustrates the pressure both sides felt to make a deal. On the league's side, Monday's preseason game (and further preseason and regular-season games) were threatened by a potential strike, and with two new stadiums, an expansion franchise and a new TV contract all making their debut this year, getting the season off on the right foot was crucial. On the union's side, some of the divides between players in the league for the long haul and those looking at the CFL as a brief stop en route to the NFL were starting to show, and those may have been further exacerbated once players started to miss game cheques. Thus, while reports of the deal's terms appear very favourable to the league from a salary-cap standpoint, it's notable that the CFLPA appears to have received concessions in other areas. This deal still requires ratification from the league's board of governors and from the players at large, and some players blasted it on Twitter Saturday night (not without cause), but the league's teams seem highly likely to approve of this proposal, and there may possibly be enough here for the players to let it pass as well.

For the CFL, this negotiation was primarily about keeping a low cap ceiling, and on that front, their decision to play hardball and risk a labour stoppage proved incredibly successful. Each team is reportedly getting at least an extra $2.7 million in TV revenue this year, and with the new reported cap ceiling only rising to $5 million in 2014, they'll be keeping most of that for themselves. The new ceiling is $600,000 higher than the 2013 one, but it's only $200,000 higher than the league's initial public offer, and it's $1.24 million below what the players initially proposed. It's also exactly what the league's "best and final offer" May 29 was in terms of of a cap ceiling, and it's $200,000 below what the players last proposed Tuesday.

Yes, this is a cap level that the CFL has said will cause its bottom three teams to still lose money. From a cap ceiling perspective, though, each of those teams should still be at least $2.1 million better off than they were in 2013. Moreover, while the middle and top teams likely would have been fine under even the players' most recent proposals, they should be thrilled with the deal they got. There's lots of extra revenue for them, and not a lot of extra costs.

Perhaps most crucially, the league won this negotiation from a philosophical standpoint, forcing the union to abandon its once-crucial demand to receive a percentage of league revenues (which they cracked on back in May). Almost every other union in North American sports has won that right (at much higher percentages of revenue than even the CFLPA was asking for), and the union used to have it, but gave it up back in 2010 at the league's insistence. Keeping the union to a flat salary cap, one unique in major North American sports, is a big win for the CFL owners.

So, why did the CFLPA's leadership take this deal? Yes, it doesn't look good for the players at first, but they did manage to extract some important concessions. One of the most notable is taking out the team option year in non-rookie contracts, meaning that veterans can sign a one-year contract. Interestingly enough, that should benefit both sides of the CFLPA's membership; those players who only want to be in Canada briefly while auditioning for the NFL won't have to commit to the CFL for multiple years after their rookie contracts, but veterans who do want to stick around should be able to enjoy expanded free agency (and thus find better situations, financially and from a perspective of their role).

Beyond that, the union also managed to convince the league to renegotiate the cap in the third year if pre-Grey Cup revenues rise by $27 million. While that seems unlikely right now, you never know what will happen in this league. Players also got a minimum-salary bump from $45,000 to $50,000 (which may be crucial in ratification, considering the numbers of players on minimum salaries; however, this was a minimum-salary level both sides agreed on a while back) and substantial ratification bonuses ($7,500 for veterans, $1,500 for rookies). There have been no reports of the league agreeing to the union's player-safety proposals, though, so that likely didn't happen.

Without being on the inside of CFLPA discussions, it's difficult to say if the players cracked here because of worries over missed game cheques widening divides within the union, or if they made a deal because they thought this was the best offer they'd be able to get at any point. The former seems somewhat more likely given the pressure the league was under to get its season off on the right start, but the owners in general also have substantially higher war chests and might have been able to withstand short-term labour pain for long-term game. The players' association certainly deserve credit for standing up to the league this long, something they haven't typically been able to do, and it does appear that they managed to win some important benefits despite not budging the league much on the cap ceiling. We'll see if those prove to be enough for the union's membership to ratify this deal.