December 10, 2010
The CFL's free agents may not be quite as numerous as the group of agents from The Matrix pictured above, but if many of the league's teams had their way, they'd be just as indistinguishable. Mark Masters from The National Post had an excellent piece earlier in the week on the growing cult of secrecy around CFL free agency. Only two of the eight CFL teams-Edmonton and Hamilton-have released lists of who their free agents are, with the other six refusing to disclose that information at this time.
It's understandable why clubs would choose to go that way given the option, as it could provide them with a competitive advantage. If other teams don't know who's on the market and prospective free agents aren't openly shopping their services to every other franchise, teams may be able to retain their players more cheaply than they would otherwise. That's why this shouldn't be a club-by-club decision, but a league one, though. Having comprehensive lists of free agents available is good for the league; it drums up some publicity, lots of stories and plenty of interest during the CFL's quiet months.
The league apparently is going to put out a list of free agents in January, but that's far too late. The time for this information to be out there is now. The season is still fresh in everyone's mind, teams are trying to secure and expand their season-ticket base and fans are optimistically thinking about next year. That's all with little to no idea of what their team's roster could look like in the coming season. If there was a public list released by the league, the roster picture still wouldn't be clear, but it would at least allow fans to dream about who they might land.
The CFL does a lot of things right, but the secrecy around player contracts (and negotiation lists) is not one of them; for almost every major league out there, just about every player's contract details (length, cap hit, free-agency options, etc) are known. That doesn't hurt the players; in fact, it tends to help them, as they're able to use contracts given to comparable players as bargaining chips. If you don't believe me, read about how things changed for NHL players before and after all salaries were disclosed. It's also a great move for the league; the NFL, NBA and other leagues remain hot topics in their respective offseasons largely because of the known information about free agents, cap space and contract sizes, which allows fans and media types to speculate on moves teams might make.
Publicizing player contracts, free agent lists and negotiation lists would be tremendously beneficial to the media and the fans, and it would help to promote the league. It would hurt general managers, but that doesn't matter too much if every general manager is impacted equally. They're competing against each other, not the fans and the media, and the league has every rational reason to come up with policies that promote the game as a whole, not the interests of general managers. Disclose contracts, cap hits, free agent lists and negotiation lists, and watch as the CFL suddenly gains far more off-season attention and traction.
Fortunately, a group of reporters is rebelling against the agents' matrix. Lowell Ullrich of The Province and Ed Tait of The Winnipeg Free Press have come up with an unofficial list of CFL free agents which appears quite comprehensive. I'm sure it's probably not perfect, but it's a tremendous step in the right direction. It makes the CFL look unnecessarily bush-league that they aren't releasing this information themselves, though, and it would be much better for everyone involved if they just put their own free agency list out there as soon as the season ends. I don't blame teams for not disclosing their free agents when they have the option to do so, but the league shouldn't be providing them with that option.