It’s Time for Players to Tackle the Great Canadian Football Rip-Off

Team owners in Canadian football made record profits while many of their players had to work second jobs to make ends meet. Now they’re using the pandemic as an excuse to claw back wages even further — a player fightback is the only way to change the game.

Brandon Alexander of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers runs with his team's flag after winning the 107th Grey Cup championship game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on November 24, 2019 in Calgary, Alberta. (Derek Leung / Getty Images)

In mid-2020, the Canadian Football League (CFL) asked for $30 million in government aid. Citing football’s impact on Canadian culture, the CFL argued that these funds would be necessary to keep the season afloat — and canceled it when they weren’t forthcoming. That left many athletes in the lurch.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie then told all teams to cut operational costs by 20 percent, leading to contract restructuring and extraordinary pay cuts for athletes. CFL bosses presented this as a way to salvage the 2021 season. But their professed concern for the jobs of players concealed a bid to claw back as much of their wage bill as they could, using the pandemic as an excuse.

Ripping Off Players

The nine-team CFL is older than the NFL, and it’s a major cultural institution for Canadian sports. There have been several episodes of federal government intervention to prevent the league from “Americanizing” and to make sure that its teams stay in Canadian hands.

After the experience of  failed would-be expansions into US territory, the league’s identity is firmly rooted on Canadian soil. The CFL is enormously popular. It is, historically, the third-most-attended sporting league in North America. And it has become immensely profitable in recent years, buoyed by TV revenue.

However, these rising revenues have not filtered down to CFL players. Brian Ramsay, the Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA) executive director, has recently suggested that “player salaries amount to just 30 percent of team expenses” across the whole league.

A starting salary in the CFL for a Canadian or American player is $65,000. Because training and conditioning for professional athletes is so expensive, a significant number of CFL athletes have had to take on second jobs, moonlighting at pipeline work or truck driving.

Commissioner Ambrosie has even justified this trend, claiming that it helps prepare athletes for life after football. Ambrosie — whose reported salary is $750,000 a year, excluding bonuses — has promised better pay for workers once the league’s “CFL 2.0” expansion plans are complete.

The justification for modest player salaries used to be the league’s alleged unprofitability. Some journalists still dutifully repeat the argument that “restraint” in bargaining is essential if the CFL is going to survive. But the facts tell a different story.

Show Us the Books

The CFL rarely reports earnings, but observers have estimated that the league’s 2018 revenues were approximately $210 million. Unlike other major sports leagues, the CFL doesn’t issue transparent data on player salaries. Teams often roll compensation into the general category of “operations,” which includes salaries for coaches and management. The best way to get a realistic picture of what players are earning is to look at minimum and maximum salary caps, combined with the occasional leak.

Only three CFL teams — the Edmonton Football Team, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders — issue financial reports, because they are either publicly or community owned, although even their numbers are unclear. These three teams “spend heavily on their front office,” which means that there are substantial gaps between the salaries of staff and those of players. At any rate, their public financial statements show these teams to be wildly profitable, sucking up nearly half of the CFL’s entire revenue among them.

The finances of the six privately owned teams are harder to decipher. They occasionally post earnings, but usually only as evidence of losses when they want to plead for government cash. The owners of these supposed “have-not” teams are nonetheless some of the league’s wealthiest, including Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Calgary Sports and Entertainment, and billionaire Bob Young.

The CFL has historically resisted revenue-sharing agreements, which would equalize the profits generated by the league, despite calls from the CFLPA for it to do so. Without revenue sharing, the most successful teams end up getting much wealthier, while the union can’t bargain effectively for higher wages and better benefits. The CFLPA bargained away revenue sharing in the past for guaranteed increases to the salary cap. But that hasn’t worked out.

The latest collective bargain agreement (CBA) is a bad deal that reflects the CFLPA’s capitulation to dubious management claims of near insolvency. Along with the pitiful base salary, it allows contract items like housing to be counted toward the salary cap. Teams can pay international players less ($54,000), and life insurance is inadequate.

Who Pays for the Pandemic?

During the COVID-19 crisis, the CFL secured the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) for businesses, but it only applied to players under contract, leaving the rest without league support. In November 2020, league owners collectively refused to cover their 25 percent CEWS obligation for players who switched teams, denying them access to the benefit. In the same month, the CFL directed its teams to limit salaries for the 2021 season.

Sports media rarely addresses these issues, preferring to wheel out the usual hand-wringing articles about the difficulty of convincing players to take pay cuts. Journalists have had little to say about the economic status of CFL players, aside from puff pieces about how excited they are to get back to the game — although one article did provide an overview of what football players are doing off the field, casually mentioning that some are driving for Uber Eats and starting podcasts, without properly exploring what this tells us.

Players are now in the firing line of Ambrosie’s austerity directive. If his reports of his salary are accurate, the symbolic 20 percent pay cut he recently took would only reduce it, excluding bonuses, to $600,000 a year. Ambrosie, anticipating a successful program of mass vaccination, remains optimistic about the prospects for a 2021 season.

The vast discrepancies in team revenue, combined with the lost earnings of the past year, have finally put revenue sharing on the table — for the time being, at least. There’s now an opportunity to transform the whole industry, not only by redistributing the CFL’s wealth horizontally, from successful teams to their poorer rivals, but also by redistributing it vertically, from management to players.

However, that will require mobilization by players to shift the burden of cutbacks off their shoulders, breathing new life into the CFLPA and steering it toward a more combative model of unionism. The CFL presents itself as a folksy, humble venture that simply cannot afford to pay its workers fairly, while team owners walk away flush with loot. Like many “culturally vital” Canadian private enterprises, it trades on a nationalist image and reserves of public goodwill to shield itself from criticism.

The CFL is extraordinarily popular in Canada, attracting enormous crowds and acres of media coverage. Its players could use this leverage to their advantage, enlisting fans and journalists to support their cause. They’ve got everything to play for.