- Reeve Batstone
Show Me the Money
Granny Liggins - Courtesy University of Oklahoma
Les Alouettes are for sale again, which brings to mind the CFL's infamous business model.
In this post, I will focus on player salaries over the modern era. For essential background, I would recommend John Hodge's provocative commentary, "The CFL's business model isn't broken, its leadership has failed" in a March, 2021 3Downnation article. I do think he implied some bigger questions, such as; where are the revenues going?
Hodge stated that in 1976, CFL players got 52% of league revenues while in 2021 they received only 25%. The latter is roughly half what players in the NBA, NFL and NHL receive. I am in no position to dispute his assertion. What has changed since the CFL's halcyon days of the 70s? Here are some of the highwater marks which tell a fascinating story reflecting the quixotic experience of CFL players.
In 1971 the CFL's highest paid player was former Argonaut quarterback, and later Super Bowl champion, Joe Theismann, who was paid $50,000, or approximately $300,000 per season adjusted to 2022 dollars. This was not outrageous by any stretch. In 1973, Theismann left for Washington when Argos GM John Barrow declined to extend him in favour of re-upping Leon McQuay after the 1972 season. Not even a year later McQuay was traded to Calgary for legendary defensive lineman, Granny Liggins. It turned out to be one of the best trades in Argos history.
1973 also brought the arrival of Heisman Trophy winner and "Ordinary Superstar" Johnny Rodgers to Montreal for a $100,000 salary or approximately $600,000 in today's currency. Incidentally, the Canadian dollar was worth more than the US dollar in 1973, making it easier to attract Americans to the great white north. "JR Superstar" was an instant success on the field, and the league's most exciting player, helping Marv Levy return the Als to glory. Three years later, the same GM, the irrepressible JI Albrecht, tried to repeat this success for the Argos by signing star USC tailback, Anthony Davis, for $250,000 per season, or $1.25 million in 2022 dollars. It didn't go well and both Davis and head coach Russ Jackson were gone by the end of 1976.
That didn't deter the Argos though, and just over a year later they signed all-purpose NFL star, Terry Metcalf to a 7 year $1.4 million contract in 1978 ($6.3 million today). Metcalf lasted three underwhelming seasons in Double Blue before returning to the NFL for one last season in Washington.
Montreal signed All American linebacker Tom Cousineau, the NFL's first overall pick in 1979, for a $150,000 annual salary and a $200,000 signing bonus. (Cousineau's rights were later traded by the Buffalo Bills to Cleveland for three draft choices, the first of which they used to draft QB Jim Kelly). Montreal followed this up by signing LA Rams QB, Vince Ferragamo for $400,000 ($1.2 million today) in 1981. That signing was a disaster and was followed by a franchise bankruptcy. A great read on this team can be found online in the Sports Illustrated classic, "Giving his All for the Als" by Jack McCallum.
A decade later, the Argos "Hollywood" ownership backed up the Brinks truck to sign the uber-talented, but enigmatic, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail to a 4 year $18.2 million contract (a mind boggling $36.4 million in today's adjusted dollars). The first year was legendary and ended with a Grey Cup, the second was very disappointing and Ismail left early.
For entirely different reasons, another Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams joined the Argos in 2006 for one season. He was paid a "modest" $340,000 or about $500,000 adjusted for inflation.
In between were the best paydays for quarterbacks the CFL has ever seen. The US expansion years in the 1990s made it the decade of coin for quarterbacks. Expansion drove up the market for experienced CFL QBs with the likes of Damon Allen, Matt Dunigan, Tracy Ham, David Archer and Doug Flutie commanding salaries up to $1 million, (or $2 million in today's money). With the expansion of roster size (dress, practice and IR) today they would all be in the NFL. A young Danny McManus reportedly turned down $375,000 from the BC Lions, before a cap was put on top earners. By 1995, however, the days of seven-figure annual salaries came to an abrupt end with the folding of the US franchises and a shrunken marketplace, which then ushered in an era of austerity for the CFL, from which it has never really emerged. The last CFL QB to make a million dollar plus salary in the CFL was Doug Flutie in 1997 (reportedly $1.2 million or $1.9 million inflation adjusted per season). Times have changed a lot. More than a quarter of a century along, the only CFL employees making in the $1 million range are some Team Presidents and the Commissioner. Meanwhile, the minimum CFL salary for first year players is essentially the same as it was in the 1970s.
Granted, while CFL front office, coaching and scouting staffs have expanded in numbers significantly, John Hodge was right to question where the revenues are going. As he pointed out, the league revenues have never been higher, in inflation adjusted terms. Nonetheless, the top quarterbacks and running backs today are making a fraction of what their predecessors were making well before the NFL expansion and competition for quarterbacks really heated up.
One benefit of front office expansion seems to have been the quality of scouting for the CFL draft. It's been more than a couple of decades now since a team has drafted a deceased player or drafted the same player a second time. Is this a coincidence or has it been influenced by the much greater participation of Canadians into senior management, coaching and scouting positions than decades ago? Certainly off-field personnel are far more diverse than even as recently as the 1990s.
These remain interesting questions, as yet unanswered.
Lets hope the new Alouettes' owners, whoever they turn out to be, have better success than Nelson Skalbania's "Skalouettes" of 1981. Bonne chance, les Alouettes.