TORONTO - The clock continues to tick and there are only minutes now before the current collective bargaining agreement between the CFL and the Players Association expires - but still there's no deal.
After almost two days of talks at a Toronto airport hotel, the CFL eventually did increase its financial offer and the union removed any revenue-sharing percentages from its own proposal, but talks between both sides broke down Thursday afternoon. The current CBA expired Thursday at midnight ET.
Neither side knows when they'll meet again at the bargaining table, but the union won't stop players from reporting when training camps open Sunday and the league, too, won't stop any player from stepping onto the field.
"No we won't [keep players away from the field]," commissioner Mark Cohon told TSN after both sides parted. "We want football to be played. We want them to vote on this best offer that we have for them."
"We've come to the table many times and they've pushed away," union president Scott Flory told TSN before leaving the hotel to catch a flight.
With so much on the line so late, it's a frustrating and compelling moment in the immediate future of Canadian football.
The sides met for over a 12-hour period Wednesday in the company of a third-party mediator and on the surface, everyone agreed those discussions were beneficial.
"We thought we had good talks in the [Wednesday morning]," Flory, a former Montreal Alouettes offensive lineman said. "We had some [talks] without prejudice. We talked freely and we were allowed to discuss issues."
"Great conversations [Wednesday] - some important issues that were important to the players - and we came back with some creative ideas," Cohon said.
Cohon and his team - chief operating officer Michael Copeland, vice president of football operations Kevin McDonald, Calgary Stampeders president Ken King, Roughriders president Jim Hopson and CFL legal counsel Steve Shamie - presented the union with a base salary cap of $5 million in 2014, along with a clause that stipulated if in the third year of a new CBA (potentially 2016) the league's aggregate revenues grew by $27 million compared to the previous year, the CFL would be open to renegotiating and possibly raising the salary cap.
Cohon later called it the league's "final offer."
"In the discussions the players said to us 'We're really worried if you have some break-out revenues, some extraordinary opportunities - new TV deal, major, major sponsorship, all of a sudden all your stadiums are full - we want to participate,'" Cohon said. "We thought that was a major step forward for us."
The players' representatives at the table - union president Scott Flory, vice presidents Marwan Hage and Jeff Keeping, treasurer Brian Ramsay and CFLPA legal counsel Ed Molstad - tabled a counter proposal before 11:30am ET. It included a $5.8 million cap and $4.8 million minimum cap floor. The players also banished the revenue-sharing percentages from their previous offer, and in its place created a "Revenue Protection Clause." The clause offered the potential for a "fixed cap for a minimum of two years," and if league revenues in the third year - excluding money made from the Grey Cup - increased "more than $12 million," the league and union would reopen talks on the salary cap limit or the existing CBA would be void at the end of that season.
"A system where the cap is tied to revenue," Flory said. "They are fixed on fixing the cost of the players. We came up with a system that we thought was incredibly reasonable, where there is a protection for guys. If revenues grow by a certain amount, we are just going to recalibrate the cap."
The league met the players after 2pm ET, saying the union's proposal was unacceptable and walked out.
"You get to a point in negotiations where you have to look holistically at what's important to our league - we have to protect and continue to try and thrive and build this league," Cohon said. "The reason [talks] broke down is the proposal from the players would set us back. We can't do that."
"We tried to accommodate and make a deal because we want to be on the field," Flory said. "We want to play football. It is just clear to the other side that they are going to try and dictate terms to us. We aren't willing to accept that."
Cohon said the league couldn't accept the players' math.
"When we put our best offer on the table, which was a significant offer - and by the way we walked in and placed down all of our financials - we broke down each team's P&L (profit and loss) and based upon their proposal over two-thirds of our teams would be losing money," the commissioner said.
The players' offer also includes non-financial points - including one padded practice per week and the desire to have an independent neurologist on the sideline for every game - and a proposal to reduce contract option years. But differing methods to constructing, setting and growing the salary cap appears a wide gulf right now.
The one thing both sides apparently agree on, however, is it's up to the players to decide their next move.
Union sources told TSN the players are awaiting all strike ballots and reviewing particular provincial labour laws before declaring to the league they have the will and right to strike at any time. Flory told TSN he's encouraging players to report to training camp. Ramsay (Edmonton Eskimos) and Keeping (Toronto Argonauts) are active players and both confirmed to TSN they will report to training camp Sunday.
"We hear, we listen - you can see our proposal and the movement we've made...We're telling players to report to training camp. We want to play football," Flory said.
Cohon wants the players to vote on the league's offer.
"It's really our final offer. It's what we've mentioned to the players; that is what we've said to the players," he said. "We want them to take this to a vote. We want to hear from the players.
"Players are all coming to camp is what we hear - they're reporting, the rookies are there, and the quarterbacks are there. Guys are flying in. We want them to take this to a vote and let the players speak."
As members of both sides left the hotel, the third party mediator - who didn't offer his name or want to comment extensively on negotiations - smiled when asked if he could see some kind of conclusion.
"These kind of negotiations usually get done," he said as he walked out the lobby door.