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CFL’s player composition changing before our eyes

CFL Combine CFL Combine - Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images

For most of its existence, the Canadian Football League has laid claim to the best players in the world competing outside of the National Football League.

The league’s Canadian players, like the prospects who are gathered in Edmonton this week for the annual CFL Combine, come through a different stream.

But when it comes to Americans, the CFL benefited from being the next-best option to the NFL, and often the only thing standing between players and retirement. That’s why a lot of talented football players have made their way north over the years – even stars of the some of the biggest college programs in America.

With players unable to earn money as college athletes and there only being so many roster spots in the NFL, the market of high-quality American talent has been traditionally robust for CFL teams.

But the sands have shifted quickly under the CFL’s feet in recent years when it comes to the recruiting landscape, in ways subtle and not so subtle.

Let’s start with the obvious – the addition of two new professional spring leagues in the U.S. in the XFL, which re-launched in February, and the USFL, which will begin its second season in April.

Both of those leagues have rookie salaries competitive with the amount American players are offered to come to Canada, despite playing roughly half the number of games. But the spring leagues play 10-week regular seasons while CFL teams play 18 games over 21 weeks, and players in those spring leagues can step straight into an NFL camp the same season.

For former college players who want one more shot at the NFL, it’s a no-brainer to stay in the U.S.

Where the spring leagues eventually settle economically will have to wait until they can prove they are sustainable. But for now, they have bumped the CFL to fourth on the professional football pecking order, especially among those early in their careers, if for no other reason than they play American football in America in the spring.

That’s resulted in CFL scouts being told “no” more often, forcing them to look further down the college football hierarchy, away from the NFL factories and more towards players from smaller schools and conferences. It’s happening already.

A couple more subtle forces are helping that trend along.

One is the recent expansion of NFL practice rosters, in terms of numbers of players, salaries, and makeup.

NFL practice rosters have doubled in size from eight to 16 players per team over the past 10 years, taking 256 players off the market. Practice rosters used to be restricted to entry-level players with fewer than three seasons of NFL experience, but now every team can use up to six spots for veterans with no restrictions on accrued time.

The minimum salary is $207,000 for players within their first two years in the league, and $277,200 for players with more experience. Teams can and do often pay them more.

The kind of player who would have been starring in the CFL 10 years ago is now taking his chances on an NFL practice roster. And there are plenty of others willing to wait by the phone to join him rather than commit to a season in Canada for $75,000 (CDN).

When you add up the additional players on NFL practice rosters and the combined 16 teams in the XFL and USFL, it removes roughly 1,200 professional quality players from the open market for CFL teams.

As for access to NFL veterans, the soaring salaries in that league have made it less likely that those pushed out after earning millions will come to Canada for fractions of what they were previously earning.

The other below-the-radar factor is the introduction of NIL (Name Image and Likeness) deals for college athletes, many of whom at bigger programs earn six-figure college athlete salaries. The best players at the very top schools can earn into the millions.

College stars having to take a pay cut to continue playing professionally in the CFL is just another obstacle in the league’s way, at least from a player perception point of view. And more players leaving school with money in the bank means more players with options beyond football.

There will still be players who fall through the cracks to the CFL and use the three-down game to make their way back to the NFL, but those are likely to be fewer as well.

Add it all up and you’re looking at a very different recruiting world for CFL teams when it comes to American players.

Now, for the good news. And yes, there actually is some good news in this story and it has to do with one of the traditional criticisms directed at CFL teams – too much roster turnover with American players, whose careers in Canada could sometimes be counted in games or months, not years.

With a plentiful market of American players willing to come to Canada, CFL general managers could make changes with a single phone call, replacing anyone on their roster with someone who was cheaper, younger or, in their eyes, better.

The result was often head-spinning roster changes that impacted the ability of fans to identify with players, and made the CFL feel like a transient league.

Having a tighter U.S player market, with a premium on good American players who are willing to come to Canada, may improve this situation. Teams will fight harder to keep American players and extend their careers because replacing them is a lot harder than it used to be.

More roster stability, and more job security for American players, is good for the CFL.

The other good news, at least in some eyes, is that the league’s Canadian players will get more opportunities to shine as the talent gap shrinks between them and the league’s American players.

Combine the American trend with the overall level of Canadian talent improving and you’re seeing a shrinking gap between U.S. and Canadian talent that should be good for the game.

So, this isn’t a bad news story or a good news story. It’s both.

But the player composition of the CFL is changing before our eyes.