The CFL is bracing for a battle before the war in the trenches start.
For the first time in 35 years, the Canadian league is perparing for a possible work stoppage. The current collective bargaining agreement expires June 5 -- a day before training camps are set to open -- and the lines are being drawn for a dispute.
The last time the CFL had a work stoppage, it was 1974 when the players went on strike for 12 days.
There is almost no chance the players are going to walk on their own this time. CFL careers are too short and too hard to maintain for the Players' Association to convince all of them to risk walking out.
Although both sides have refused to talk about the discussions, the main issue in these negotiations is the percentage of revenues the players receive. The current CBA, which was signed in 2006, gives the players 56% of the league-defined revenues.
The CFL should see an increase in revenue in the coming years thanks to new stadiums that are being planned and increasing television money. The ratings for the CFL on TSN have never been higher and the league is coming off a massive audience and plenty of buzz from the Grey Cup in Calgary. The annual income from TV money is about $15 million, which would likely increase when the current deal with TSN expires.
One would think the league wouldn't want to kill all this positive momentum by disrupting the 2010 campaign, but the players are worried they will be locked out.
Unlike the last deal, the owners may be taking a hard line to get what they want. There was hardly a mention of the CBA when the last deal expired, and the league played the entire 2005 season without a new agreement.
Of course, at that time, the NHL had just finished an ugly lockout that cost them a season and the CFL had just rescued two teams from bankruptcy.
Former Edmonton Eskimos executive Hugh Campbell represented the league in talks for the last CBA. This time around, the league has hired labour lawyer Stephen Shamie to help with negotiations.
There are reports the players have proposed revenue sharing among the owners, but with two of the eight teams far behind in terms of making money -- Toronto and Hamilton -- that would further hamstring franchises that struggle.
For instance, once the Hamilton Tiger-Cats get a new stadium, which is planned for 2016 when the Pan-Am Games hit that city, they would have a revenue increase most franchises experience with new buildings.
If the revenue was divided up evenly among the clubs, the Ticats wouldn't be further ahead because they would be dumping money into the league fund and taking back the same portion.
It seems drug testing isn't much of an issue, and the players would likely concede to it, but if money is a problem then it hardly makes sense to spend on something no one is clamouring for right now.
It's also been reported that the players would like to raise the $41,000 minimum salary $1,000 annually and see Grey Cup shares increase to $20,000 from $16,000 for winners and $10,000 from $8,000 for the losers.
One of the sticking points from the players' side was raised at the Grey Cup in Calgary last November. There were rumours that the league wanted to reduce the number of starting positions guaranteed to Canadians from seven to four. According to one player source, this issue is still on the table but it's not something on which the union will budge.
When questioned about this rumour at the Grey Cup, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon was aloof, just saying the league wasn't going to negotiate through the media but understood the importance of Canadians.
Each team must dress 20 non-imports in a 42-man active roster, and seven positions must be Canadian-occupied at all times.
Because there is a smaller player pool of Canadian talent, finding quality players is easy enough but once injuries take hold, there aren't many capable replacements as the season moves along.
It's easier -- and much, much cheaper -- to pull players from the seemingly endless pool of imports in the U.S.
If there is a labour dispute and the players are locked out, the league could just drop the import rule and find 400 players as replacements in a hurry.
There are 100 or so new players in CFL training camps every June anyway, and someone new to the league would have no issue crossing the line.
Another question would be: Are all the current player contracts null and void?
That scenario seems unlikely as the owners would look like bullies, but never say never in the CFL.