Foundation for a Successful Ottawa Franchise

Published on February 8, 2010 9:00 PM by dbo.

Update: For the actual expansion draft rules, see the FAQ What is the CFL expansion draft format?

After passing Ottawa council’s vote last November, the Lansdowne Partnership Plan (or Lansdowne Live! if you still prefer to call it that) faces (hopefully) only one more hurdle before becoming reality. Despite this uncertainty towards the final outcome, which I accept is no slam dunk, one must now start looking at how the Ottawa franchise can be given the best chance to survive and thrive for this is certainly the last chance for football in Ottawa.

Council has asked for the public’s trust in the site’s final design, which I am prepared to give. Not everyone believes the debate is over, while the CFL understands the decision, though great for football in Ottawa, is about something bigger. This year’s announcements on the design panel membership, appointments of architects and calls for an independent transportation review brings the process closer to completion despite continued grasping at straws by the opposition.

However, before the final vote in June and well before any team potentially takes the field in 2013, the CFL has an small window of opportunity to address not only a competitive Ottawa franchise, but competitiveness in any expansion franchise awarded in the term of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Things Done Right

This time around, under the guidance of commissioner Mark Cohon, the CFL has approached expansion to Ottawa and elsewhere with reserved caution. This has helped place the conditional franchise on much better footing than past instances.

  • The ownership group awarded the conditional franchise are local, are willing to make a financial commitment greater than just the franchise fee and have experience in the Ottawa sports market.

    The last attempt with the Renegades did not have local owners or an ownership group with resources to be anything but Lansdowne tenants. No local connection with the city, mounting losses and infighting amongst owners when money was required to cover deficits led to the franchise’s demise.

    The Rough Riders franchise also met its demise when it was turned over to, first, someone without the financial resources (Bruce Firestone) and then an out-of-town owner (Horn Chen).

  • Partially the result of stadium lease negotiations, the return to Ottawa has been slow. The league and its partners have not rushed to field a team as quickly as possible. The first sign of restraint was in suspending the Renegade franchise and not operating the team in 2006 while trying to find an owner. More restraint was needed when parties made their interest in purchasing the club known. The CFL was patient and found a local, committed group that they feel has the best chance for success in Ottawa, even though that will ultimately delay the return to Ottawa by eight years if they are successful.

    The CFL acted quickly in the past to find new owners for the Rough Riders due to time and monetary pressures when there were not a lot of options out there. When an interested group came forward to start the Renegades, the franchise was awarded in October 2001 and took the field the next year. In the end, the same formula always returned the same result. This time the formula has been optimized for success.

  • The incoming ownership group has solid numbers to base their business plan on, with an audited salary cap and presumably league disbursements known to them.

    The Renegade owners were mislead over the salary cap the CFL was adhering to by as much as $1.5 million. This immediately puts a great strain on a team’s budget, who are faced with increased player salary expenditures to remain competitive in the league, but a revenue budget that could not immediately make up this shortfall. Without a team challenging for the playoffs in year two and beyond, it will be hard to build fan support in Ottawa which has suffered under-performing teams for 35 years.

  • The new owners have based the business plan of the return of football to Ottawa on a revitalized Lansdowne Park, not just because of the structural issues found with the stadium, but because a new, cozy, fresh stadium is something that will provide people an incentive to come to the games and a positive experience will make them want to come back again. In addition, the reduced seating to about 25,000 will shrink the ticket supply, and a ticket scarcity will increase the need for getting tickets early.

    Both previous instances of the CFL in Ottawa were stuck with the existing Lansdowne Park and stadium. There was no opportunity to manage or control the stadium (private boxes, concessions), reconfigure the stadium, or improve the fan experience even if they had the money to do so. City council may have kept the team alive by wiping out debts in the late 1980’s but at the same time the club was hindered by the bureaucratic management of this industrial stadium and exorbitant rents. The same crumbling stadium was provided to the returning Renegades that, upon their demise, had part of its stands condemned and demolished.

  • The CFL is in a much better position than the mid-90’s or early 2000’s, with a 5-year, $75 million television deal set to expire in 2012, the year before Ottawa is expected to return to the field. The CFL has financial stability and growth which has not been seen in 30 years.

    This stability and increased popularity will help an Ottawa franchise focus on the product on the field. Previous instances struggled with revenues until they became wards of the CFL, becoming a drain on other franchises.

  • The expected return of the name Rough Riders will also provide an opportunity for the new owners to tie the new team into the city’s past and build some stake in the community for the team after a long absence.

    While a valiant effort, the Renegades franchise was hampered by a lack of connection of the name to the city, the previous club and its rich history. To return football to Ottawa in a glorious manner requires the Rough Riders name and history so a new era building on that past can be created.

Financially the CFL seems to have the strongest group in decades to operate a franchise in Ottawa. One thing remains for them to succeed off the field and that is success on the field. That will not just come in time, but will require the franchise be given every opportunity to compete immediately.

A History of Expansion

The CFL does not have much experience in adding expansion franchises. The BC Lions are considered the first expansion team added in 1954, but to the WIFU, prior to the CFL forming. They do not provide a pattern for the league to follow considering the differences in the league, finances and fan expectations between the two eras.

The next expansion phase, mid-1990’s expansion into the US, lacked the difficulties of adding a Canadian team to the loop. American franchises did not abide by the CFLCFLPA collective bargaining agreement requirement for teams to dress a minimum amount of Canadians as any attempt to enforce the rule would have been struck down by the courts. This fact allowed the CFL to expand more quickly as there was no dilution of the Canadian talent pool that Canadian teams share.

The subsequent retraction in 1996 brought not only a huge increase in experienced American talent in the dispersal draft, but also a non-import draft to stock the relocated Montreal franchise with Canadians, of which they were obligated to dress 17 according to the newly signed CBA. The draft allowed each team to protect 10 non-import players and they could not lose more than one. With these acquisitions, the Canadian College Draft and free agent signings, Montreal had 40 non-imports on their roster on May 15, allowing them to be immediately competitive in their transition to Canada.

The only true modern expansion to Canada occurred with the addition of the Renegades in 2002. An expansion draft took place in March which stocked the new team’s roster with Canadian and American players. Ottawa selected 32 players in the draft, but only 16 were CFL roster players, eight import and eight non-imports. Teams were allowed to protect seven non-imports, with only four allowed to be offensive linemen and one allowed to be a kicker. After the first round teams could protect another six non-import players and Ottawa could select an unprotected non-import or take the team’s second round selection in the 2002 Canadian College Draft.

Note: The information in this article was gleaned from memory and limited information from newspaper archives. Since the publication of this article the complete rules for the 2002 Expansion Draft have been linked to on the CBA page.

The Renegade franchise were obligated to dress the same number of non-imports as the other eight franchises when they hit the field in 2002. Their roster could not compete in its first year, going 4-14. Through their next three seasons their lack of depth at key positions continued to show, recording 7-11, 5-13, and 7-11 records. Other factors certainly contributed to their sub-.500 record including coaching, recruiting/player personnel decisions and ownership/financial difficulties. To repeat this exercise again and hope for better results this time is insane. The opportunity to help address expansion competitiveness exists now and the league needs to address it for the fielding of an Ottawa franchise in 2013 and any future expansion franchise.

A Competitive Foundation

The opportunity lies in the opening of the collective bargaining agreement, set to expire in May, 2010. The wording in previous agreements required the same number of Canadians on all teams and the CFLPA enforced that (and rightly so), with no exceptions, even for expansion franchises. Owners may have also been happy for that requirement, not wanting to given any competitor an advantage. Building in accommodations for phased in non-import requirements into the CBA provides for a more competitive expansion franchise and addresses the issue of the lack of experience and talent in the non-import pool which will be further compounded by the immediate need for 20 more non-imports. Upcoming expansion has been named as one of the main reasons owners wish to modify the designated import rules, reducing the number of required non-import starters.

A Graduated Non-import Roster Requirement

A CBA with a clause to gradually increase the required number of non-imports on an expansion franchise over a period of years addresses all of the problems expansion brings.

  • For the league, it creates less strain on the Canadian talent pool, which has less of a negative affect on the existing franchises and salaries for quality non-import players.
  • For the Players’ Association, it holds the line on the amount of non-imports on each team during normal post-expansion terms. While the number of Canadian jobs do not increase immediately by the full number required by the CBA (20 currently) with the addition of a franchise, that total is reached eventually. A gradual increase for expansion franchises does not erode the number across all teams nor provide a slippery slope for future reductions as the clause only applies to new franchises and can be protected from the loophole where new franchises are granted to all cities each year by stating the city must not have had a CFL franchise in the last five years for the rule to apply.
  • For the new franchise, it allows them to be more competitive while developing additional Canadian talent.

While the idea of providing expansion franchises a roster grace period seems all positive, I have not explained how it will work. The actual details on the number of players and number of years are up for negotiation, but I will provide an example using one option.

Expansion franchises to cities which have not been home to a CFL franchise in the past five (5) years will abide by the 42-man active roster size but will be allowed a grace period regarding the makeup of their roster per the following schedule:

Year in League Active Roster Makeup
1 3 players identified as quarterbacks, and 39 other players, of whom not more than 24 may be imports
2 3 players identified as quarterbacks, and 39 other players, of whom not more than 23 may be imports
3 3 players identified as quarterbacks, and 39 other players, of whom not more than 22 may be imports
4 3 players identified as quarterbacks, and 39 other players, of whom not more than 21 may be imports
5 3 players identified as quarterbacks, and 39 other players, of whom not more than 20 may be imports

In the team’s sixth year and after they will abide by the standard CFL roster size regulations as defined in Article 23 of the CBA.

If five players over five years is not acceptable there are many combinations that can be tried: six players over three years, five players over three years, three players over three years and so on. The number of players and years can be whatever is required to provide desired assistance and length of assistance, with fewer players and shorter terms being less effective.

Flaws in the plan may be raised by some, but I believe they can be addressed.

  • Won’t the high number of imports dressed encourage the expansion franchise to start all import players?

    While this is possible, the franchise owners and coaches will be left with a decision between short term and long term success. While an all import starting squad may be tempting for the short term, the risk is also very high considering the experience and cohesiveness of a young expansion team. Knowing the long term needs to develop non-imports as their number increases on the roster each year may be a better path to competitiveness. If needed, the number of starting non-imports could be included in the expansion roster clause.

  • Won’t import players lose their jobs each year with a reduction of the number of import spots?

    Yes, but this will likely occur through normal attrition anyway - free agency, retirements, trades, etc. It is very unlikely an import will be cut to make room for a Canadian.

  • Where will the additional non-imports come from?

    They will be developed by the expansion team from draft picks, acquired in free agency or in trades.

  • Won’t this drive up the price of non-import players on the free agent market?

    Keeping the number of non-import roster spots that are added each year small will limit any inflation on the market. In fact, the inflation effect will be much less than if an additional 20 non-imports are required immediately on the talent pool. Other initiatives can also be instituted to increase the number of qualified Canadians to increase supply, such as temporarily expanding non-import spots on existing practice rosters in the years leading up to expansion.

  • Doesn’t the elimination of the designated import rule (which decreases the number of non-import starters) accomplish the same thing and provide an even playing field for all teams?

    No. First, there are still 20 Canadian roster spots required for each team, so an expansion team adds demand for an additional 20 non-import players, even if the amount of non-import starters is reduced. Second, by my determination reducing Canadian starting spots across all teams is not popular amongst CFL fans across Canada. I believe addressing the demand strain an expansion team puts on the limited talent pool by phasing in the requirements for the new franchise would find more favour amongst fans.

Addressing the non-import questions only provides part of the foundation for a competitive expansion franchise. Other methods to stock an expansion franchise can be defined once a graduated non-import roster is accepted.

The Expansion Draft

The expansion draft used in 2002 to stock the Renegades was the expansion draft format specified to be used in the 2006 CBA. With it expiring, now is a perfect opportunity to tweak that format also. With a graduated non-import that would require 15 non-import spots in the franchises first year I would propose the following expansion format:

  • Three separate rounds, each covering a different class of player — non-imports, imports/quarterbacks and negotiation list players.
  • In the first round, each team protects six non-import players they have under contract. The expansion team then selects either an unprotected non-import player or a team’s second round draft selection in the next year’s Canadian College Draft. A team may only lose one player or selection in this round. Remaining teams then protect an additional non-import player and the expansion team selects again until all teams have lost either a player or draft selection.
  • In the second round, each team protects from the import players and quarterbacks they have under contract six players and one quarterback. As per the previous round, the expansion team then selects an unprotected import player or quarterback. The expansion team is only allowed to select one quarterback and doing so eliminates the team the QB is selected from from further picks in this round. Therefore, a team may lose only two players or one quarterback in this round. All teams then protect an additional import player and the expansion team selects again until all teams have lost two import players or one quarterback.
  • In the third round, the expansion franchise selects one player from each team’s negotiation list (import players not under contract but whose negotiation rights are held by one club).

In the current eight team league, this format would allow the ninth franchise to start with eight non-imports, one quarterback, fifteen import players under contract and eight import players on the negotiation list for a total of 32 players.

These expansion draft rules provide a higher quality player to the new franchise. The franchise is seeded with a CFL experienced quarterback, half of the non-imports required if a graduated ratio rule was introduced and fifteen import players. This is a total of 24 CFL roster players plus an additional eight negotiation list players for a total of 32 players. Compared to the 16 active players (8 import and 8 non-import) and 16 negotiation list players selected in the 2002 Ottawa Renegade expansion draft, these rules provide a much more experienced roster for the expansion team in their first year.

The Equalization Draft

An equalization draft allows teams who are lower in the standings to select players from higher finishing teams in order to balance the talent in the league and create a more competitive season. The CFL last operated an equalization draft from 1987 to 1989, the first year in secret before being leaked and the CFL could properly announce the results. The concept of an equalization draft is very controversial and debated topic. While the goal of a more competitive, strong circuit is a league-wide goal, it contravenes the goals of the member clubs. There are ways to address the criticisms of an equalization draft so it is leveraged only when needed.

  • The first criticism of an equalization draft is it is socialism, providing to the have-nots for under-performing while robbing from those who did perform well. That is true, but in an small league it is important to maintain a competitive balance. The CFL can become awful boring if the same teams are competing for the Grey Cup year after year. However, placing restrictions and guidelines on when and how an equalization draft takes place means it will only be engaged when necessary.
  • Equalization is also heavily criticized over who should be eligible for receiving players and who should lose them. Teams have complained about losing too many players or about a team receiving players while also spending exorbitantly on the free agent market. Have-not teams have complained about the lack of talent available due to the rules allowing teams to protect most of their roster. Again, well defined rules surrounding the equalization draft and acceptance across the league of its need and purpose will help diminish these criticisms.

An equalization draft can help provide for expansion clubs and increase their competitiveness beyond an initial expansion draft. There can be a trade-off between providing players in an expansion draft and an equalization draft. Reducing the amount of players selected in an expansion draft but providing additional support in an equalization draft in subsequent years can limit the affect on other teams while providing for the expansion team. An equalization draft also can have requirements which mean the draft is not engaged if the expansion franchise achieves a specified amount of success.

The equalization draft format I propose for development from would have the following conditions to limit when it is engaged, define who is eligible to receive help and the rules for participation.

  • Equalization draft would occur before the free agent deadline when the following conditions are true.
    • At least one team who had joined the league in the last three years and had ten points or less in the previous season.
    • If not limiting equalization draft participation to recent expansion teams, then maximum participation is capped at two teams and the point threshold is set at eight. If more than two teams had eight points or less, the lowest two teams based on the tie-breaking procedure will be used.
    • Said teams were compliant with the Salary Management System the previous season.
    • Said teams are in good standing with the CFL (do not owe any money to the league).
  • Equalization draft would be to redistribute non-import talent only.
  • Participating teams (drafters) will each select one player total from the top four teams (draftees) in the league the previous season by order of finish. No team will be able to lose more than one player. Draftee teams will be able to protect 12 non-import players in the draft. The remaining non-import players they have under contract will be eligible for draft.

An equalization draft is another tool that can be used to assist the competitive balance of the CFL as expansion teams are added. While it can be restricted to expansion times, it may also be engaged for all teams when teams perform poorly on the field. Limiting the number of player selections helps reduce the impact to other clubs while providing some redistribution of the non-import talent.

The Crossover Rule

The crossover rule provides a method to increase competitiveness and ensure that the best teams by record participate in the playoffs. In a small league guaranteeing a balance in the league across divisions is difficult when almost half a teams games are cross-division matches. A crossover opportunity is important feature to help provide balance. However, there are periods when the crossover rule, while useful to established franchises, hurts the opportunities for an expansion club.

The perception of an expansion club being competitive lays largely on fighting for a playoff spot and securing one in its early years. The Ottawa Renegades twice finished higher in the standings than an established club in their division but were denied a playoff spot due to the crossover rule. How much could have making the playoffs in their second year have helped the fan support, team perception and player confidence of the club? I think it would have had some effect, certainly increasing the value of the club and perhaps changing the whole course of events in their final seasons.

For an expansion club in the CFL to been seen as competitive they must compete for a playoff position, which means exceeding the record of their division mates. In a re-load league like the CFL, this can be very difficult to do, and the crossover rule can take away this accomplishment when it is achieved.

To create an opportunity for expansion clubs, I would propose that the crossover rule be adjusted to not apply to expansion teams in the first three years of their existence if they finish with 14 or more points. That is, if the expansion club finishes in third place in their division with at least 14 points during their first three seasons, a fourth place club from the other division cannot crossover. However, the crossover is still allowed if an non-expansion club finishes in third place with fewer points than the fourth place club in the other division.

This seems complicated, but I designed it as a compromise to completely suspending the crossover rule during an expansion franchise’s first years so to allow crossovers if the expansion team does not meet a certain standard. Known from the start of a season, teams are aware where they need to finish to be rewarded a playoff spot, so no complaints are valid. I think it provides a balance between ensuring competitiveness and providing an additional opportunity to fledgling teams.

The Schedule

As mentioned, in an eight team league, each franchise plays eight cross-divisional games and ten games within their own division. In a nine team league and unbalanced divisions, the schedule also becomes unbalanced. In 2002-2005, the result was western clubs playing ten divisional games and eight cross-division contests while eastern teams played eight divisional games and ten cross-division matches.

Scheduling is a difficult task in general, and an odd number of teams in a small league makes it even more difficult. The obvious, least effort (to the scheduler) solution is to add a tenth franchise. That not being so easy, there will be a need to create a schedule for a nine-team league. I see one alternative that could be considered versus the format used in the past.

Divisional Schedule Balance in a Nine-team League
Historical Format
East West
East vs (3 opp. x 2 games) + 2 games =
8 games
5 opp. x 2 games =
10 games
West vs 4 opp. x 2 games =
8 games
(4 opp. x 2 games) + 2 games =
10 games

Divisional Schedule Balance in a Nine-team League
Proposed Format
East West
East vs 3 opp. x 3 games =
9 games
(5 opp. x 2 games) - 1 game =
9 games
West vs (4 opp. x 2 games) + 1 game =
9 games
(4 opp. x 2 games) + 1 game =
9 games

Read this table from the perspective of an individual team in each division. In the historical format, each team plays the remaining clubs twice for a total of 16 games (8 teams x 2) plus an additional game against two divisional rivals. In the East this provides eight divisional games while in the West ten divisional games. The proposed format tries to balance the schedule so all teams play nine divisional and nine non-divisional games. To accomplish this, the smaller four-team division (the East normally) plays all divisional opponents three times for a total of 9 games. The five-team West division plays all divisional opponents twice plus an additional game. The East plays all teams in the West twice except one, which it plays once, while the West plays all teams in the East twice plus an additional game.

In additional to providing a more balanced schedule between divisions for a nine-team league, the schedule provides an opportunity to provide a unique and different schedule every year with a different variety of opponents and number of meetings each season.

I have quickly mapped out this format and in theory it should work, though the details are slightly different than described above. It does provide some anomalies and a lack of symmetry that is the norm, however I believe it provides a schedule that does not favour one division. If the schedule is something the league wishes to review with the return of nine teams, I encourage them to investigate this format for any unforeseen flaws or difficulties it contains, such as increased travel.


I have laid out some draft ideas around potential changes that the CFL could institute to improve the competitiveness of expansion clubs. A framework of an import ratio grace period, expansion draft and equalization draft needs to be defined and agreed upon with the players’ association to provide a visible and consistent methodology for stocking and supporting expansion franchises. The crossover rule and schedule makeup also can be included in any measures meant to help expansion teams.

Many, if not all, fans reading this will be against any assistance of expansion franchises in this way in order to protect their own clubs’ players. I would also expect opposition to changes to the crossover rule and implementing an equalization draft, especially from the west. Many will likely believe this is coming from the Ottawa fan in me. In truth, I am a CFL supporter with no allegiances to Ottawa. Which team takes the Grey Cup each year is not the most important thing to me. There is always next year. What is critical is the survival of the league for at least another 100 years and making sure there is never a last Grey Cup so fans always have next year to look forward to. Expansion success in Ottawa and any future sites is very important to seeing the league through to the next century.

Do I think these suggestions will be well received with the board of governors? No. I expect that the same method used to bring the Renegades into the league in 2002 will be used in the future. Individual clubs are overly concerned about granting anyone an advantage, no matter how disadvantaged they are, than they are about the overall growth and health of the league that successful expansion would bring. I hope I am wrong and the new CBA includes similar changes rather than a simple abolishment of the designated import, reducing the number of non-import starters, and no help in the expansion draft. Only time will tell.


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Foundation for a Successful Ottawa Franchise was published on February 8, 2010 9:00 PM by dbo.

5,221 words.

This article is categorized under Franchises and tagged with cba, crossover, equalization-draft, expansion-draft, import-ratio, non-import and schedule.

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