The life of a CFL player isn’t particularly lavish or luxurious, actually it’s quite ordinary. The average salary in the CFL is around $80,000 a year, with starting quarterbacks making between $250,000-$400,000. Compared to the colossal salaries of the NFL, CFL players make peanuts. The average NFLer makes around $1.9 million per year. That’s almost 24 times more than the CFL average.
As in American football, quarterback is the highest paid position in the CFL. Montreal Alouettes QB Anthony Calvillo makes $400,000 dollars a year. He and Toronto Argonauts QB Ricky Ray are the two highest-paid of their position. If you look at the two highest-paid quarter backs in the NFL - Joe Flacco and Drew Brees - each makes around $20 per season. Calvillo is a 5-time CFL All-Star, yet his annual salary is 1\50th of Flacco’s.
Although Calvillo’s figures may seem underwhelming compared to those of NFL quarterbacks, he still brings in a six figure salary. His teammates however are earning around $80,000 a year. In 2013, the average annual salary for a Canadian citizen is $76,000 which is just around $4,000 under the CFL average salary. But that average doesn’t represent the majority of players in the CFL. The veteran minimum starts at around $45,000. That means that players can make anywhere between $45,000 and $80,000 a year, which leaves many players making less than the average Canadian.
In order to make ends meet, many players take up second jobs. The jobs can range from sports coaches, managers and public speakers to police officers and investors. In the 1930’s during the great depression, NFL players had their salaries reduced to as low as $100 per game. Football then became more of a pastime than a career, with players having to take up other jobs to support themselves. Now, over 70 years later, some CFL players find themselves doing the same.
In 2013 the NFL salary cap jumped from $120.6 million to $123 million, while the CFL set their salary cap at $4.4 million. That’s much lower than the NBA ($58.679 million), NHL ($64 million) and MLB ($178 million). It does make some sense if you factor in that most of these leagues, excluding the NHL, are largely based in the US where the population of some 317 million greatly outnumber Canada’s population of 35 million. Accordingly, the size of the CFL at only 8 teams pales in comparison to the NFL which has 32.
Last year's 100th Grey Cup match between the Toronto Argonauts and the Calgary Stampeders drew 5.4 million viewers across the country. in 2013, Super Bowl XLVII attracted over 108 million viewers in the United States alone. The NFL's championship game had approximately 20 times the viewers of their Canadian neighbours, a ratio that is surprisingly close to the difference in average salary with NFL players making almost 24 times more than CFL players.
In the NFL, the CFL is viewed as a place where unwanted players either go to develop or play out the remainder of their careers. For example, after being released by the Denver Broncos in 2006, cornerback Brandon Browner signed with the Calgary Stampeders. He then spent 4 years playing for the Stampeders, and then went on to sign a 3 year $1.29 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks in 2011.
Had Browner stayed in the CFL he’d have made somewhere around $80,000 as compared to the $550,000 he made this year in the NFL. If you add Browner’s $125,000 signing bonus and $93,756 roster bonus he’s due to make $768,756, close to ten times what his CFL salary would have been.
In the CFL, practice roster players make an average of $500-$600 a week, which ends up being somewhere around $2,500 a month. Teams have the option to pay practice roster players the league minimum or higher. If a player agrees to sign on to the practice roster, he will be given the same regular season benefits as a player on the active roster. In the NFL, practice roster players make $6,000 a week. Similar to the CFL, NFL teams will offer certain players more than the league average to entice them to sign to their practice rosters. However, while a CFL practice roster member makes roughly $30,000 per year, an NFL player makes around $102,000. The minimum salary for active players in the NFL is $405,000 with practice squad players making close to 1\4th of that. So even if they aren’t part of the 53-man roster, NFL practice squad players still bring in six figures a year while CFL players make less than half the average Canadian salary.
Unlike players in the NFL, CFL players won’t have ridiculous amounts of money thrown at them when they get drafted or enter free agency. With a league average salary somewhere near the average Canadian salary, being a CFL player seems more like a normal job than a lavish career. Some might say that it inspires players who have a genuine passion for football as opposed to those motivated by money. But when it comes down to the size and popularity of their respective leagues, it isn't any surprise that the gap between player salaries in the NFL and CFL is so wide.