CFL Gets Another Round Of Competition From Startup USFL

Written By Andrew Bucholtz on March 25, 2022 - Last Updated on July 1, 2022
Canadian Football League CFL USFL Competition

Update, May 4: The USFL’s signing of Liam Dobson, the third-overall pick in the 2021 CFL Draft, may prove less of a challenge to the CFL than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters initially called it. Dobson was selected in the USFL draft by the New Orleans Breakers, but has yet to appear in any USFL games. A report from TSN’s Dave Naylor this week cited U.S. P-1 visa issues for Dobson as the reason, saying the USFL did not have proof of the $10 million in revenue required to meet that visa category. Dobson has reportedly received minicamp invites from the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, so still may not return to the CFL this year. But if the USFL can’t meet the requirements for Canadian players work visas, its challenge to the CFL will only less than expected. That’s still notable, but it’s less of a ‘kick in the rear’.

The last two decades have seen several alternative football leagues come and go in the U.S., and the new United States Football League is one worth discussion from a Canadian Football League perspective.

This week, that eight-team league brought players in for orientation and announced its new rules, as well as its full schedule.

The CFL has outlasted the competition so far in the market. The league will be boosted this season by sports betting in Ontario, which opens up a new revenue source.

But it’s game on once again for the CFL, which opens its 2022 season on June 9.

USFL betting: New league opened season April 16

The USFL schedule opened April 16 with the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions, which was televised on FOX and NBC.

Some of the games are on U.S. cable and streaming services not available in Canada. But the first three weeks (the only ones with full broadcast information announced so far) will see six out of the 12 total games broadcast on FOX (which owns the league), NBC, or both, and thus available in Canada through the cross-border over-the-air affiliates found in most cable and satellite packages (or even potentially with an antenna with strong-enough signal strength).

It’s unclear as of now if TSN or Sportsnet will pick up the games on U.S. cable networks, but that’s a possibility.

It’s also not yet clear how easy it will be to bet on the USFL in Canada, though USFL betting is already legal in 15 US states. But the April 4 opening of the Ontario market to a wide list of operators may provide opportunities to bet on the league. For example, BetMGM Sportsbook, one operator cleared this week to launch in Ontario on April 4, has already put out USFL championship odds, establishing the Michigan Panthers at +425 championship favourites.

But, for now, we’ll put CFL betting as a checkmark on the Canadian league’s ledger.

Dobson signings highlight USFL and CFL player competition

Beyond interest in the USFL in its own right, it’s going to be a worthwhile league for Canadians to follow based on its competition with the CFL for players. The signings of Liam Dobson and Paxton Lynch, in particular, illustrate that.

Dobson seems like quite a loss for the CFL. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers drafted the 6-foot-3, 330-pound Canadian offensive lineman third overall in the 2021 CFL Draft last May, and he was the first offensive lineman picked in that draft.

The Ottawa native had a strong college career at the FCS level with Maine before that. He played another NCAA year at the FBS level with Texas State this past season, starting all 12 games for them and playing both right tackle and left guard. Dobson was named as an honourable mention on the All-Sun Belt team.

Ahead of February’s USFL draft, Dobson elected to sign a contract with that league to become draft-eligible, and he was chosen in the 23rd round by the New Orleans Breakers. He’s now under contract with them for a year. That contract comes with a team option for another year, and without a CFL out.

Winnipeg GM: Dobson’s USFL contract a ‘kick in the rear’

Dobson’s signing drew a significant reaction from Winnipeg GM Kyle Walters. Walters noted to CJOB’s Christian Armell that Dobson was not the only player the Blue Bombers were interested in who went to the USFL, but he was a particularly notable loss given his Canadian status.

“We’ve lost six or seven (players) off of our (negotiation) list who signed down there — closer to nine or 10, I guess it is, off of our neg list — and then Liam was the kick in the rear. We drafted him last year. We didn’t think with the bigger draft class in the NFL … that he was going to get an NFL look, so (we) took our chances. And to lose him to the USFL really was a tough pill to swallow.”

That is a tough pill indeed, as there’s a lot of demand for talented Canadian offensive linemen in particular. The CFL’s ratio requires a minimum of 21 national players on the 46-man game day roster, with at least seven of those national players starting. Most teams start at least three Canadians on the offensive line, and some use more.

In their Grey Cup win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last December, Winnipeg started Canadians at centre and at both guard slots. One of those guards, left guard Drew Desjarlais, signed with the NFL’s New England Patriots in January. So the Bombers will have to replace him somehow, but it won’t be with Dobson.

Factors in Lynch signing bring up CFL vs. USFL issues

The other notable CFL to USFL signing named so far is American quarterback Paxton Lynch. Lynch, a 2016 NFL first-round pick by the Denver Broncos, signed a two-year deal with the Saskatchewan Roughriders last summer. But he didn’t get into a regular-season game in 2021, and the Roughriders released Lynch this offseason.

However, Lynch’s agent Chris Cabott said that release was at Lynch’s request so he could enter the USFL draft. He went taken in the 12th round by the Michigan Panthers.

And Cabott’s comments there that “The USFL opportunity offers an easier means of keeping a family together, consistent schooling, not having to worry about border regulation or federal mandated quarantines” are worth consideration in terms of the USFL impact on the CFL.

The USFL is coming in lower than CFL on salaries right now, but not by a whole lot. USFL players will make $45,000 U.S. for the regular season, rising to a maximum of $75,750 with all bonuses. Dobson could have made an estimated $80,000 Canadian (around $63,000 U.S.) on a rookie CFL deal.

Lynch was making the CFL minimum of $65,000 Canadian, although he did receive a $3,600 housing allowance and some bonuses. That’s about $51,000 U.S. currently, so this isn’t that much of a change for him.

Which is better for players: CFL or USFL?

Other factors probably are playing a larger role in the USFL beating out the CFL for some players. One is that it’s similar pay for less work and less travel, with no international borders in the way.

This year’s entire USFL regular season will take place in Birmingham, Alabama, with each team playing 10 regular season games. The league is then set to have two semifinals and a championship game in Canton, Ohio. So, the most games any player might play is 12.

By contrast, 2022 will see the CFL return to a full 18-game regular-season schedule, plus up to three playoff games. And that comes with travel and international border challenges for those who don’t already live in Canada.

USFL likely be a more flexible option for NFL prospects

Maybe the biggest thing in the USFL’s favour is when its season will take place and its NFL out. The USFL season and playoffs will run from April 16 to July 3. While players are signed for one year with a further one-year team option, the USFL will allow players to leave if they can prove they’re signing with a NFL team.

That may not enable all NFL opportunities, as the NFL won’t work under-contract players out. But it should lead to some, including some ahead of this fall’s NFL season. By contrast, the CFL regular season will run from June 9 to Oct. 29, with the playoffs then running until the Nov. 20 Grey Cup. So while the CFL also allows players to leave for NFL opportunities in a window (most recently December 13, 2021 to February 8, 2022 this past year), that’s really more for the next NFL season.

USFL set up to threaten CFL, though we’ve heard that before

At the moment, the USFL may not be a huge threat for the CFL. There are questions about how much traction it will get, and how long it will last. But it does have solid ownership and broadcast setups. And it’s clearly competing for at least some players who might go to the CFL otherwise.

With the XFL also set to return in 2023, there could be even more leagues battling for players next year. That may not cause a CFL crisis, as there are a lot of talented players; many good NCAA players never get a professional opportunity. But it’s certainly something to be aware of.

And this may require the CFL to be proactive to attract and retain players. One good step on that front is the aforementioned return of the NFL window, which existed from 1997-2010. Taking it out made it harder to recruit top-tier talent, but bringing it back helps. Other possible options could be improving the minimum salary or having GMs be more willing to offer non-minimum contracts.

Yes, the CFL has always been involved in some level of competition for players with other North American leagues. Just recently, there’s been the AAF (2019), the XFL 2.0 (2020), Fan-Controlled Football and more.

But this USFL and the upcoming XFL 3.0 seem to be on stronger ground than those. The CFL will have to keep a close eye on that if it wants to maintain a strong talent level.

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Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz covered the CFL from 2010-16 for Yahoo Canada Sports. He currently works as a news editor for Awful Announcing.

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