Getting players in the Canadian Football League (CFL) to focus on planning for their retirement while they work on passing yards or tackles is a tough play to execute. But, with the average CFL playing career lasting just 3.2 years, Mike Morreale, president of the Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA), knows it’s important to get players to consider their future. Most CFL players are in their early to mid-20s, with a few thirtysomethings in the mix—a demographic that, in most workplaces, isn’t typically engaged in its retirement savings plan to begin with. “I can honestly say that the pension isn’t something the players think about every day,” says Morreale.
CFL players earn an average base salary of between $80,000 and $85,000, not including what certain players may get paid for appearances. While this pales in comparison to the salaries earned by professional athletes in other leagues, it’s well above the current average Canadian paycheque of $46,696, as reported by Statistics Canada in June. And, it’s certainly enough to live off while also starting a retirement nest egg.
The game plan
The CFLPA was established in 1965, with the players’ pension plan following shortly after, in 1967. The DC plan requires mandatory participation from all players, each of whom contributes the same amount. The league matches player contributions 100%. Some of the players just starting CFL careers initially question the sum that comes off their paycheques. “It’s an education process at times,” Morreale says. But once the players understand where the money is going, and that it’s setting them up for their post-football years, all get on board—which is good, because they can’t opt out of the plan.
“Having a mandatory plan is something the association feels strongly about. It’s a chance to put away some pretty decent money on a yearly basis,” Morreale says. “It’s not something the guys would do voluntarily. So the fact that it’s a mandatory contribution and the fact that we are able to raise the dollar amount on a yearly basis or when we do collective bargaining is really the best way that our executive and our association can help our players.”
The CFLPA has been able to increase the club contributions by slightly more than 3% per annum over the past five years.
Players are fully vested after their second season, and they can begin to draw accumulated funds once they reach age 55. When players end their career with the CFL, they can move the funds to another locked-in plan, but it’s not something the association encourages since the fees that have been negotiated with the current provider are likely better than what a player may get on his own. But Morreale says most players don’t move their money out of the plan; in fact, most players don’t actually do anything with it while it’s in the plan. “Most players are in the default fund,” he explains. In recognizing this, the CFLPA decided to move the default option from a balanced fund to a more aggressive target date fund (TDF) about six years ago.
At that time, players who didn’t have current contact information on file were automatically moved to the new TDF. All other players were informed of the availability of the new fund but left to move their investments on their own. “The majority of the money remains in [the default] fund because the players don’t necessarily access it and [do not] make decisions on it, mostly because they aren’t thinking about retirement,” says Morreale. “A lot of them are just here to play football. They think they are going to play for 10 years or more. So we have to help them make decisions if they aren’t able to play.”
The fact that the players aren’t overly engaged in their pension plan isn’t due to a lack of communication from the league or Manulife Financial, the pension plan administrator. “We have seminars with the players. We have newsletters, phone [hotlines]. We do as much as we possibly can for the players to have the information at their fingertips and then, really, it’s up to them to follow through.”
Morreale recalls his playing days with the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats when thinking about communication strategies that resonate.
“When I was a player, I remember [seeing] the graph that showed if you put X amount in for X number of years, you would get X at the end. It’s the visual that gives you an understanding about what the money is doing.”
Running the options
While that visual representation is important, Morreale says it’s the locker room visits that score the most points. “We try and get in there three or four times a year, which works out to be about once a month [during the season].”
The pension plan isn’t the only topic that the CFLPA tackles. Financial planning, medical benefits and career transition options are also discussed in the sessions.
With CFL salaries increasing steadily over the past decade, some players are now making football their full-time job by focusing on the game during the season and then training in the off-season. For those looking past the gridiron to the end of their playing careers, the CFLPA has a player development and career education program set up with Sun Life Financial. Essentially, it’s a training program for players who are interested in becoming an advisor with Sun Life. The program allows players to take on work during the season, in the off-season or once they retire from football.
“When we signed our deal with Sun Life, I wanted to make sure there were career opportunities [for retiring players],” explains Morreale. “More often than not, guys don’t get presented with opportunities that are real and tangible and allow them to do it during the season and in the off-season. If we can get two or three guys from each team to be interested, that’s a win.”
Coaching from the sidelines
While a healthy and injury-free career is the goal for every player, sometimes that’s not how it works out. Players are covered under a self-managed benefits plan, one that Morreale says is “pretty standard.” But that definition is only fitting if you are Canadian.
For “imports”and their dependants—almost half of the CFL players are American—the league extends benefits coverage to match that of provincial plans. “We have had multiple situations where there have been, for example, complications with pregnancies with a U.S.-born player’s wife, and the [associated costs] have been in the thousands of dollars that [the plan] has been able to cover,” he says.
Chiropractic care, orthotics and other physiotherapy-type services are covered under the plan, but Morreale says that most player treatments and wellness activities are organized at the team level.
“Our priorities are shifting to career transition and life after football rather than in-season stuff,” says Morreale.
The players know how to perform to win when they are on the field; the CFLPA coaches the players on how to succeed once they step off.