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Andrew Bucholtz

Off-season voluntary workouts, flights, and geographic edges

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The Hamilton Spectator has a couple of excellent recent pieces on the CFL's new off-season voluntary workouts (OVWs), including Drew Edwards' story on how the Tiger-Cats are trying to take full advantage of the program and Steve Milton's column on how East Division teams are following suit, but West Division teams are not (posted at Edwards' blog). Basically, the 2010 collective bargaining agreement included a new provision that allows CFL teams to hold one formal voluntary three-day workout between Feb. 1 and April 30; these workouts can feature any players under contract (the "voluntary" aspect means you can't necessarily get some established veterans, but you could get those who feel their roster spot might be threatened if they don't show). These workouts only involve helmets, and intentional contact is banned.

To get an idea of what goes on in these workouts, you can check out Ed Tait's pieces on the showing put in by Cory Watson and Greg Carr (pictured above) at the recent Bombers' mini-camp. Essentially, they're a way for a team to gel, and they can particularly lead to enhanced chemistry between receivers and quarterbacks (much of Winnipeg's camp focused on that). The goal is to get some preparation done for training camp so the team's ready to go; ideally, they'll hit the ground running and get off to a quicker start once the season begins. However, as Milton points out, it's interesting to see how differently they're approached across the CFL; Hamilton's bringing 53 guys in later this month, while of the West Division teams, only Edmonton plans to hold even a small-scale one.

In Milton's piece, B.C. assistant general manager Neil McEvoy cites finances as the reason the Lions aren't doing OVWs. "We just feel we didn't have the budget to justify the cost," he told Milton. The CFL obviously is a league where costs do matter and football operations budgets are generally tightly fixed, so that may well be a reasonable defence (especially considering that many of the West Division teams, including the Lions, are conducting extensive free agent tryout camps in the U.S.; those also cost plenty of money). The main cost for OVWs would presumably be flying players in and out, and airfares can add up quickly, so it's not like teams can do these terribly cheaply (at least, not on a large scale the way the Tiger-Cats are). However, the geographic divide illustrated in Milton's column intrigued me, so I decided to take a look at what exactly those airfares could be, and how much they differ by city.

To do so, I came up with an imaginary three-day OVW next week, with workouts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I then ran a variety of flight searches on Expedia.ca, using Dallas as the origin point, each CFL city as a destination and a range of different pricing and duration criteria. Monday, April 18 was chosen as my departure day to get players into town the day before, and Thursday, April 21 as the return day (presuming players would leave in the evening after the day's workouts). Dallas was picked as the origin city for several reasons: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is a major U.S. airline hub (it's the third-busiest airport in the world by total aircraft movements, eighth by overall passenger traffic), so it has plenty of flights to go through, it's located in a state (Texas) where a lot of football players come from, and it's about halfway across the U.S. from an east-west standpoint, so it shouldn't offer any particular geographic advantage (by contrast, Western teams might have an edge flying in players from California, and Eastern teams might have an edge flying in players from Florida). Nate Silver has pegged DFW as the third-most overpriced large airport in the U.S., though, so these prices might be higher across the board than they would be for players from other areas. Here's what I came up with (the first chart is a complicated one with a variety of flights and costs for each, so you can skip to the second one derived from it if you just want my conclusions):

There are a few important things to keep in mind with the second sheet (below). "Reasonable" flights is my own definition, and I chose it as under 10 hours for a couple of reasons; first, that definition allowed me to include all cities (the quickest flight from Dallas to Winnipeg regardless of cost is nine hours, two minutes), and second, 10 hours is essentially a reasonable full day's travel (before accounting for time changes, it's the equivalent of flying out at 10 a.m. and getting in at eight p.m., which becomes a full day when you add travel time to the airport on both ends, check-in and security on the way out and baggage collection and customs after landing). You sometimes can get cheaper flights by taking more transfers and hopping all around, which I've done plenty of times, but that does tend to take considerably longer and is generally a route favoured by students, not professional athletes. I don't know exactly what types of flights teams book for individual players, but the "reasonable" flights chart goes off the cheapest flight available with a duration of under 10 hours in an attempt to try and provide a fair cross-city comparison.

According to that sheet, Vancouver comes out on top in terms of cheap flights, with Toronto only slightly behind (and Hamilton; there weren't any flights from Dallas to Hamilton available on the dates I checked, but it would be pretty easy for the Tiger-Cats to send a van to Toronto's Pearson International Airport to pick up incoming players). All three of those teams could bring a Dallas-based player in next week in under 10 hours for under $1000. For everyone else, it gets more expensive, and it's particularly bad in Winnipeg, Calgary and Regina. A difference in price of $1271 between airfare to Vancouver and Regina may not sound like a ton when you're talking about CFL teams that do pull in pre-cost revenue in the millions, but it adds up; if the Roughriders were doing a 53-player camp like the Tiger-Cats and had to pay that particular premium for each player's airfare, they'd wind up shelling out $67,363 more than the Lions would for the same camp. That amount of money could pay a player for a year (the CFL minimum salary is $42,000), so that's not an insignificant difference. Also, that figure only represents the difference, not the total costs; if the Roughriders brought in 53 players at that airfare price, they'd be spending $112,731 just on minicamp airfare (and they'd still have to spend more money on transportation from the airport, food and accommodations during the camp, wear and tear on equipment, training-room supplies, etc). By contrast, at these rates, the Lions would only spend $45,368 on airfare for the equivalent 53-player camp.

Keep in mind that this is a small sample size, and that it could be distorted by any number of factors. Perhaps some of those ticket prices are particular sales, or perhaps there are specific issues from Dallas to some of those cities that make flights there seem cheaper or more expensive than the average flight for an American-based player would actually be. However, they seem to fit with some of the other data out there. It's notable that Toronto and Vancouver (the top airports in this survey) ranked as Canada's top two airports by general passenger traffic in 2009, and that they were also tops in trans-border (or U.S. to Canada) traffic. More flights don't always mean cheaper fares, but they can be a significant factor (especially if they're flights from a number of different carriers, including discount airlines). Winnipeg and Regina are buried way down the list of passenger volume, which helps to explain why there aren't as many flight options there (and why many of those flights take longer and cost more). I'm not sure why Calgary came in so high here, as its airport sees plenty of volume; that could reflect an issue with the dates I chose, or maybe Dallas-Calgary's just an expensive trip for some reason. In general, though, it would seem reasonable that it's cheaper to fly players in to Toronto or Vancouver than most other CFL cities.

How does this data relate to which teams are holding OVWs and which ones aren't? Well, in some areas, it makes sense; for example, it's much cheaper for the Tiger-Cats to hold a massive mini-camp than it would be for the Roughriders. In others, the relationship isn't as clear; based solely on airfare prices, you'd expect the Lions to hold a larger OVW than the Blue Bombers, but the reverse is true. The rationale for who's holding camps and who isn't makes more sense when you consider each team's goals, needs and strategies though.

For example, the Bombers have quite a young team that hasn't spent a lot of time together, and thanks to the Steven Jyles trade, they're going into the season with Buck Pierce as their starting quarterback. Pierce was injured early on last season and didn't even play with some of the receivers they picked up later in the year, including Greg Carr, so it makes a lot of sense for Winnipeg to have Pierce throwing to these guys to try and establish some chemistry before training camp. (Pierce's early-season injury last year also provides more incentive to get him back into rhythm). By contrast, B.C. has a largely-veteran team that's played together for quite some time, and although Travis Lulay only took the starting quarterback job partway through the year, he played all the way down the stretch and seemed to be quite comfortable with his receivers; thus, there's less need to bring him in.

It's also worth keeping in mind that the Lions under Wally Buono have heavily focused on bringing in hot American prospects and working them in right away (Cameron Wake, Martell Mallett, Stefan Logan and Emmanuel Arceneaux, all since departed for the NFL, are all examples of that), so it makes sense that they're choosing to invest more of their football operations budget in scouting and free-agent camps instead of trying to bring current players in for OVWs. Both approaches have their merits, and deciding not to host OVWs probably isn't so much a team being cheap as a team deciding to invest those financial resources in another aspect of football operations. Geography and airline prices would appear to play a role in teams' decisions on whether to conduct OVWs (and how large those OVWs are; it's worth noting that Hamilton's holding a massive one, while Winnipeg's was much smaller), but they're far from the only factor involved.

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