The news of a Lyle Thompson sabbatical is bound to make waves. The obvious ones are on the field - the reigning attackman of the year is going to be out. Thompson is taking the time to let his body recover and focus on family, community, and mental health. If anyone has earned some leave, it’s Thompson. But the business side of things gets complicated by this. There are salary cap implications to Thompson’s year away from the PLL and the Cannons.
To start, a few basic rules about the cap itself. The team salary cap is $735,000 to spread across the roster. Teams must allocate 98% of the cap. They have to spend their money on players. Given the league minimum of $25,000, a bit of quick math shows that clubs have about $100,000 to spread out across the team above the minimum for players. As it is with all pro sports, they’re likely spending that on their stars.
Consider the Cannons roster, both from a year ago and following the moves made. It’s a safe assumption that Thompson was not making the league minimum. He’s probably, as a top 2-3 player in the league and face of the sport, one of the higher paid PLL players. Actual player salaries aren’t disclosed, but still safe to assume Thompson gets paid like the superstar he is. And as such, he likely takes up a decent chunk of the Cannons cap.
Following the news that Thompson would be taking a sabbatical this summer, questions began to arise about how this all works with the Cannons cap. Per the PLL, Thompson’s contract will not count against the Cannons salary cap this year - he is essentially a holdout list player, and holdout salaries don’t count. It also opens up another roster spot.
The question becomes for the Cannons, how do they fill the gap? Remember, team’s must allocate 98% of the salary cap, and there won’t be an exception for the Cannons this year. Whatever (sizable) percentage was allocated to Thompson suddenly isn’t part of that 98% anymore. So there are a few ways it can go from here.
With the open roster spot, they sign someone. There are a few remaining bigger name free agents, but the fact that they are still unsigned is a signal that they’re availability this summer is in doubt. It would be unusual to grab a player pool guy and give him Thompson level money, but it’s a possibility. Money isn’t guaranteed, so this is a low risk option for the team. The player can be stashed all year, dress sparingly, the team won’t absorb giant costs, but the money will be allocated.
The Cannons spread whatever money they need across the current roster. The other stars get “extensions” or restructured deals in a way that is front loaded, paying them more this year to make up the gap, and less in later years or return to their original salary so there is cushion when Thompson returns to the field next summer. Effectively give your All Star or All Pro type players, or your younger guys, whichever you prefer, a raise for a year with a restructured deal. The plus here is more players make more money this season. Always a good thing. The challenge here is there has to be money that comes off the back of the deal to make this work, because when Thompson comes back, he has to fit back under the cap. However, if you give a guy on the minimum a raise now, you can’t reduce his salary below the minimum next year. They can go back to the minimum to make room for Thompson, but this can get complicated depending who gets the money and how much they get, along with possibly impacting next free year's free agency. Extensions beyond next season further could complicate matters, as the Cannons would likely try to position themselves with space to keep Thompson when he becomes a free agent, or extend him.
Make some trades. This is a difficult one to pull off. The Cannons would need to acquire high price talent, but it has to be talent that another club actually wants to part with. Not many guys fit the bill, since any high price talent a club doesn’t want to pay can just be stashed on the reserve roster. Cannons would almost certainly be asked to give up draft picks in this scenario. They can’t give up their own high priced players because then the money won’t work with the cap; the trade will have solved nothing. It would have to be minimum salary players in the deal to get back high priced players, and that’s a slim to none chance, hence the need for them to trade picks. Head Coach/GM Brian Holman was not anxious to trade any of his picks on draft day, and it would be prudent to keep as many as he can going forward as the Cannons build their roster.
None of the three paths are ideal. It’s difficult because Thompson will be back next year, on his current contract, set to become a free agent after 2024. So how do you solve a Thompson sized dollar problem for just one year, and then unsolve it next year? The most likely choice seems to be option 2 above. It can be done quietly. Player salaries aren’t known, it can all happen without any changes that are noticed or even visible.
For the first time in the free agency era of the PLL, there’s a serious question about how a team will navigate a salary cap challenge.