I was moderately suprised to see Simon Fraser leaving Canadian Interuniversity Sport to become a member of the NCAA's Division II. I had thought that their desire to move was strictly theoretical—hot air designed to light a fire under CIS membership.
That apparently was not the case. They will play in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in 2011. In CIS, SFU played at the highest level of competition in Canada. In Division II, they will be an afterthought in the USA.
I think this is potentially a horribly distructive move and the Canadian Government should put an end to this, but lets look at the arguments on both sides before we get into this.
From SFU's Perspective
On the surface there appears little logic to the move. Travel for most games will be better, but a two trips to Alaska aren't exactly short. The average competition will be a little better, but not so much to make it seem worthwhile. Fan attendance might be slightly higher in Division II.
DII sports aren't all full scholarship like sports at the well known Division I. Just like in Canada, many schools at the DII level don't offer any full scholarships. So the idea that sports are uniformly better, while it may be true, certainly the difference is not pronounced.
The move has been debated for years. The majority of BC's population live a short distance from the border with Washington. There is more of a shared athletic cultural background with the Pacific Northwestern states than greater Canada.
SFU and the University of British Columbia have long had US athletic ties, playing the US variety of Football instead of the Canadian variety prior to joining CIS. Both were in the NAIA before joining the CIS. SFU attempted to move from NAIA to DII in 2000 and they were rejected.
In 2002, they joined the CIS as a partial member. They have been disgruntled members of CIS with UBC for years now, pushing for athletic scholarships and better competition. The relative distance from the Greater Vancouver area universities to the rest of the Universities in Canada West Universities Athletic Association (CWUAA) was a big financial inconvenience.
It is entirely possible that this move is an opening salvo to force the universities in the CIS to take a long hard look in the mirror at their athletic programs. Afterall, UBC could go too. It is a brutal public relations blow to the CIS that a Canadian school would walk away from CIS over a lack of competition.
For US sports fans it further suggests Canadian sports are beneath notice that a school leaves the CIS to "move up" to Division II—a level already widely deemed beneath most American sports fans' notice.
Possible Pathways Forward
Perhaps after reform takes place, SFU might be eager to rejoin CIS. And if reform doesn't occur (and the NCAA allows it), SFU will be in a position to move a step closer to a point of no return—beginning the process to move up to Division I as a DI-AAA school, an FCS school, or even an FBS school in about 10 years—depending on how much money they want to charge their student body in athletic fees.
If they were allowed to move from DII to DI, they could potentially play as a non-football school in the West Coast Conference. The WCC is an affiliation of small religious schools though, so there is no guarantee they would accept SFU. If they do, the travel is still pretty bad. It would likely require at least a 8-9M budget.
If they wanted to play football as well, perhaps they could play in the non-scholarship, football only Pioneer Conference for football. The travel there would be brutal, but at least it is non-scholarship.
Another option is the Great West Conference at the FCS level. That would probably require about a 10-12M budget for them. They do not have an automatic NCAA bid, so SFU may never actually make the NCAA tournament, but they are somewhat local and are desperate for members.
The GW might take them as a non-football member or as a full scholarship FCS school, but the travel would be far more brutal than the CIS is.
If they dared to jump to the FBS level—probably requiring their budget to go up to about 18M annually at the low end—the WAC might be interested, but the travel would again be very expensive.
Or...Maybe they'd chose to remain an unknown school in an unknown conference at an unwatched level of play in a foreign country.
The CIS perspective
According the Sports Illustrated and the previously mentioned article, the CIS is forming a committee to look at the criticisms of the CIS brought to the surface by this long-coming divorce. Additionally, the CIS is considering booting out SFU immediately --- years before the NCAA is scheduled to let them play --- just to spite SFU.
A worst case scenario would be an ill-conceived push throughout CIS for full scholarship sports where possible now. That may be what SFU and UBC are more or less seeking as the eventual end goal, but it is not a wise first step.
That would probably lead to a greater seperation between the haves and have nots in CIS. It might lead to a number of schools dropping sports at that level...which would just increase travel costs across the board for the remaining schools, making the financial problem that create the lack of quality competition more pronounced.
The Best Case Scenario and The Role of Government
The best case scenario for this ugly divorce is for Canada and the CIS to get a lot smarter and more aggressive in how they handle sports. British Columbia and the Atlantic University Sport have universities who have to endure brutal travel costs to compete. There is no reason for this.
There are acceptable sized universities that could be elevated to allow shorter inexpensive travel for Canadian Universities in both areas.
More football playing universities are needed in British Columbia specifically. They need a "British Columbia Athletic Association" in CIS. The CWUAA Pacific Division needs to become a standalone athletic conference in CIS. They need at least four to six football playing universities in the province for that to occur.
With medium to large universites like the University of Victoria, Vancouver Island University, University of the Fraser Valley, Thompson Rivers University, and rapidly growing universities like UBC-Okanagan, there are financially viable candidates with large enough student enrollments to be able to support a viable CIS football program.
The government may need to step in and help fund the startup costs for those programs. You may hate the idea of government dollars going to sports, but consider that startup costs might be in the $2-3M range per school. At the high end, $15M from the British Columbian Provincial government and the National goverenment could start football programs at 5 BC schools—stabilizing college sports in western Canada. This is a fraction of what the Canadian and provincial governments regularly pay each time a single pro stadium is built with governmental support.
The government would probably also need to push some of the universities in BC to launch CIS football and/or basketball programs. I think patriotism calls for a government foot to the backside of resistant universities if needed. There are things which a country should not accept.
The National government should threaten to make life very hard for SFU and UBC if they go. They should pass a law that limits or removes National and Provincial governmental support for Canadian Universities that do not participate in at least the three potential revenue generating sports (football, hockey, and basketball) in a Canadian sports affiliation.
On the same token the Government should listen to their complaints and address those they deem valuable by enforcing change on the CIS. I don't think it is unreasonable to have every student at a CIS school pay an athletics fee that is administered to CIS schools nationwide. Canada is a happily socialist country and while something like that would not fly in the US, it might pass the legal mustard in Canada.
A British Columbia-based BCAA would have shorter travel distances than anything SFU or UBC could belong to south of the border. The proximity of rivals could allow much greater fan support to build. Revenue could be generated and at least partial scholarships or interest free student loans for athletes in revenue generating sports may become conceivable and financially viable in time.
UBC and SFU would then become the USC and UCLA of their own miniature Canadian version of the PAC 10 conference.
The CIS will not be able to be what it could be if they effectively lose their 3rd most populous province in by far its most attended sport. British Columbia Universities should be a red and white CIS bookend with AUS, not a barren wasteland of Candian patriotic shame and regret, always looking to the south for validation and a pat on their head.