Will Canadian Universities Achieve Something US Colleges Have Not?

Tobi WritesAnalyst ISeptember 21, 2009

TORONTO - NOVEMBER 25:  Kerry Joseph #4 of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders scrambles for yardage against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the third quarter of the 95th Grey Cup on November 25, 2007 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Will all member Universities achieve high caliber competition with self-sufficient budgets?

With the recent announcement of Simon Fraser University's imminent defection from Canadian Interuniversity Sport (the highest level of interuniversity competition in Canada) to the NCAA's often forgotten Division II, there are changes brewing up north with how collegiate sports are run (SFU was a longtime member of the US's NAIA).

The only other football playing member of CIS in British Columbia besides SFU, the University of British Columbia is also looking at moving to the NCAA's fourth tier of competition (Division II) as an upgrade over CIS competition.

(It appears UBC hopes to eventually play Hockey at the highest level of the NCAA and in doing so corner the market on star teenage Canadian Hockey talent with collegiate dreams.  The thought is that with a dramatic talent edge, UBC could turn their collegiate hockey program into an international power and a money generating sport.)

This would leave countrywide competition in Canada ending in Alberta in the nation's most attended collegiate sport (Football).  Football draws far more fans than any other CIS sports.  The attendance numbers aren't even close.  The loss of Canada's most promising collegiate revenue generating sport in an entire province should be alarming.

To confront the embarrassing and potentially crippling loss of stature those moves may bring, the CIS is looking to change their rules to hopefully retain members unhappy with the status quo.

There is real talk of increasing the amount of money put aside for assistance to Canadian student athletes and even writing guidelines that strongly encourage universities to offer a few full scholarships to star Canadian athletes.

(Currently, the CIS offers little guidance on the matter, assuming the fact that most schools lack the funding to offer scholarships will keep competiton levels balanced.  In Football, Université Laval has built a football program with community support of a level not recently seen in Canada.  It has harnassed the revenue stream that support generates to gain a competitive advantage over most of its competition which has in turn allowed that program to become a national power.)

"We want to be the destination of choice for top Canadian student-athletes," said CIS President Clint Hamilton regarding the awarding of scholarships in a recent response to this challenging time for CIS.

It is an admirable thought and is a step in the right direction, but may also amount to a bit of "putting the carriage in front of the horse" thinking.

Just throwing a few more scholarships at the problem won't fix the issue.  Revenue sports have to be created.  Developing sports that draw fans and potentially fill stadiums and arenas has to be the focus. 

Once that occurs and there is a tangible measurable level of fan support, TV networks will become far more likely to broadcast those game gnerating additional revenue that could be shared by the member CIS schools.

Just adding scholarships on its own doesn't begin to address this.

In the short term, this money for scholarships would cetainly come from universities and therefore through their student bodies in the form of fees.  That would engender much ill-will from students accross Canada and would work against increased turnout.

But there is nothing to say that if properly marketed Canadian University sports programs could generate revenue is a similar way to how it is done in the US at the Division I level and use that revenue to fuel scholarship increases.

In less than 20 years, the aforementioned Université Laval has built a program from scratch that occasionally draws 18,000 people to thier games, an unheard of number in recent Canadian history. (The program was launched in 1995.)  

Université de Sherbrooke, The University of Western Ontario, and Queens University also draw strong crowds for their football programs in non-CFL cities.  There are only 8 CFL teams in Canada, so there are only 8 CFL killzones. 

There are plenty of Universities that have significant local populations with nothing else to do with their entertainment dollars.

The blueprints the previously mentioned four universities provide could be a strong basis in efforts to build other strong programs in communitites outside CFL killzones accross the nation.

Other CIS sports like basketball have much smaller fan followings but even among them there are strong programs that would provide good examples of how to engage the surrounding communities and draw larger crowds from beyond the local student body.

To fund Canadian athletic scholarships at all CIS members, broadcast revenue will also eventually need to feed in. 

Direct head-to-head competition from the Canadian Football League and the NBA for TV time has done a lot to keep overdue CIS broadcasts of University sports stuck in the figurative birth canal.

Last week, the CIS announced a deal with TSN to broadcast a number of CIS playoff games and championships over the next two seasons, the first time TSN has done so since 2005.

This is an important first step. 

In the US, most universities even at the top level of NCAA competiton run their athletic programs as loss leaders in spite of having multi-million dollar annual income streams. 

The CIS is using the traumatic loss of SFU as a call to action to motivate their member universities to bring about dramatic reforms in their operating procedures.

Canada has a chance to develop a business model where Canadian students get the same opportunities as their American counterparts to work on their athletic dreams and go to college for free or at a discounted rate, without bleeding their universities each year.

Here's hoping Canadians prove smarter than Americans in this regard.


I'll be writing a series of articles with idea to help develop self-sufficient Canadian athletic programs. 

If you live in Canada, you can also work to this goal by encouraging members of the administration at your local CIS universities to try to move towards the twin goals of strong athletics and financial self-sufficiency for all CIS programs. 

Today offers opportunities for an historic transformation of Canadian Interuniversity Sports.  I encourage you to help your University's leadership to see the opportunity and seize it.