Breaking down the potential new CIS members...

As Neate pointed out earlier this week, the times may be a-changing in Canada West. While UBC at least, and presumably SFU as well, are continuing their attempts to join the NCAA* [myself, Queen's Journal, January 18], three other B.C. schools are applying for CIS membership. Those schools are the University of Northern British Columbia [Jason Peters, Prince George Citizen, June 22], the newly-minted [Nanaimo News Bulletin, Sept. 17] Vancouver Island University, formerly known as Malaspina University College [Scott Brown, Nanaimo Daily News, Feb. 12, via Mark Wacyk,] and the University of British Columbia - Okanagan [Penticton Western News, Oct. 4, also linked above. Each school presents its own interesting strengths and weaknesses, further detailed below.

*As an aside, there are some interesting analysis pieces on the NCAA situation floating around the intertubes that are well worth a read: check out this editorial from the Ubyssey on why students should care about the plan, this column from the Ubyssey's Justin McElroy on the leverage this gives students in athletic decisions and this piece from student government associate VP external Blake Frederick weighing the pros and cons of the move.

First off, there's UNBC, located in Prince George. One advantage UNBC has is its history: officially opened in 1994 [Wikipedia], it's spent considerably more time as a full university than either UBC-O (opened in 2005 on theOkanagan University College campus) or VIU, which, as mentioned above, just received full university status this year in Premier Gordon Campbell's wave of new grants (Erin Millar of Maclean's had a great line on this back in May: "With five new university announcements under his belt, Campbell churned out more universities in a week than B.C. was able to do in the previous 50 years. But with the frequency with which Campbell has been using his university-creating magic wand as of late, many are wondering about the validity of the new so-called universities.") UNBC's established nature may work in its favour against the new kids on the block.

UNBC also seems to have a constructive vision of integrating their teams into the local community, as outlined in this document. This is absolutely vital. Student support is all well and good, but the typical all-inclusive model of student athletic fees means that it doesn't make much of a financial difference to the program if they show up or not. It's the community support that often sustains teams, as I wrote in this Kingston Whig-Standard op-ed piece this week. UNBC gets that, and they even propose looking into a community ownership program along the lines of the Regina Rams. That's certainly an interesting idea to consider.

One other advantage UNBC has is its location in a prime sports town. Sports are big in Prince George, and the absence of professional teams means there's a great deal of support for amateur squads, such as the BCHL's Spruce Kings and the WHL's Cougars. The Northern Timberwolves are initially looking to join Canada West in men's and women's basketball, where they have solid traditions at the B.C. College Athletic Association level and a lot of fan support. This July Citizen piece by Peters included this paragraph: "During BCCAA league games at the Northern Sport Centre last season, the UNBC men’s team regularly attracted crowds of close to 1,000 spectators. The UNBC women typically played in front of close to 700 fans. But, when the women’s team defeated the Camosun College Chargers in the playoff championship game, the 2,000-seat Sport Centre was filled to capacity." There are plenty of CIS schools not named Carleton (including Queen's) that would kill for those kind of hoops attendance numbers, so it looks like the Timberwolves would certainly be viable from that perspective.

That location could also be problematic, though. UNBC's geographic isolation makes trips up there more expensive and time-consuming. Unlike UBC-O (Thompson Rivers) and VIU (UVic), there also aren't any natural travel partners for UNBC in the area. That leads to scheduling issues, as a team that has to travel to UNBC would probably have to spend the whole weekend doing so and only get in one game. It also could lead to increased travel costs if the other B.C. schools decide to fly in rather than take the long bus trip. The travel involved is not impossible, as Lakehead manages to survive in the OUA despite an equivalent or worse travel situation, but it might work against the UNBC bid.

The last word on the location goes to Alistair McInnis of the Prince George Free Press: "The two other institutions applying for Canada West approval, UBC Okanagan (Kelowna) and Vancouver Island University (Nanaimo), may be less isolated. But while Prince George can’t compete with southern counterparts on the basis of location, when it comes to community support and enthusiasm for sports, it certainly can. The city also serves a greater region than those communities."

However, the limited nature of the UNBC bid may also come into it. As Peters mentioned, the Timberwolves are only seeking affiliate membership at first (entrance with three or fewer teams, in this case men's and women's basketball). UBC-O and VIU are believed to be going for full membership right off the bat. It's hard to tell which schools will be favoured by those decisions. On the one hand, if the other Canada West schools are feeling conservative and don't want to rush into anything, the limited bid by UNBC would make more sense than the full bids from the other universities. On the other hand, applying with less sports means the Timberwolves have less to offer right off the bat, and that could be perceived as weakening their application relative to the other institutions if the Canada West schools are inclined towards aggressive expansion. The UBC/SFU situation might also come into this: if both schools leave CIS, all of a sudden, you have to fill two team vacancies in most sports or completely remake all your schedules. That might make full membership bids more attractive than partial ones.

Staff turnover may also be an issue. As Peters wrote in his June piece, two of the most prominent supporters of the bid - former president Don Cozetto, who resigned June 6, and former men's basketball head coach Zane Robison, who's switched to a job in student relations and advertising - are no longer involved. Athletics and recreation coordinator Len McNamara, interim president Dr. Charles Jago and the school's board of governors seem to be firmly behind the bid, but you have to wonder if changing horses midstream may lead to a dampening of UNBC's chances.

Next, there's VIU. There isn't nearly as much information readily available on their bid, but again, the school's newness as a university might hurt them. However, Malaspina had a solid background in college athletics, so that's a point in their favour. Their location is also good: they're only 70 miles from UVic, making for a natural rivalry and travel partnership. The Island can be a bit tough to get to, but not as much as Prince George, and Canada West teams are already flying out there to play Victoria. The main concern with this one has to be the school's recent status change: CIS is a significant jump from the college leagues in both quality of play and financial resources required, especially in the scholarship and travel-heavy Canada West conference (UNBC estimated that two basketball teams alone would cost $417,000 a year). There certainly will be plenty of demands on VIU's finances as a university that weren't there as a college: it remains to be seen if they'll be able to handle an expanded athletics program as well.

Lastly, there's UBC-O. Neate covered much of the situation there earlier, but there's still a few thoughts to add. They've got a bit more of a history at the university level, which will certainly be helpful. There's also the potential ties to the Okanagan Sun junior football team that Neate wrote about earlier, which could be a big boost for their application: B.C. junior football is very good, and the Sun have a well-established fan base that they would bring with them to the CIS. They'd also be the only CIS football team in the B.C. interior, which has plenty of football-hungry fans.

One of the questions about UBC-O is the ties to the parent institution, though. According to Wikipedia's coverage of the initial announcement of UBC's takeover, "UBC Okanagan and UBC Vancouver will each have an independent senate to set academic priorities for their respective institutions, based regional needs and priorities. At the same time, they will share a common board of governors, with strong representation from each region." If that's still accurate, a common board of governors might be problematic from a CIS perspective, especially when the two institutions have nowhere near equal stature or resources. There are certainly ways this could work, especially if the separation was made more rigid in the case of athletics, but it is a point that has to be looked at.

Overall, it should be pretty interesting to track the progress of these bids. There's no clear winner, as each school has significant advantages and flaws, but there's also no reason CIS couldn't accept all three. We'll have to watch and see how it goes.
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