I am loosely paraphrasing Hamlet’s famous soliloquy to raise a major concern for the CIS and its member schools over the first decade of the 21st century. How to raise the CIS profile in the national media consciousness in the digital age? More coverage in the national media would hopefully mean stronger growth of the CIS fanbase; potentially a huge one considering approximately about one out of eight people in Canada are attending or are graduates of a CIS institution.
The CIS and its members face a lot of challenges in this area; small budgets for broadcasting and marketing/PR, competition for sponsorship revenue from pro sports, a global recession leading to media staff and resource cutbacks and even more tightening of athletic department budgets, the rapidly changing face of broadcasting in such areas as the fragmentation of the television world due to numerous channels, and the advent of new technologies such as videocasting, social media such as Twitter, direct content to mobile and handheld devices, live and recorded online video, etc.
So, with all these challenges facing the media and the CIS and its members; how does the CIS raise its profile?
Before we get to that; let me say that there are, of course, many positives. There is excellent regional newspaper coverage in the AUS and Canada West and some pockets of the OUA and the Quebec conference; great television coverage by The Score and a new contract with TSN, some good regional cable TV and radio coverage, as well as better school websites and a growing videocast presence via pay services and school productions.
I think the old chicken and the egg scenario still faces the CIS: how to get more coverage to improve interest when a beleaguered media is cutting back and only want to cover proven products? Yet if the coverage doesn’t improve; how can the CIS profile grow in Canada?
I decided to ask two questions to a wide spectrum of members of the media from across Canada, one randomly chosen Athletic Director from each conference in the CIS, and some CIS management staff to get their responses.
The following will give the unedited answers from everybody kind enough to take the time to respond.
I put the answers in order of responses received; so there is no preference or bias on my part to any area of the media or the country. This is a very long piece but that’s the beauty of the web! This is more of a opinion survey than an opinion piece; but I found the answers very interesting and informative and I hope you will too.
- Why do you think the CIS doesn't have a larger presence in the national media?
- What do you think can be done to improve CIS coverage/visibility in the national media?
Howard Tsumura: reporter/columnist, Vancouver Province
- It’s the ultimate question. Purely from an entertainment standpoint, the product is there. In my market, I cover 6 CIS schools on a very regular basis and I understand that the forum I have been given by my newspaper, the Vancouver Province, is not the norm around the country. But I still wish I had more space.
On the whole, I think there is still the thought that this is not the top level of competition in North America. It’s cliché to say, but when you are bombarded with NCAA sports all year, especially in the major sports of football and basketball, I suppose there is the inclination to think that the CIS is second best. And if that is the mindset that develops, you have to wonder how much time a person is willing to dedicate to following university sports. They have so many options right now.
- I’ll start out by saying that Canadian university sport is not simply owed coverage simply because it exists. But at the same time, I think its coverage has to be approached with a responsibility to understand where it comes from. What kind of population base is it drawing from? Where is the infrastructure of the particular sport at in terms of its own grass-roots development ladder? What resources do schools have to run their programs? Given all of that, I think the media member will come to the realization that this is a product more than worthy of coverage.
Let’s realize that CIS athletes are drawn from a pool of high schools in which their sports are not absolutely ingrained in our culture. They are athletes who have been coached at the high school level in many instances by non-paid coaches, too many these days who are community-based people who have stepped forward because so many forms of our government refuse to see the value of compensating our teachers for extra curricular stuff. And then let’s place that against an example, which I will cite from the Vancouver area: How does the UBC men’s basketball team beat schools like Georgia of the SEC and Kansas State of the Big 12?
People laugh off these wins by coming up with all sports of excuses, like practice regs, etc. But if you really look at it, it’s a group of boys from B.C. who had volunteer coaches in high school and who played within in an infrastructure that is nowhere near advanced on the whole as it is south of the border, beating a team full of full-ride scholarship athletes and a massive coaching staff whose payroll alone would be more than every coach at UBC combined (I am assuming here).
Really, Canadian teams shouldn’t have to beat NCAA teams to prove their worth, but in so many ways that is what it comes down to. It’s sad that that is what it takes to generate a buzz with the populous.
But visibility can’t increase in the CIS without so many grass-roots things happening. And the Canadian media does a terrible job overall of covering high school sports. Wondering why the CIS doesn’t have the media interest it feels it should have is one thing. But unless there are traditions established in the first step on the ladder, the model is not complete.
- It (the lack of men's hockey coverage) has a lot to do with the fact very few players who play CIS go on to have NHL careers. The most popular circuits are those that feature future NHLers; the AHL, CHL and NCAA. It also has to do with the fact CIS sports in general are viewed as a second-class citizen, which in part is a product of its relation to the NCAA and the lack of scholarships.
- The simple answer would be to offer scholarships and become a feeder league to the NHL. If top-end players stayed home instead of heading south, there’d be a lot more interest. Barring that, CIS needs to do a much better job of selling itself via public and media relations, both at the school and league level. I know from experience that CIS is a high-quality brand of hockey, but very few know that because it’s not being marketed well enough to the public. I also know from experience that many school’s PR/MR departments lack the necessary resources, which prevents them from promoting the game even when an opportunity arises.
- Holds predominantly regional appeal. While many universities have healthy followings in their respective towns, the national interest in limited. The quarterback of the top-ranked football team in the country generally would not be a household name outside of his respective market.
In addition, the CIS tends to get lost in the shuffle in bigger markets because there is so much going on.
- The national media writes/broadcasts about topics that people are interested in from coast to coast. If people show more interest in the CIS — improved attendance, television ratings, especially in bigger markets — it will receive more national media coverage.
- There are a few reasons. First and foremost, the national media doesn’t have the resources to cover it properly, even in the major centres. In Toronto they’ve got crews tied up covering the Jays, Leafs, Raptors and Argos. In Edmonton it’s the Oilers and Eskimos, in Vancouver the Canucks and Lions. The sad fact is, with the media world the way it is today, outlets are cutting back coverage, reducing staff and relying on wire services for more copy and stories. There’s only so much coverage to go around.
Secondly, the interest level, on a national level, just isn’t there. With NHL, NBA, NFL, CFL, MLB, golf, curling and auto racing, not to mention boxing, tennis and a host of other sports, it’s at the bottom of the pile. Unless you’re in a community like Thunder Bay, where Lakehead Thunderwolves hockey is the top draw in town, university sports in Canada find themselves dwarfed in comparison. Fans in Vancouver, even UBC Thunderbirds fans, just don’t care how the Saint Mary’s Huskies are faring in Halifax and vice versa.
The leagues are regionalized, based in separate, distinct areas of the country, and unlike junior hockey, which operates in a similar fashion and does get coverage, but produces the Sidney Crosbys, Jarome Iginlas and Wayne Gretzkys of the world, few athletes ever move on to a career in their chosen sport and even fewer reach the pinnacle.
Outside of hockey, football and basketball, we’re talking sports that just aren’t sexy, like wrestling, volleyball, track and field, skiing. I think there’s also a view by many, rightly or wrongly, that the best athletes wind up in the United States. It doesn’t help that, with the exception of football, at most schools only a few hundred fans show up for most varsity games. If the students aren’t interested, why should the general public care about the results?
- School athletic information directors have to learn how to sell a story to national outlets, but pick and choose and don’t inundate sports editors and sports directors. Allan Maki at The Globe & Mail is a great example of someone working at a national paper who isn’t afraid to tell a CIS feature story. There are plenty of good stories out there, but unless someone is told, they’re likely going to remain untold. And don’t be afraid to start at the local level, national media outlets will often pick up on a story published or aired in a smaller market, if it has national, broad-based appeal. A good story is a good story.
- I think that as Canadians, we are just so heavily influenced by American culture and the American media, that US sport takes a lead position with our Canadian viewers and fans. While American colleges and pro leagues are in many cases the highest level of play out there, even where we compete very well or offer just as entertaining a product, the Canadian public just isn't as interested in Canadian sport. We have some very loyal fans and provide a ridiculously good entertainment value to our communities, but culturally speaking, Canadians are just not as invested in university sport as our American counterparts, and very few Canadian sports fans live and die with their local college and university teams.
- I think that TSN, The Score, and Shaw TV (out here in the west), are currently proving that there is significant entertainment value in Canadian university sport - we're seeing more games on TV, better reporting of scores and highlights, and people are tuning in based on the excitement that those networks are creating around the CIS. To me, it's a matter of exposure - people who see a CIS contest for the first time are always surprised at the level of performance of our athletes - we just need to get our athletes and their stories out there more consistently to try to build fan following and demand. Ultimately though, the networks are going to be driven by ratings and viewership, so anyone out there who wants to see more CIS sport on TV and in the press just needs to tune in - and let the media know that you're tuned in and interested in seeing more of Canada's best athletes in action.
- I think in some of the markets the CIS sports take a backseat to some of the more high profile professional sports in their area. Being from Halifax I have to say I am pleased with the amount of media coverage we receive locally. We have good working relationships with the local media and they understand that their readers are interested in what is happening in the local sports scene.
- We have had success with some of the individual profile pieces that have been done on players and teams locally. People are looking for a reason to care; why should I watch this particular sport or follow this particular team. Once people get to know a few people or the team itself they may develop more of an affinity for the team and begin to follow them.
There are great things happening on a daily, weekly and monthly basis in the CIS. If you walk through the checkout at any grocery store, or read the front page of most newspapers you are challenged to find something positive. For some reason people are more drawn to negative things and until people change the information they read it's going to be difficult to have them take the time to follow something that usually ends up being very positive.
- It's one of those chicken-and-egg situations: The networks don't want to spend the money to produce CIS games because they don't attract big enough audiences. But one reason they don't is that the CIS doesn't do a very good job of scheduling etc. with television in mind. For years, the CIS men's basketball tournament was held on the same weekend as on NCAA tournament second or third rounds.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the CIS Men's final actually beat the NCAA tournament in ratings, with the exception of the NCAA final. (It happened in 2000, if memory serves. -- Ed.) But reduced exposure for the CIS and more exposure for the NCAA; has left the CIS in the dust.
I do find it laughable though that almost every application for a sports channel in Canada contains a promise to air more CIS sports. But in the end, the networks won't take the gamble.
The audiences are there. Look at the high ratings for the Vanier Cup and the CIS football bowl games. More exposure will build audiences even more.
- I think the CIS has to work better with the networks to provide good scheduling so that games are played at the best possible times for TV exposure. But the networks should be forced to live up to their promises to cover Canadian amateur sports.
- The national media is driven by the public's overwhelming love affair with pro sports and American pro sports. On the print side, newspapers are shrinking, both in terms of staff and the actual size of the paper. That means fewer reporters to cover events and less space for stories. It's become a vicious cycle, and the CIS has been victimized, at least in part.
- Establish relationships with reporters and editors at media outlets. Call and suggest ideas that transcend the field of play. Stress what the CIS is (a hotbed of issues and people stories). Editors never turn down a good story when they're told of one. And if the first five ideas are turned down, try a sixth.
- To me, it's the chicken and the egg scenario. If thousands of fans start attending university sport events, then media won't have a choice but to cover it. Then the more media coverage CIS events get, the more people will know about it and get excited about it, so chances are more people will attend and the CIS fan base will grow.
The question is which one comes first? Media increase their coverage of CIS events which will surely help put more people in the stands, or people fill the stands forcing media to increase their coverage of CIS events?
The one thing we can control is marketing. But unlike in the U.S., where universities realized and/or decided a few decades ago they could use the power of sport to put the name of their school out there - in other words that their sports teams and athletes were their best marketing tools - here in Canada that mentality, that argument have never quite picked up.
In Canada, what you hear from universities most of the time (and quite legitimately) is "How can we justify investing more money in sports when our school is facing budget cuts everywhere?"
So you're left with very limited marketing, low-paid sports information director positions or SIDs who have to combine 2-3 positions to earn a full-time salary, etc. (NCAA comparison: Did you know that Notre Dame has 12 SIDs listed on its website?)
If you look at a few Canadian exceptions – the best known being Laval football and Lakehead men’s hockey – their success at the game and the media coverage they receive is a direct result of the involvement of people from the private sector. Individuals who were willing to take over from their local university and invest their own money to promote and market its teams.
As an example, a few years ago (I’m unaware if they still do it) a full-page, colour ad appeared in Le Soleil in Quebec City before every Laval football game, and not only for one day, for 2-3 days. I don’t know many universities that could afford that. For many institutions, that probably equals the marketing budget for athletics for an entire year!
This being said, it’s more than just marketing.
Another huge difference between Canada and the U.S. is university pride, the amazingly strong feeling Americans have towards their alma mater.
On average, alumni give a lot more money back to their sports teams / athletics programs. They also stay connected, they go to games, they watch on TV, etc.
But you don’t see that difference only in alumni. You see it with current students as well. In the U.S., you go to your university's football game. No questions asked. It's part of university life.
I was watching the Queen's vs. Western football game last Saturday. No. 4 vs. No. 5 for first place in the conference. Two star QBs (Golden Gaels' Dan Brannagan and Mustangs' Michael Faulds) competing for their conference's Hec Crighton trophy nomination, and who'll likely end their careers first and second on the all-time CIS passing list.
In the U.S., that kind of match-up would get as much hype as Game 7 of the World Series.
So how many people showed up at Queen’s last Saturday? 3,500? (Official attendance was 3,816.)
Why? Who’s to blame? Queen's? Western? OUA? CIS?
Again, going back to the chicken and the egg: Did people not show up because there was no pre-game coverage in national media, or did national media not give the event pre-game coverage because they suspected the game would be played in front of a handful of fans?
Last winter, you'll recall a columnist from sportsnet.ca wrote a pretty negative piece on how CIS wasn't able to generate any coverage and/or fan interest for the University Cup men’s hockey championship. Yet, that was the only coverage the same columnist, whose own network had the TV rights to the championship, would give the tournament all week.
Again; the chicken and the egg. Here's a journalist saying we don’t promote our game, but then he doesn't give us coverage himself.
Finally, and I'll end on this note, I think at the end of the day maybe we just have to accept that in Canada, university sports is simply not that high on the average sports fan's radar screen – or at least not as high as we, the professionals who make a career working in university sports, think it should be.
Just like Americans aren't really into hockey or curling, but they're into university sports, and even high school sports. Different mentality; different priorities.
- Part of the answer is cultural. Canada, for whatever reason, doesn't have a strong collegiate sports culture. We're not atuned to it as kids like they are in the U.S. The result is that interest in collegiate sports -- and exposure on television and such -- is extremely local. So even those teams that do draw decent crowds; don't create much awareness in other parts of the country. But a big part of it is TV. It's tough to create national interest in athletes, teams and coaches who people have never seen. Junior hockey suffers from the same problem. Lots of interest locally; not much nationally.
- It's an age old question. But it has to start by making your national championship a big deal. Problem is that the Vanier Cup has kind of fallen off the map in recent years after peaking in popularity when it first was played at Skydome in 1989. Then the schools have to have more of an entrepreneurial mentality in the way they manage and market their teams. They need to be aggressive pushing tickets and marketing sponsorships -- or at least more aggressive than they are. Operate it off-field like minor professional sports. If every team did that and if the profile of the national championship was improved, you might be able to move the needle a little bit.
- There are several reasons why this is the case. The six major cities in the country all have NHL teams which dwarf the other sports, even CFL in terms of coverage.
In those cities I don’t know if there is really school pride at a UBC, Alberta, U. of C., U. of T., Ottawa/Carleton or at McGill or U de Montreal. There certainly isn’t the same pride as there is at a Queen's, Western Ontario, St. FX or Mount A.; in terms of kids being proud of going to that school, and these are places where the University seems to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond
The other thing that hurts the CIS is that they are too preoccupied in being politically correct and appeasing non-revenue sports; except when it comes time to collect a bid guarantee for men’s basketball and men’s hockey…lol.
So the CIS takes the big cheque for men’s basketball and men’s hockey championships, and gives away women’s hockey and say soccer…but basically expects the same level of commitment from a sports info office for soccer that it does for men’s hockey ... it’s a joke.
- Run it like a business and realize that you can’t be all things to everybody.
Focus on elevating the quality of play in football, hockey and basketball and accept that these are the sports that people might actually be interested in.
- Wow, there are many reasons. But I think for the most part, the national media reflects what they think people are interested in, notwithstanding any regional or sport bias (which can be considerable). Also, for the most part, many heroes of the CIS do not graduate into the professional ranks on a straight line that is obvious to the public. In the case of hockey, most players in the NHL are not a product of the CIS. The link between Olympic sport and CIS is not emphasized by either the CIS or (Canadian Olympic Committee).
- The deal (new 2-year CIS Champs TV broadcast deal) with TSN is a good start. Concentrating on 3-4 sports and running them as high level public and media events on all levels will help. Also, and I know this is controversial, Pro-Line exposure provides a big lift with a large segment of the population.
- Good question. Probably comes down to economics. We're in an era of immediate returns. It's like waiting for a draft pick to develop. Gone are the days where projects were given the sufficient amount of time to grow. For instance, how many TV shows have been cancelled after only a few episodes? Lots. It would be amazing if the Canadian sports media was more like the American sports media with outstanding local sports coverage, but the numbers aren't there (and possibly, the interest for anyone over 35 years old). Amateur sports is a labour of love and takes a true financial commitment to grow. Unfortunately, the common consensus is that the economics to invest the resources into growing CIS sports on a national level aren't there. If it isn't hockey, funding and visibility is near impossible to get.
- Tough one. Grass roots. Building the support online (blogs, followers, website hits) and watching games whenever they are on TV. Know this is a common answer, but the large national networks are reeling from the recession and licking their wounds. Right now, CTV (TSN) and Rogers Sportsnet are spending tens of millions on the Winter Olympics preparation, marketing and production costs. Not using this as an excuse, but it's the climate of the times. Executives aren't generally risk takers, so it's tough to get their financial support on an endeavour like this.
- Doesn't have a larger presence because media views it as niche. CIS events have small TV audiences.
- What can be done? I have no idea, although an amateur channel proposed by the COC would carry university sports.
- I think the CIS, especially in hockey, is overshadowed by major junior. In Atlantic Canada, for example, the Halifax Mooseheads outdraw the Saint Mary's Huskies and Dalhousie Tigers by a large margin; the same goes for the Moncton Wildcats over the Universite de Moncton Aigles Bleus, and the P.E.I. Rocket over the UPEI Panthers.
With no CHL presence in Fredericton, the UNB Varsity Reds are the big show in town. They’re perennial winners and they have a nice building to play in. The St. Thomas Tommies' attendance has been in decline because the Tommies have been pretty bad the past two seaons and they play out of the cold Lady Beaverbrook Rink.
It’s hard for the CIS to gain inroads in the national media when the CIS website isn’t working and hasn’t worked for some time. To not have the site fixed by now is inexcusable.
- In my mind, the limited presence of CIS sports in national media outlets isn't thanks to a poor quality of play, but rather a lack of awareness of the product. Many people I've met have become big fans of CIS sports from attending or watching games, and the on-field product rarely disappoints. However, few people know much about CIS competition on the national level. There certainly isn't a massive supply of information about CIS sports nationally, and I'm not sure there's enough demand at the moment to change that. Whenever this debate comes up, much of the blame seems to be cast on CIS as an organization, and I'm not sure that's fair. There are areas they could improve upon, such as consistent statistics and a more accessible web interface, but even the slickest website will only get you so far. For the CIS to gain prominent national coverage, the demand for that national coverage from the public at large has to be there and there have to be organizations willing to supply it.
- I think the CIS is headed in the right direction on many fronts. Their sports receive excellent local coverage from newspapers, radio stations and television stations, and that's a great start. The sports information offices do a good job of getting the necessary information out there. Moreover, the CIS has been very open to newer media organizations, such as Streaming Sports Network Canada, cisblog.ca and even The Score. In my mind, it makes sense to invite as much coverage as you can and be grateful and accessible to the small organizations that do cover you extensively instead of pining for more coverage in giant national media outlets. That will come with time, but there has to be a demand there. In the meantime, the CIS and its member schools could help out the small guys who cover them by adding sections on their site where they link to well-done pieces from blogs and local media outlets. If they show that they welcome this kind of coverage and are willing to help and promote those who offer it; that will add an impetus for local outlets to cover them.
The other side of this is the never-ending debate between focusing resources on promoting the bigger, higher-profile sports or trying to promote as many sports as possible. There are passionate advocates for both sides, and they both have good points. However, I'd argue for a bit of a middle ground. I think it's worthwhile to put a lot of effort into making sure that everything logistically possible is done to promote football, men's basketball and men's hockey (in that order). It's fair to criticize the place in the sun these sports have, but they are the main ones likely to receive any sort of national coverage, regardless of how slight it is. That doesn't mean overkill; for example, it's better to send out one well-written press release on a football game with all the necessary information than 10 separate ones with a lot of unnecessary information. I would like to see some new innovations for these sports, though, some of which are already been conducted at certain schools. Examples could include YouTube-posted game highlights and interviews, site-hosted live blogs and Twitter feeds and well-done athlete blogs. Those can be much more useful than just the standard press release.
I don't want to see sports information offices stop covering the smaller sports, but there has to be a balance. You can write the world's greatest release about a synchronized swimming or curling team, but it will still likely barely be touched by the local media at best unless there's some crazy angle. It's also not really worth trying to sell people on that coverage; you can't force sports down their throat. With the smaller sports, that information should be there if people are looking for it, but it doesn't necessarily need to be sent out to all your media contacts or pushed heavily, and you don't need to devote extensive resources to covering all the details involved. There's an audience for everything, but not all sports are created equally and it's important to recognize that.
The most important thing in my mind for CIS and its member schools is being receptive to the media coverage they do get and doing what they can to facilitate that. The key to this isn't e-mailing out a ton of releases or lobbying journalists to cover you, but rather being helpful when called upon. I've worked extensively in the newspaper world and the blog world, and I'd estimate that less than 10 per cent of the pieces I write are prompted by releases. They're occasionally useful, particularly if you're already intending to cover an event, but most of the time; it's more interesting and more rewarding to go out looking for a story. Sports information offices need to realize that, and they need to be ready and willing to help journalists looking for a good piece by putting them in contact with coaches and players, arranging photos and the like. They also shouldn't be concerned with trying to control the message or making sure that all information goes through them; often, the unnecessary spin that results turns what could have been an interesting story into something as dull as dishwater and makes journalists question their desire to cover the league in the first place. Let us be, let us do our jobs and do what you can to help us, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.