How scholarships and national recruiting have changed the CIS

One of the growing trends in CIS athletics in recent years has been a shift towards national recruiting. Local and regional recruits used to make up the majority of most university teams, and while they still have an important role to play, we're seeing more and more athletes head across the country for school. One such case is B.C. product Dylan Ainsworth, who I wrote about recently for the South Delta Leader.

Ainsworth and his teammate Sam Livingston led the South Delta Sun Devils to the 2008 AA high school championship, and both were sought-after recruits locally. They both elected to head to Ontario after receiving athletic scholarships, though, and will suit up for the Western Mustangs next fall. There have always been some prominent athletes who have gone out of province for school, but they used to be few and far between. These days, these stories are becoming more and more common.

There are probably a multitude of reasons behind this shift. We frequently talk about a shortage of CIS media coverage, and there are significant issues there, but at the same time, many schools are likely receiving more national coverage then they have before, thanks to national broadcasts of various CIS regular-season games and championships (both via conventional television and webcast initiatives like the Streaming Sports Network) and the increase in university sport-focused blogs and forums.

Additionally, many schools are looking to market themselves nationally to students, not just regionally, and they're doing more advertising, alumni events, career fairs and other forms of outreach across the country. It's easier to get information on different schools in other parts of Canada these days thanks to the Internet and the focus on websites, and that holds true for athletics as well; many CIS athletic departments have dramatically improved their websites in recent years, adding webcasts, blogs, video content and other information, so a prospective recruit from B.C. can probably get as much information about an Ontario school's athletics program as he or she could about a local university.

All of these factors have an effect on recruiting, but I think perhaps the most important ones are the increased athletic scholarships on offer. The improvements in facilities, and the rising number of full-time coaches have also played significant roles. These factors have created dramatic change in athletics across the country, but an interesting case in point is Ontario.

During my time at Queen's from 2005-2009, Ontario University Athletics underwent drastic change. After a divisive debate, Ontario schools voted 16-3 in 2006 to bring in athletic financial awards for first-year students. Previously, Ontario athletic scholarships could only be offered to upper-year students and were very minimal even then, limiting their effectiveness as a recruiting tool. That meant Ontario schools were at a disadvantage nationally, particularly against Canada West, which had offered athletic scholarships much earlier. The western edge showed up in many sports, particularly men's volleyball and women's basketball.

The new rules changed that to a degree (although Ontario schools still can't offer as much as western schools), but they also brought their own consequences.
Athletic scholarships are one of the largest costs for an athletic program, particularly if you're offering a substantial amount of them across a good number of sports. Moreover, there's extra impetus to offer them in large numbers; if other schools in your conference are providing lots of scholarships in a sport where you're only handing out a few, they'll grab the choice recruits and they'll probably wind up beating you on the field, making your recruiting task even tougher. Money is one factor in recruiting, but success is another, and if you don't put in money at the start, success can be very difficult to come by.

The problem this created is that many Ontario schools had teams spread hither and yon across a wide variety of sports. That worked just fine when each team only needed a little funding, but proved much more challenging with the introduction of scholarships. Furthermore, athletic scholarships present a particularly difficult task, as the funding is needed immediately, but the results (program success, increased paid attendance at games, increased national profile) take much longer to appear. This gives schools a difficult choice. If they bite the bullet and invest heavily, hoping to see returns down the road, they may reap substantial long-term benefits. However, if every other school invests heavily in scholarships as well, their competitive advantage is lost, and the dividends of a successful athletic program may not come in at all, leaving them deeply in the hole.

In a climate of university budget cuts and funding crunches, increased athletic funding was difficult to swallow for most schools, especially when the returns were anything but guaranteed. Most of their athletic departments realized that the status quo couldn't be maintained, though; without increased funding, their sports would fall behind and their revenues would diminish.

This led to difficult decisions on cutting and prioritizing sports, and created a climate of athletic reviews, many of which cited the introduction of athletic scholarships as the motivating factor behind the desire for change. In 2007, nine of the 17 OUA schools were undergoing some form of review. Not all of the reviews wound up in sports being completely axed, but most of them changed internal funding levels and funnelled more money towards the big programs; many, such as the one at Queen's, also asked for more funding from students.

There were still strict limits on the scholarships that could be offered, though, and recruiting has always been about more than just the money. New facilities were needed as well at many schools, and the reviews also turned up just how stretched the largely part-time coaching staffs were. In addition to scholarships, schools began to hire more full-time coaches and build new facilities, all of which carried their own costs.

These factors all help attract prospects nationally, and they also encourage coaches and programs to recruit on a nationwide basis. Full-time coaches who don't have to spend their time juggling with other jobs have more time to investigate recruits on a national basis, and often larger travel budgets as well. Extra recruiting staff also help, as does the ability that scholarships and advanced facilities confer to be more selective with your recruits.

Another key factor is the amount of information out there. In the 1990s, an Ontario coach might have heard of a B.C. prospect like Ainsworth, but probably wouldn't have had much information on him outside of a network of acquaintances. These days, you can watch Ainsworth's highlights on YouTube, read articles about him in local papers and see what others think of him on blogs and forums. There's a much larger conversation about recruits, and that promotes thinking nationally.

You can make an argument that national recruiting efforts aren't necessarily good for CIS as a whole. Certainly, all CIS schools aren't created equal, and they definitely can't all afford to run top-quality programs that attract the best athletes in every sport. There is a danger of a competitive imbalance arising between the poor and the rich; national recruiting isn't the only thing involved in that, but it is a large component. However, that isn't an inevitable outcome; it's very possible for smaller and less prosperous schools to focus on running less programs, but running them all very professionally (Langley's Trinity Western University is a great example of this). This seems to be the way many universities are going, and a large part of the reason for that is the availability of athletic scholarships and the need for national recruiting efforts.

Even that solution has its own downside, though; it diminishes opportunities for athletes to play CIS sports (less schools per sport = less athletes participating), and it could see the demise or severe attrition of some of the lesser-publicized sports, which is sad in its own way. However,its upside is in increasing the quality of athletes and programs, which could increase media attention, broadcast rights and sponsorship revenues. National recruiting also provides more opportunities for and benefits to the top athletes, and could also encourage more of them to stay in Canada instead of jumping to the NCAA; more competitive, professional, high-quality programs in each CIS sport would make CIS more comparable to NCAA competition.

You can decide for yourself if the national recruiting scene and the benefits that come with it are worth the significant tradeoffs; personally, I think they are. Regardless of which side of the aisle you fall on, though, CIS sports are changing, and scholarships and national recruitment efforts have played a significant role in that transformation.

[Cross-posted to Sporting Madness]
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  1. great piece Andrew

  2. Nice, Andrew.

    Half the players in men's basketball stayed local this year, if that means anything. BC was able to draw more students than any other province; Ontario was about average. So if there is a trend towards non-Ontario players going to Ontario, that would be a levelling effect of sorts, as you theorize.

  3. I'm a Laurier student and spent my first 18 years growing up in a small town called Ladner out in BC, Ladner along with Tsawwassen (where Ainsworth and Livingston played their HS ball) and North Delta make up the city of Delta.

    Going to be weird this upcoming season having to cheer against these local boys.

    Hope a Hawk pops em on the fist kickoff :P

  4. why is there nothing said about the wonderful scholarships offered to cis hockey players graduating from the chl?

  5. @Luke: Amazing how many of us B.C. types wind up in Ontario schools, eh? I'm actually working in the Ladner area at a moment; very nice town.

    @striker: The CHL hockey scholarships are a bit of a different animal, as they're (to my knowledge) mostly provided by the CHL, not the CIS schools involved. They're certainly a positive thing, though, and they've helped to make CIS hockey a very compelling product.

  6. @Rob: Thanks for the stats! Very interesting stuff. Canada West still can do more for athletes, so I wouldn't expect those rankings to change dramatically in the near future (although SFU's departure will also affect that). There is progress being made in Ontario, though, so I think we'll see more and more athletes heading there over time.

  7. hi, actually, canada west cis schools have an agreement with the canada west chl teams. they make it a complete scholarship for the aspiring cis hockey player. i don't know about the other two leagues, i think they are striving for something similar.