A CIS football interlock primer

Imagine a world where Laval travels to London, Ontario at the end of September to play a regular season football game. The TV cameras are on, the stands are packed. Those scenes could soon be upon us, financed by a Saskatoon mogul and orchestrated by a long-time CIS football supporter and broadcaster.

This story came through the Twittersphere on Boxing Day:
Saskatoon's David Dube, who has pumped a portion of his wealth into the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football program, is floating an audacious idea with the backing of broadcaster Jim Mullin. They're proposing a national interlocking schedule, pitting elite teams from different conferences in head-to-head regular season games with a network television broadcast relaying events to the fans at home. 
They want the interlocking schedule in place for the 2015 season and kick-started things last week in Toronto by unrolling the idea to several CIS football coaches.
Cool! Someone wants to create an interlocking schedule for CIS football and wants to pay for a lot of it. However, this isn't as simple as it seems. I figure the best way to analyze this is to answer the questions that have floated through my Twitter timeline.

Why do Dube and Jim Mullin want an interlocking schedule instead of just televising regular season games from the current conferences?

Because they want to nationally televise games that would feature the best teams playing. Under the old format, that was not possible. Sure, there were televised games where Mac played Western, but there were also games where a top-ten team would beat up on a bottomfeeder. The lack of consistency in quality of game could have made this a difficult product to invest in. One marquee match-up a week that is planned in advance helps eliminate this issue.

There is also the argument that there is more excitement to watch the No. 2 ranked team play the No. 4 ranked cross-Canada team. Theoretically, this would lead to more fans in the stands and more eyeballs on TV. (Related: McMaster hosted Mount Allison in the Mitchell Bowl and only 3,800 fans showed up. One game is not representative of the whole, but it is worth pointing out.)

So, to be on national TV, a team would have to be in the CIS top-ten?

All signs point to that. Here's Mullin in the Star-Phoenix story:
"(We want) a system where the best teams are playing on a national stage for a weekly television game. It's not creating a tier, or a new conference that sits above the other conferences. This is something that's clearly aspirational. If you play well enough, you can play up into it and get on TV. That's what's driving this thing. We need to have a game of the week, once a week, on national TV. And it's our feeling that the only way to get this done is to make sure we're not showing regional games, but we're showing games that have a national impact."
I don't know why you would want a team outside of the top-ten on national TV anyways.

Okay. Dube wants to pay for all the television production costs, right?

Yup. The thinking is that if you eliminate the largest barrier for the broadcasters, they would be willing to pick the product up. Recent Vanier Cup viewership numbers suggest that there is an appetite for CIS football.

It isn't clear how long Dube would be willing do this for, though. If he funds one year and no one picks it up, what happens to the interlocking schedule? While it is premature to ask that question, I think that is something the CIS will be curious about. There is only so many times people can see something fail before it is viewed as a lost cause.

Who pays for travel and all that jazz?

The teams would pay for travel and hotel expenses. This interlock idea relies on teams securing a sponsorship. I use the term "teams" loosely because the definition is glossed over. It is not clear if all CIS teams split those costs or just the 8-12 teams participating in the nationally televised games. I imagine it would be the 8-12 teams, but I could see the "elite" bunch arguing that the other schools are still benefitting from the national TV games.

Sponsorship may not be as hard to secure as I think. Sporting events are one of the few things people still watch live, and a brand would be able to hit a very specific, very engaged demographic by sponsoring CIS football.

And they want this to happen for the 2015 season?

Yes. Meetings are already happening and CanWest executives say they want to meet sometime in January. Top teams met in December to discuss the idea.

As CanWest's executive director Diane St-Denis points out, there are more questions than answers right now, and sorting all these things out takes time. If CIS football wants to sell itself, they need to have their ducks in a row. We're talking about the league that is a month removed from admitting that their largest event of the year basically has no rules leading up to the game. There is no use in rushing this together.

Let's say this all goes smoothly and everyone "buys in." Who owns the CIS regular season football rights? 

No one, really. It's technically CanWest-OUA-RSEQ-AUS regular season football, and the conferences are tasked with managing their own television contracts. For example, the OUA lost their contract with Sportsnet this past summer and they could not find anyone else to pick up the coverage.

What category this entity would fall into is complicated. CIS regular season football is a new entity. It didn't exist when the contract was signed, so it is possible that the CIS would be allowed to manage this itself. But by definition, this is a CIS event, so I could see Sportsnet still owning the property.

Of course, that is all speculation. Please treat that as food for thought rather than a media law opinion.

What if Sportsnet doesn't own it?

Then Dube and Mullin want to pitch this to TSN and CBC. They obviously want to pitch to Sportsnet too, but that is a given. Here's Mullin on the reasoning for targeting those two broadcasters:
When you take a look at the media landscape in Canada right now, CBC is reassessing what they're doing in terms of wanting to do more amateur sports, so there's a fit there. TSN has more platforms, they're looking for content, and this is strong Canadian content. I think there's a fit there. And Sportsnet, after their deal with hockey, they're still the carrier for CIS, so there might be a fit there.
Okay, let's look at the CBC first. The public broadcaster is undergoing massive structural changes and say that they want to showcase Canadian talent instead of professional sports because of the rising costs. CIS football fits what the CBC is looking for.

TSN does have more platforms, but the launching of the TSN 1-5 was a tad misleading. They are regional channels, akin to Sportsnet Ontario, Central, etc. They don't need to fill five stations 24 hours a day; channels can air the same content at the same time. There is no reason TSN couldn't air it, but there isn't the need for content that some speculated about during the summer.

The biggest hurdle: Sportsnet still owns the Mitchell Bowl, Uteck Bowl and Vanier Cup. I don't know why TSN would want to build a product up when the championships are on Sportsnet. That's like going to a job interview and gushing about another applicant to the hiring group.

Where do we go from here?

We wait. As pointed out above, meetings need to happen and questions need to be answered. But the CIS is absolutely talking about it and the possibility of getting CIS football back on TV is very real. This may be one of the most important winters in the history of the league.

Next PostNewer Post Previous PostOlder Post Home

1 comment:

  1. What effect will interlocking games have on conference standings, playoffs and the Vanier Cup? The NCAA starts their season at the end of August and runs for 12 weeks, followed by conference playoffs and of course an infinite number of Bowl Games. Will the CIS be starting earlier and ending later? If not, conference schedules will be severely compromised-the Ontario conference has 11 teams and isn’t able to have a complete round robin regular season. Eleven teams also forces Ontario to have a bye week, that could benefit with an interlocking game-however there will still be one team having a bye week-there are currently 21 schools that play football. Two of the “Big Ticket” teams this year were Montreal and Laval. They already play each other twice and the CBC French Network covers RSEQ football. Either or both of those games would warrant national coverage “en Anglais”, however methinks that Radio Canada would object. Unlike the NCAA, our top teams play in front of crowds that rarely, if ever exceed 20,000 (not many have stadiums that hold 20,000)-not exactly an attractive backdrop for a national game. Final point-I would argue that, given a choice of watching Western vs. Laval or Notre Dame vs. Ohio State, most Canadians will opt for the Irish, even if they happen to be Western or Laval alumni. To illustrate the point-I am a Carleton graduate-the Raven basketball team is a Canadian dynasty and has shown itself capable of playing against the NCAA, yet when “The Birds” play in Toronto I see the same handful of Carleton alumni in the stands. There are thousands of Carleton alumni in the Greater Toronto Area. Canadian alumni don’t have the same attachment to their sports teams as Americans do to theirs-it’s sad but true and that’s the reason that CIS games-regardless of who is playing- are primarily shown on the website instead of the network.