Wishful Thinking Wednesday: What AUS, CIS did with University Cup should be model for hoops; plus the 'Carleton problem'

BACK IN THE 613 — In the service of being honest and semi-unmerciful, it's best to find a fair comparable for the Final 8 men's basketball, as it was served up Vancouver style.

What is the best apples and apples match for the last weekend's men's basketball nationals, which was the first on the West Coast in 44 years and had an announced crowd of 4,415 for the Carleton Ravens-Calgary Dinos championship game?

Is it ...

  • A) The last major CIS event in Vancouver, the 2011 Vanier Cup that was a resounding success, with a big Friday night turnout for two faraway teams, with McMaster defeating Laval 41-38 after two mini-games in overtime?
  • B) The University Cup on the East Coast last weekend? At Halifax, the official attendance was a tournament record, announced in the 43,500 range. By contrast, the Vancouver Final 8 announced a total attendance of about 24,500 range. (The round-offs are for simplicity's sake.)
  • C) the 2015 Final 8 in downtown Toronto, which had the same deal with the host school not being in the final, but had "an energized crowd of 3,917" for a gold-medal game between out-of-towners Carleton and Ottawa? The announced attendance might have been larger on Sunday, but surely astute people, including a Sportsnet audience, noticed that the metal bleachers for the student section along the baseline were empty? That looks bad on TV, and might go to the fact that you can't fill those floor seats since it might irk the people who (over) paid for the floor seats.

    Ryerson also had 4,056 for Semifinal Saturday, when it lost a heartbreaker to Ottawa.
  • D) A little bit of all three?

Fair is fair, so (D) seems like our answer. An easy way out — and I try not to be that in writing, just in life — would be to pick on little things. Or to pick on Vancouver. Logistically, in terms of the teams being looked after, everything seemed tickey-boo.

It's not the fault of UBC, though. Even CIS probably recognizes, internally, that having a university organize the event is a little outmoded, which is why it's moved toward partnerships with event management companies. So Vancouver gets a little mulligan there. It probably also realizes that one-off events in one corner of the country aren't really sound, either.

Which is to say, no one should be too hard on UBC for stepping up. Yet it can still be something of a cautionary example.

Let's look at the successful elements of those other successful championships and how they might be better applied to future men's hoops Final 8 championships:

  • That 2011 Vanier, and the '12 Vanier that was at Rogers Centre and the '14 Vanier in Montreal where the CFL Alouettes, with McGill as a proxy host team (not the Montréal Carabins; it only seemed that way), each had the might of a marketing company getting out and selling. The first two were partnered with the CFL, too.

    That meant creating more casual-fan interest in a CIS event, and getting people to see it as part of the mainstream. Football is an easier sell to that market, since CIS and CFL are seen as intertwined. The CFL fills a good portion of its player pool from CIS. Not all of that applies to basketball.

    It is not clear whether reaching the casual fan happened with Final 8. Speaking as someone who has been to  three as in many cities that are not Ottawa, along with the five in Ottawa, plus a combined nine Memorial Cup and world junior championships, ideally it's supposed to feel like the area around the event becomes this little pop-up village. That was not in evidence, just put it that way.

    One example: generally, when you go to a town for a few days for a sports event, you start to see people that there for the same purpose. I stayed in the hotel that you could book through the tournament website. Never saw another 'here for Final 8' person until just before trekking out to UBC for the medal games. Each was on a team which had completed its tournament. There was also nothing in this host hotel that indicated the Final 8 was in town.
  • Halifax did have a lot break their way to get that record last weekend. Scotiabank Centre (né Halifax Metro Centre) is a downtown arena which convenient hotels within a few hundred metres of the venue. Along with Saint Mary's as host, St. Francis Xavier went in as a top-4 seed after winning AUS, and eventual champion New Brunswick has won many times and is a flagship university for their province. There was also a marketing company involved.

    That said, all of the priming was done by already having held the University Cup in Halifax for 2015. The organizers caught some bad breaks there, with a snowstorm immobilizing the city. However, they at least had traction for '16.

    It really doesn't make sense why, for instance, the men's basketball Final 8 was not in Toronto for two years. With the Raptors hosting the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend, there would have been an opportunity to coattail-ride off the popularity of that event. The Raptors actually received the all-star game about three weeks before Ryerson got the Final 8. A more flexible CIS would have surely been able to go back and say, "OK, Toronto, you're up again in '16."

    That might speak to the political repercussions of a locked-in host team, although Carleton was the host for Final 8 five times in seven seasons.
  • Ryerson did a lot well for the '15 tournament. For starters, it treated the daytime quarter-final doubleheader like the 'School Day' game that almost every major junior hockey team holds once per year. Bring in schoolchildren by the busload, let them scream and enjoy the game.

    Also, and this is a benefit of Ryerson's location, if you were in the College Park area of downtown T.O. at any time from late 2014 through early 2015, you were exposed to ads about the Final 8. Posters with #TOisbball were up well before Christmas.

    The daytime doubleheader atmosphere was funereal in Vancouver. At one point in the first half of Dalhousie-Ottawa, Gee-Gees post Brody Maracle had to reach down to catch an entry pass and you could hear his fingernails scraping against the ball ... from the other end.

    And, again, this was done for a tournament that might not ever be played in B.C.'s Lower Mainland for years. 

So what should be happening, based on all of the above rambling? What should be happening in an idealized CIS:

  1. Go two seasons at a time when awarding the hosting for the basketball and hockey, and this can be true of both female and male championships.

    That could the form of the 'you get host team one year, we get it the next' like with the Saint Mary's/St. Francis Xavier partnership. There are plenty of two-university towns where rivals can help out each other.

    Or it can be a conference putting in and deciding how it will have a designated host team.
  2. Specific to men's basketball, triangle offense of Halifax, Ottawa and Toronto as hosts. The former has the longest history of getting it right, one has the subsidized support of Capital Sports and Toronto has the greatest chance to showcase the product to media movers-and-shakers.

    It needs to be in each city for two seasons. Catch the people who missed it the first time, and make sure to get repeat business the second time.

    This is already happening with Halifax hosting the '17-18 Final 8's, and ideally would continue for '19 and '20, and so forth.
  3. Shake up the host team berth. This is more of a 'Shelbyville Idea' for farther down the line, but it addresses the regional resentment (in Canada? never!) over a select cadre getting to host national tournaments.

    If Ottawa is hosting a basketball Final 8 for two seasons, Carleton and Ottawa should each get a turn. The two already trade off their two biggest sports events of the season.

    The other idea is borrowed from curling, which really has set an example of how small sport can get bigger.
  4. Some of the bigger provincial championships in Canada award a couple spots through having a 'berth spiel,' in order to round out the draw. How come CIS, theoretically, could not do that? Doing so would mean another entry point for that casual fan, if a media rights holder can be brought on board. Then there's some attention for the sport. It's not an easy thing to do, but given that UBC held a tournament in The Mitch, would it be so hard to have an invitational to decide who would be the 'host' team?

    A few years back, there was an experiment with having regional play-ins for the women's Final 8. It was shelved due to cost and the wear on the players, since they had do conference playoffs, then fly to a regional for a shot at the nationals.

    What if that could be repurposed to another point in the calendar, either before the conference season or before that resumes in January? Is it possible to have an invitational to decide a spot?Canada West and OUA also don't have to decide their second representative on the first weekend in March; they just choose to do so.

    It would make the whole season count. There's also possibility of getting more small schools into the Final 8.
  5. The problem of Carleton. The Ravens are the beacon, but come Monday there were probably people who are inclined to watch CIS saying, "Carleton wins basketball; UNB wins hockey; sun rises."

    The Ravens make their own luck, and it's not as if CIS can tell one school to stop working so hard at men's basketball. It can only hope other schools step up their game off the court.

    Carleton winning is only a problem when its success obscures what is grand and unique about CIS basketball. Even without the Ravens, it wouldn't  match the parity of that other bracketed basketball event. Of the six others that traveled to Vancouver beyond the Ravens and the host, five had been recently.

    So what do you do? For one, play up the fact that CIS is more pro-development than the D1 mid-majors that people lose their minds over for two weeks in March.

    As Tim Micallef said 12 months ago:

    "Does the small school in the States develop your game and give you a better education? The answer is becoming more and more … no. European pro leagues have recognized it, but the truth is until the NBA does (recognize it as well), that stigma that any NCAA school is better than the CIS will always exist. The truth isn't always as sexy, but the CIS at the elite level is much better than most give it credit for." (Tip of the Tower, March 2015)

    Go into 'attack mode' on that. In some way, shape, form, the lead-up to the tournament should include talking to former CIS stars, over Skype, about playing in the Final 8 did for their development.

    Secondly, come into the tournament focusing on Who Can Beat Carleton. One long-time weakness of CHL and CIS coverage that leaves the diehard fans a little cold is the feeling that there is too much focus on the Big Teams. It is understandable the rights holder would do that when confronted with presenting unfamiliar subject matter to audience conditioned by the 30-team NHL or 32-team NFL, that suddenly deals with an obscure such as the 60-team Canadian Hockey League or 56-school CIS.

    In terms of building storyline, just don't make it about this tournament. That is a strategy that is doomed to fail, since it looks like Carleton is at the can't stop/won't stop level. It's tricky, since this was a season where Carleton was 1-4 against OUA's other two tournament teams, 22-1 against rest of CIS and 3-0 at nationals.
Anyway, just some ideas. Wishful thinking, I know.

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