CIS' 'complete rethink' must play up their uniquely Canadian take on sport, not chase national deals

BACK IN THE 613 — Hopefully, CIS will know what it is selling when new CEO Graham Brown begins pounding the pavement to drum up new sponsorship.

Based on Brown's track record at Rugby Canada, there should be every confidence that the national organization will be be a finer fiduciary health eventually, if not immediately. One hope, for his and everyone's sake, it will not get too frustrating  trying to get major corporations to invest in a league that has a marginal national TV presence and whose largest regional association, Ontario University Athletics, has no TV contract.

When one brings that up, almost always the immediate retort is that things are tough all over for amateur sport in Canada, which is bearing the brunt of a shrinking salaried-and-benefited media. True, but that does not preclude having a honest conversation about how they can convince national advertisers to invest.

The prevailing takeaway from that Globe that appeared on the first day of the CIS AGM was that the conversation has not happened. The between-the-lines tip-offs was that Michael Mahon, and perhaps this stemmed from how the reporter posed his question, mentioned the NCAA.

Right away, that is a deal-breaker for an org. that is already dealing with the public perception is is a some Canadian K-Tel knockoff of the NCAA. One can certainly learn something from U.S. college sports about marketing hype. What goes on down south cannot be replicated in Canada, for two little-known reasons.

  1. The CRTC. This is straight outta the piece that Wayne  Kondro wrote for the CIS website in April: " ... once was the case that networks received broadcast licenses from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission that included specific conditions that they fill at least 27% of their airspace with university and amateur sports."

    That was why TSN produced a game of the week in the 1980s and '90s. That was why there might not be much hope for "a nationally televised game-of-the-week idea [that] is also in the planning stage" getting off of the ground.
  2. Watching Division 1 college-sponsored semi-pro football counts as a charitable activity. Have you ever heard any general-interest grouser who has a written an ain't-that-a-shame CIS vs. NCAA comparison, or one of those best-kept secret pieces, bring this up?

    I was unaware of this until reading Gilbert M. Gaul's Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through The Big-Money Culture Of College Football this winter. In the U.S., since football is part of a university's "educational mission," an athletic department might levy a "seat donation" fee on top season tickets that can range into five figures annually for premium seats. But that seat donation, thanks to the U.S. Congress digging their nails into the IRS' arm  in the late 1980s, is 80 per cent tax deductible. For instance, Gaul found that in 2012 the Georgia Bulldogs raked in $22 million US in seat donations on top of what they already generated in ticket sales.

    The schools defend the tax deduction by saying it pays for non-revenue or low-revenue sports.  That is the fourth wall in the explosion of college-sponsored football in the States in the last quarter-century, with spin-offs for sports ESPN has gone heavy on such as women's basketball and fastpitch.
Those are two pretty immovable objects to contend with. It should not take someone who (inside joke alert) called Ottawa Gee-Gees games while Gary Etcheverry was coaching in 2012 to tell you that using a playbook from the last century will get you stuck in third-and-14 very quickly.

In terms of being prescriptive, CIS ought to realize outside-in top-down national marketing strategies are passé. The way it works now is inside-out. Get people to vote with their feet and their social media accounts to be part of that groundswell.

Do rivalry games make aesthetically appealing TV? Of course they do, but what demographic does it reach, especially in a country as vast as Canada? In an age of cord-cutters and cord-nevers, it's hard to imagine how enough football/basketball fans in Toronto or Windsor or Vancouver will be impelled to put on Carleton-Ottawa, or Laval-Montreal football, and care about the outcome. Yet they care when it is a Big Ten or SEC game.

Each is great in its way. The point is that we in Canada have to accept that the other has a lot more propping it up that our Nopuck sports might never have, since hockey is a pig on resources.

Hence the notion of working inside-out. There is a great example of that in Ottawa that does not come from either CIS school, although each does a great job. It's more how OSEG has collaborated with the soccer community to make the Ottawa Fury FC a prism through which to view the whole sport. When the Fury launched, they put ads across the city that implored people to, "Cheer Locally." The messaging was, as, as a commentator would put it, brilliant.

Hey, you in the Messi jersey, here is a team in your orbit that can open up a whole new way to appreciate our great sport.

When one goes to a Fury game, they get a Canadian scale model of the footy experience. They have supporter sections with their banners and chants. There's a communal experience when people are moving toward the stadium. Now, they have a benefit that Getting Soccer connotes worldliness, the scourge of ultras notwithstanding. Soccer is also wondrous into how it can all be interconnected and offer something different than a schedule of regular-season games and potential playoff dates.

In the past three weeks, Ottawa was blessed enough to give people four different types of competition:

  • The Fury's first-round Cup game against a league team;
  • A Fury league game on a Friday night;
  • Fury a semifinal Cup game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, where they got their first win against a MLS side in front of more than 9,000 people;
  • Building off hosting 2015 Women's World Cup games, they drew more than 23,000 to a Canada-Brazil game on Tuesday; it did not hurt that Canada won 1-0 after scoring in the 90th minute.
That is how a team and a sport becomes a talker. One can also feel like part of the sport's whole ecosystem, all the way up to Messi.

That apples-and-pomegranates part of that, of course, is that one cannot directly compare between minor league soccer put on by an entertainment firm and games put on by a school's Department of Athletics and Recreation.

Do you get anything like that in CIS in terms of the vibe? The scale-model Canadian take on what the rooting experience is all about?

Abso-frigging-lutely. The numbers are not there, of course. But go to a gym for basketball or volleyball when two skilled teams are playing, and there are people who are healthily emotionally invested in it. You see that in football, too. Often times, though it can feel like the game is being played in a lab and is cut off from the rest of the sport's world. It's not appealing to people who expect the Big Sport experience to sit on fold-down bleachers. It also hurts that the only time CIS gets media exposure is on Super Championship Weekend, and most students cannot afford to go thousands of kilometres when their team might only play one championship side game.

That is CIS' reality, and it needs to play up how it stays small and yet punches above their weight. Brown has something special, and honestly it is a little infuriating to see old media present the challenge as one of relevancy.

It is relevant, because of what it is, and what it is not. It wouldn't be Canadian if it was not something else.

That is what Brown needs to take to advertisers. That is what almost each school needs to take to their community to get more people out at their games, if not all games.

I'll end with some brainstorming about how to attempt this, since chances are no one has hung in this long:

  • Get the point across that CIS reaches into every cranny of Canadian sport. Why isn't there some marketing that emphasizes that Mike Babcock, one of the most powerful people in the hockey industry, honed his coaching chops when he guided the Lethbridge Pronghorns to the University Cup in 1994? Every Leafs fan should know that.

    With this being an Olympic year, how does one get across to the public how many athletes do choose to develop in Canada, even without the full scholarships?

    No disrespect, but that takes more than sending out a press release that points out 800-metre runner Melissa Bishop or freestyle swimmer Ryan Cochrane, or an up-and-coming swimmer such as U of T's Kylie Massé, is CIS alumni. Chances are, that press release sent out some day  in July is not getting read. It also does not explain why those athletes opted for Canada and Canadian coaching instead of going south.
  • Play up your 'Radically Canadian' basketball. What got the CFL off the schneid in the mid-1990s after the U.S. expansion foundered was saying, hey, we got the better game than the guys down south, albeit without as good athletes or as much money.

    That is exactly what is going on in men's and women's hoops. It is the only high-level league in North America that plays the superior (no argument will be brooked on this) FIBA game, which is quicker, more player-first and more strenuous. (That said, this season's Shamateur Sports Hunger Games Hoops Invitational was the most watchable in a decade, which owes to the NCAA addressing its pace-of-play problems.)

    The way the Golden State Warriors are playing now is pretty much the same model that Smart has inculcated at Carleton for almost 20 years. In women's hoops, hile casual fans are vaguely aware that SWNT point guard Kia Nurse is part of the Connecticut Huskies juggernaut, how many know that her backup, Miah-Marie Langlois, developed playing for Chantal Vallée with another dynasty with the Windsor Lancers?
  • Show the value of the transformational relationships that are possible in CIS. Everywhere in the world, people under age 45 or so are tired of being treated like a number. They want something authentic.

    How does that apply to CIS in its age-old battle to not be compared to NCAA? It would be fun to know what the percentage is of CIS athletes who play 4-5 seasons for one head coach compared to their NCAA D1 counterparts. It would be much, much higher in CIS, since coaches stay and, at least ideally, do more teaching than just try to keep building their program and tossing aside those who don't fit.

    Create the same, "I'm giving my money to something positive," that fair-trade coffee shops use to get people to pay more instead of going to a chain. That segues into the next bullet point.
  • What does your product have that the more accessible, more popular alternative lacks? Lots. For starters, CIS has a better, more diverse roster of sports. The NCAA's dirty little secret is that for all the pomp and circumstance of football and men's basketball, and the spin-off niches built up, a Division I school on average sponsors fewer sports than the larger CIS members.

    I can already hear the calls that it would be more manageable to start cutting sports. That overlooks CIS' mandate is to graduate student-athletes, and what message does it send to try to make up for one's shortcomings on the backs of water polo, especially in an increasingly sedentary, screen-struck society? Boo to that.

    Being willing to have a big all-sports tent is part of what makes CIS great. This needs to broken off into another bullet point, actually.
  • Show advertisers and consumers what you have that the Other Guys do not. Beyond the big three (football, hockey, hoops), CIS' strength is that it is diverse.

    For instance, it was way ahead of the game on accepting women's wrestling. It has a growing women's rugby culture. Each of those sports are producing Olympians. It is sad that is reduced to obscurity, but that's Canada and what passes as for media for you.

    Perhaps that also means tweaking the Other Guys. It's great fun to point out Canada beat America to having a true football playoff by 47 years!
  • Take the game to the masses a little more. Calgary and Ben Matchett deserve so much credit for engaging people on their campus by adopting the rivalry game concept. Not only have they drawn 13,000 to an annual Mount Royal Cougars-Dinos matchup at the iconic Saddledome, but they also have used the concept to get more people out at the Dinos football opener.

    A few years ago, RMC and Queen's did the same with their annual Carr-Harris Cup men's hockey game. Throwing it together in just a couple weeks, they got 5,100 people out to the K-Rock Centre on a school night. That exceeded the typical turnout for the arena's main tenant. That shows there is interest, even if it's not every-game or most-games interest.

    Why isn't everyone with a decent basketball or hockey team and a rival in close proximity doing that right in the first few weeks in January, when there's a little giddiness on campus because classes have resumed but midterms and assignments are a few weeks off?
  • Get in front of televiewers on a more year-round basis. Scotch the game of the week idea. What would be a lot more brassy and nervy would be to decide Final 8 at-large berths by getting four teams together at points in the season to play for it.

    Curling has the 'berth spiel' concept at the provincial level. Why would that not work in sports with longer seasons? Get the best teams together right when everyone comes back in January — a time when many teams play a tournament — and have a little winner-take-all tournament. That would be a much more fun way for OUA and Canada West to decide their second berth into nationals. The 'semifinal winners go to nationals, bronze-medal game winner crosses their fingers and the gold-medal game is  for seeding' tradition is way too convoluted.

    It gives the haters more ammo. Never mind that a conference tournament in Division 1 basketball is often perfunctory for a team that will be a No. 1 or 2 seed.
  • Finally, football. It was tempting, whilst citing Billion-Dollar Ball, that the difference between college-sponsored football down south and Canadian university football is Big Money vs. No Money.

    That would be about the biggest crock of all time. There is a lot of money in CIS. However, how does it grow the game when UBC, Guelph, Carleton, Laval, Montreal, Queen's and Western have boosters pouring money into their programs by a factor of 4:1 or 5:1? Last anyone checked, you sort of need competition to have a league. You cannot have everyone else being the Minnesota Twins to several regional versions of the Yankees during the Peak Steinbrenner late 1990s.

    What is holding back football, is that a lot of the public cannot take it seriously since the coaches and boosters take it too seriously. Seeing Michael O'Connor lead UBC on a Vanier Cup run that went through Calgary, the Maritimes and Quebec was awesome on one level. On another, it sucked to know this was an end result of how much money David Sidoo and UBC's 13th man foundation are funneling into the Thunderbirds.

    That's great on its own, but apart from L. David Dubé with his Northern 8 concept, who among the moneymen is talking about building something sustainable for a 30-team sport?

    Not to keep picking on UBC, but how will that 2015 run look in hindsight if they just roll through the next few seasons?

    It might be impossible to fix that, but end of the day, the CIS and the university presidents have the hammer. They have been known to say no to a good offer. It would not be easy, but they need to get through to people that all that well-intentioned investment needs to be spread to all of the football teams.

    They are coming to a point where they might need a national co-operative to support football. That will be a tough sell, but you would think multi-millionaires and billionaires who love football that much would be comfortable with something where their beloved alma mater wouldn't have automatic W's against underfunded Waterloo or Windsor every year.

    And oh yeah, fix the Vanier Cup playoff structure.
That is not to say all this doable. It's just a few ideas that might position the CIS better for the next decade than chasing what they have lose over the past two decades.
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