Bishop's football takes their ball and heads east

Bishop's announced it is done with playing in the RSEQ and team will move to the Atlantic University Sports (AUS) conference starting in the 2017 season.

After years of struggling to compete in Quebec, Bishop's Gaiters football program is leaving the conference

The Bishop's Gaiters announced they were done with playing in the RSEQ conference and will move to the Atlantic University Sports (AUS) conference starting in the 2017 season. (CBC)

Before the Bishop's Gaiters football team walked on to the field at CEPSUM stadium on the Université de Montréal campus this past fall, it was a foregone conclusion.

They were going to lose to the Carabins and they were going to lose big.

Sixty minutes of football later, the final whistle blew and the score board read Montréal 61, Bishop's 0.

It wasn't always like this for the Gaiters. The program hovered around the middle of the pack of Quebec's sport student conference (RSEQ) for many years, and they often they made the playoffs.

But the struggle to go punch for punch with perennial power house programs like the Laval Rouge et Or and Montréal Carabins appears to have taken its toll.

In the past three years, Bishop's limped to identical 1-7 records, winning only one game against a conference opponent.

On Thursday, Bishop's announced they were done with playing in the RSEQ and the team would move to the Atlantic University Sports (AUS) conference starting in the 2017 season.

Financial gap blamed for destroying competitive balance

Not all university football team funding models in Quebec are created equal. 

Universities such as Bishop's, Concordia and McGill run their programs off what is often called a "traditional university funding model," which is institutionally based.

Meanwhile, teams such as Montreal and Laval run their football programs more like a private enterprise or business.

"It's been very hard to try and compete and to try and raise the same dollars with schools that have private funds coming their way in a business model. It's been extremely difficult to follow that bandwagon," says Bishop's associate athletics director Joey Sabo.

Bishop's feels its football program will be on equal footing in the AUS since they will primarily compete with universities that share the same funding philosophy.

"The AUS has offered not only our best bang for our buck but also playing against institutions that resemble our enrolment size, our strengths and our weaknesses," Sabo says.

Joey Sabo (right), Bishop's associate athletics director, says Bishop's will be on equal footing in the AUS football program since they will compete with universities that share the same philosophy as they do for funding. (CBC)
However, playing in the AUS does come at an increased cost. 

Sabo says that flying out east to play four to six games per year will push the football operating budget to between $140,000 and $200,000 per season.

Still, Sabo says that's a bargain compared to trying to compete with the top programs in Quebec which he estimates would cost three times as much.

Concordia, McGill left to fend for themselves

In 2012 many of the same funding concerns were behind the McGill Redmen's push to leave the RSEQ as well.

McGill applied to have its football team play in the Ontario conference but the application was rejected. 

To make McGill happy, the RSEQ agreed to changes to its football scheduling process, which were designed to address concerns about competitive balance.

But now that Bishop's has cut bait for the AUS, McGill and Concordia are back to a similar situation they were in prior to 2012.

"It's fair to say that our competition schedule is likely going to be tougher, but by the same token we feel our team is improving so it will be an interesting way to measure ourselves and measure our progress," says Marc Gélinas, executive director of athletics and recreation at McGill.  

As for the sustainability of a five-team RSEQ conference moving forward, Gélinas says it's possible changes will have to be considered, including moving to a nation-wide multiple tier model like we see in the United States. 

"Are there stronger teams in Canada that can play in a division-one type approach versus other teams that will be in a division two? ... [Bishop's leaving the RSEQ] may be an opportunity or situation that forces various options, including this one." 

Gélinas says he understands and respects Bishop's decision to leave the RSEQ and added "it is premature to say McGill is considering a similar move but we are curious to see what kind of adjustments can be made to ensure parity and make sure the competition schedule is appropriate." 

Concordia did not return CBC's request for comment. 

The end of interlocking play?

Since 2002, teams from the RSEQ and AUS conferences have had at least one week of interlocking play. 

Sabo says Bishop's moving to the AUS will likely spell the end of this arrangement.

"Since we will playing home-and-away with the Maritimes, I suspect that the RSEQ will now moved to a balanced schedule home-and-away schedule which will end all of this controversy over playing one team twice and not the other," he said.

He said that system would create two byes, which means it would take 10 weeks to play eight games, not enough time to play crossover games.

The RSEQ has won 68 of 91 interlocking games with the AUS since 2002.