U Sports football faces long field ahead
Canadian university football must confront several issues to stay relevant in national sporting landscape
It looked and felt like the launch of a new golden era for Canadian university football.
Many consider the 2011 Vanier Cup as the "best ever." Capped by Tyler Crapigna's overtime field goal, McMaster upended favourite Laval in an unexpected classic. The game was played in front of a lower bowl sellout in Vancouver's BC Place, which was included in Grey Cup Week festivities officially for the first time and a total of 976,000 viewers watched it on television.
It was followed up in 2012 with a Vanier Cup record crowd of 37,098, with over three million watching some part of the rematch where Laval would exact revenge on McMaster.
Flash forward to last Saturday. Only 39,000 watched in English Canada on Sportsnet 360 as Laval crushed St. Francis Xavier 63-0 in the Uteck Bowl in Quebec City. It was followed by only 66,000 viewers for Western and Saskatchewan in the Mitchell Bowl. Both stadiums were slightly less than half full.
How did the game get here? What has gone wrong around the sport and how can the university game avoid a complete slide into obscurity?
'Small group of teams always at the top'
The competition model is broken. Take this year's Uteck Bowl.
Of the 27 teams who participate in U Sports, very few teams have a chance of advancing out of the national basement.
Acadia head coach Jeff Cummins, a two-time Frank Tindall coach of the year award winner, has witnessed the high and low cycles for the Atlantic conference.
"What the AUS teams experience is what the majority of teams in U Sports experience across the country," Cummins said.
"There's a small group of teams who are always at the top. Laval, Western, Calgary. Sometimes you have a UBC, a Montreal or a Laurier sneak in there."
The losing streak of eleven seasons on the national stage for the AUS can be attributed to three developments.
The cost of tuition in the Atlantic provinces can be as much as three times the amount in other regions of the country. The imposition of age limits of 25 years old and under stemmed the flow of CJFL graduate players to the Atlantic teams. As well, the region's participation levels in minor and high school are insufficient to act as proper feeders for the AUS teams.
Watch the latest episode of Krown Countdown U:
In the midst of the 2018 season, the University of Regina announced that it had self-disclosed an ineligible player.
As a result, the Rams forfeited their three wins turning the standings upside down in the Canada West. Player ineligibility is a situation which is all too familiar with those who follow the game. Even Regina's athletic director Lisa Robertson admitted to a media scrum in October that, "Frankly, it [an eligibility violation and forfeit] will happen again."
There have been 13 eligibility violations in the last 10 years in CIS/U Sports football.
Richard MacLean, the new Director of Football for U Sports, plans to address various issues including eligibility, policy structure for events, competitive balance and national playoffs. MacLean is a former president of Football Canada and current president of IFAF, the International Federation of American Football.
MacLean had four playoff models to discuss with the competition committee and coaches on Thursday during Vanier Cup meetings in Quebec City. An eight-team national format was approved by the coaches on Thursday afternoon.
The proposal will now go to athletic directors for approval.
Having more non-conference games during the season is one of MacLean's goals. It would allow U Sports with an on-field metric to accurately rank teams. This year's Top 10 produced wild inaccuracies such as Laurier, who finished seventh in the OUA, yet somehow ninth in the national ranking.
Outside of the four conference champions, it's unclear how and who will make it to the national playoffs at this stage.
Television and management
A solid national TV deal is central to the growth of U Sports football. To stage big games during the season with a revamped national playoff without a television agreement in place — even in the age of digital — would be a waste.
The 2018 Vanier Cup is the last of a six-year contract with Sportsnet, which ends in the spring of 2019.
"The universities need to recognize they are at a crisis point in regard to television. They need to look outside the box to look to partners who can offer them potential national exposure even if it's on not on a traditional sports network," said Gord Randall, who played football at Queen's and UBC.
"They need to be willing to pay for access at this time, understanding that there will be a return on their investment if they are willing to do it correctly. There are options, but U Sports is going to have to play catch up on this because things are starting to slip away from them."
The pay-per-view model in Canada West is not working, Randall added.
However, with all of the plummeting fortunes surrounding the product in English Canada, things could not be rosier on the Francophone side, especially when it comes to broadcast. This year's Dunsmore Cup — the Quebec championship — drew 220,000 viewers to TVA Sports. The package on that network is bolstered by a game of the week. Consider that the Vanier Cup drew an audience on Sportsnet of 168,000 in English Canada last year, and there's unquestionably two solitudes of amateur football in the country.
With attendance, broadcast deals, and parity issues facing the Canadian university football all at once, U Sports needs to respond. Without proper measures, U Sports risks losing what little territory it has on the national media landscape.