Ten months ago, a shift in board governance sparked a renewed vision for the future of interuniversity sport in Canada with the arrival of new CIS President and CEO, Graham Brown.
The former head of Rugby Canada entered the top role at Canada’s national governing body for university sports with the hope of increasing the overall scale and growing the business.
After his success at Rugby Canada, a 13-year tenure that stabilized the organization, increased workforce, raised the budget, and ratcheted the enterprise to the elite level it remains at today, Brown promised a similar game plan would work in elevating the quality of Canadian university sports.
After 10 months in the big chair, the seeds of those promises are starting to flower. Brown is retooling the way the CIS works for its athletes and fans to improve the athlete experience and make game day bigger than it has ever been.
“What I’ve been able to do up until now is, from a leadership perspective, just get a better handle on the complexity of the CIS, its membership, structure, and how things operate,” says Brown.
He has been assessing where the opportunities lie from a commercial perspective in partnerships, sponsorships, and digital media.
“The digital platform and footprint of universities in Canada is the most sophisticated and comprehensive across any platform,” he says, “These young people in schools are tech-savvy, they’re consuming digital content more and at levels that have never been experienced before.”
Following modern trends, Brown wants to see how the CIS can be seen and heard in a noisy digital world. The current strategy is to aggregate the mass of content and ensure it does not get lost by linking it to the right market.
Although the digital media blitz has not yet taken flight, the grassroots marketing campaigns on campuses across the country are working tirelessly to stir up school spirit. University sports teams now have marketing staff responsible for improving the game day experience, and it seems to be working, according to the executives at the CIS.
Another hurdle Brown has before him is garnering more corporate sponsorships to make national championships an event that demands national attention.
It’s a tall order, considering the small scale of Canadian interuniversity sports and the middling level of public interest. But Brown’s belief is that by raising the stakes, the level of competition will correlatively rise.
“We’ve done a better deal with Sportsnet to have more football games on national TV,” he says, “and we’re in the process of signing a deal with The Globe and Mail to be our national media partner, so that when teams win championships, we’ll be able to do a national recognition piece on them.”
Brown believes that the level of national awareness will surely rise as the CIS gets national media coverage. “There are going to be some milestones ahead,” he teases, promoting this year’s Vanier Cup, which will be played in Hamilton at Tim Hortons Field, the home of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
In addition, his team has already started coaching schools that are hosting championship games to elevate marketing and ticketing strategies by being consistent with CIS’s branding campaign.
Increasing relevancy means having a shared vision. Since taking office, Brown and his team are working to sell this to athletic departments across the country, and so far the response seems positive.
“Collectively, there is really nobody who doesn’t want university sports to be better, and for it to have more profile and more fans and make the student athlete experience better. I haven’t found one person who is swimming against the flow,” says Brown.
Currently the CIS represents 11,500 athletes in 12 sports, and is made up of 56 universities spread across four regional conferences around the country—covering Ontario, Quebec, the Canadian West (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba), and the Atlantic (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland).
The geographical distance makes cross-conference meetings rare, and in the past has resulted in more self-governance within conferences than the CIS would like.
Brown thinks the CIS can use this to their benefit, like the National League and American League, which divide the MLB standings structure. He hopes that each conference having their own individual identity but sharing in the overall vision of the CIS will only make competition in Canada more unique.
However, the road to touting Canadian university athletic programs as the world-class platform they are striving to become is a long one. Feedback from athletes, coaches, and fans is crucial to see what areas may need improvement.
“One thing I’ve done is consulted and collaborated significantly since I came on board,” says Brown. “I’d say we are in the assessment and planning phase; we are not yet in the building phase.”
In improving their brand, the CIS hopes to take some notes from a recognized sports juggernaut down south. The NCAA is a world-famous association that attracts top talent with the incentive of earning a legacy and going pro.
Many of Canada’s top athletes move down south to enter a level of competition and spectacle that no other country in the world can compete with.
NCAA athletes are given an unprecedented level of attention, and though it’s unfair to compare it to the vastly-different athlete experience in Canada, Brown understands that refining the athlete experience will be central to the landscape of the new CIS. “I think it is important that the CIS mimic the parts of the NCAA that are relevant and realistic.” He realizes competing with the NCAA is a losing battle, stating that the top five conferences are so advanced, they’re practically professional sports.
“We want students first. We want to provide a great game day experience; we want to make the student athlete experience not just enjoyable, but we want to make it a different experience than they’ve had in the past.”
The many variables working against the CIS make achieving certain feats unrealistic, like packing a roaring crowd of 100,000 plus into The Big House for a University of Michigan football game. There is beauty in that spectacle, but the breathtaking magnitude of this outrageous scale does not jibe with what Brown is gunning for.
“We are looking for a ‘Made in Canada’ approach to university sports, that focuses on student athletes and generating campus pride. Not to make it professional sports, because it never will be in Canada.”
A former varsity athlete at the University of Windsor, Brown played football and basketball for the Lancers, and was one of the founding members of the university’s rugby program.
The unique athlete perspective he brings to the chief office of the CIS may prove to be extremely beneficial in making Canada’s top university athletes feel like Canada’s top university athletes.
Brown’s vision will take a while to fully flourish, but he is confident in shaking up the Canadian university sports landscape and having athletes from all over the world look to the Great White North as a young athlete’s place of opportunity.
“We are not going to be the Toronto Raptors in basketball or the Leafs in hockey, but what we are going to be is more relevant.”